- Written by David Jaeger
- Category: Features
Johannes Debus will take the podium at Koerner Hall on May 24 to launch the 2017 edition of the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival, along with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, the Elmer Iseler Singers and soloists.
The program they will offer includes two works by 21C Festival artistic advisor, Brian Current, one of four composers featured during the festival who are former grand prize winners in one of the CBC/Radio-Canada national competitions for young Canadian composers. Current, Chris Paul Harman, Ana Sokolović and Andrew Staniland all have premieres of major works during the festival. These four composers, who won the CBC competition when they were in their 20s, 30s or, in Harman’s case, teens, have all demonstrated the promise and the purpose of the composition competitions by developing into successful professionals, now among the nation’s leading mature composers.
By way of background, the CBC/Radio-Canada National Radio Competition for Young Composers (1973-2003) was initiated by John Peter Lee Roberts, who was head of CBC Radio Music from 1965 to 1975. Roberts, who commissioned over 150 original Canadian compositions for broadcast during his tenure as head of music, saw the development of emerging composing talent in Canada as one way of fulfilling the objective, as defined by the Broadcasting Act, to “Encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas and artistic creativity.”
Clearly, the development of artistic creativity spoke to Roberts in a strong voice, and he grasped the need to develop the next generation of Canadian composers. He brought together his colleagues at Radio-Canada, as well as the Canada Council to help fund the competition in its first year, 1973, and then received additional support from several provincial arts councils the following year. When Roberts handed me the Young Composers project at the end of his time at Radio Music, in 1975, it was already the most important vehicle for young and emerging composers in Canada. The creation in 1978 of the national new music series Two New Hours provided a national network radio vehicle to share the unfolding story of the emergence of Canada’s musical future. And through the system of international program exchange between the world’s public broadcasters, we were also able to introduce the music of these young creators to listeners around the globe. The linkage of a national contemporary music network series with the young composers competition produced a generation of new Canadian composers. The list of winners reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary Canadian music.
Returning to Brian Current, he was a finalist at age 24 in the 1996 CBC/Radio-Canada competition but he won the Grand Prize when he entered again in the 2001 edition. He told me that just being a finalist opened a door that inspired him to raise his composing to a higher level. Current is represented in the 21C Music Festival by performances of two movements from his large-scale multi-movement oratorio, The River of Light, for soloists, choir and orchestra. Current says that “The River of Light is about transcendence and is based on the texts of several traditions (Hindu, Christian, Jewish, First Nations Canadian, Sufi, Maori and Chinese) that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.”
The first part, The Seven Heavenly Halls, won the inaugural Azrieli Commissioning Competition prize in 2015. The world premiere was last October in Montreal with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Kent Nagano. Mervon Mehta, the Royal Conservatory’s (RCM) executive director of performing arts, was present for the premiere and was so moved by the work, he persuaded Debus to perform it with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, together with tenor soloist Andrew Haji and the Elmer Iseler Singers at the 21C opening. Debus describes his feeling about the piece this way: “I would like to call The Seven Heavenly Halls an ecstatic, overwhelmingly colourful, opalescent, kaleidoscopic and at times turbulent journey through a galaxy of mystique and vision. It feels as majestic and luminous as a temple.” The text of the work is based on the Zohar, which Current’s longtime collaborator and librettist, Anton Piatigorsky calls, “The most mysterious of Jewish mystical texts.”
Part III of The River of Light will receive its world premiere in the concert. It’s a work for narrator, choir and orchestra titled Nàaka, and is based on stories of the Northern Lights in the Tłįchǫ Dene tradition. “I was grateful to meet the remarkable Tłįchǫ Dene author and storyteller Richard Van Camp, who is quite justly treated like royalty wherever he goes in the Northwest Territories,” says Current. “Spending just one minute listening to Richard’s stories is to be immediately put under his spell.”
In Nàaka, (meaning Northern Lights, in the language of the Tłįchǫ Dene), Van Camp will narrate his text accompanied by the orchestra and choir. The translations and pronunciations were prepared by Tłįchǫ Elder Rosa Mantla. The work was commissioned by the Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall with support from Kris Vikmanis and Denny Creighton. (The May 24 opening concert also includes music by American composer/conductor Matthew Aucoin, Korean composer Unsuk Chin and Canadian composer/conductor Sammy Moussa.)
Chris Paul Harman was 19 years old when he won the CBC/Radio-Canada Young Composers Competition Grand Prize in 1990, making him the youngest laureate of the competition. Similar to Current, he had been a finalist in an earlier edition of the competition, in Harman’s case at the age of 16. Harman’s two works, included in the May 28 21C concert, presented by Soundstreams Canada, are both part of a series of pieces he based on the music of the English popular composer Ray Noble (1903-1978) and, in particular, songs recorded in 1934 by singer Al Bowlly, Love Locked Out and It’s All Forgotten Now. Harman wrote that, “The popular music of this era appeals to me for its elegance, melodic and harmonic sophistication and subtly nuanced orchestration.” His Love Locked Out was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2014 and premiered in London, England. Harman notes that “in alluding to the popular music of a bygone era, Love Locked Out likewise chronicles developments in the classical music of the same period, by quoting or adapting excerpted material from seminal works by Anton Webern (Klavierstücke, 1925) and Béla Bartók (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta: first movement, 1937), both of which contain the opening five-note pattern of Ray Noble’s tune.
It’s All Forgotten Now, receiving its world premiere, was co-commissioned for Soundstreams and 21C by Stanley Witkin and the Royal Conservatory.
Canadian Arts Song Project (CASP) co-artistic directors Steven Philcox and Lawrence Wiliford created a program for the 21C Music Festival on May 25 that celebrates the Canadian sesquicentennial with Canadian art song. They commissioned Montreal composer Ana Sokolović to create a cycle of songs that sets poetry from every province in Canada, Dawn Always Begins in the Bones. And they also included the Canadian premiere of a song cycle by Andrew Staniland, Peter Quince at the Clavier.
Sokolović and Staniland complete our quartet of former CBC grand prize winners featured at this year’s 21C. Ana Sokolović was the Grand Prize winner in the 1999 CBC/Radio-Canada competition and St. John’s composer Andrew Staniland won the 2009 CBC/Radio-Canada Evolution Young Composers Competition, which was a one-time event, created as a new vision of the earlier competition. For both young composers, their respective grand prizes raised their standing in the musical community. “It gave me, an emerging composer, crucial visibility at an important time in my creative career,” Sokolović said, “like a Cinderella moment.”
Sokolović told me that her search for the right poetry for her new cycle took two years. She was assisted by University of Toronto professor Linda Hutchinson. Staniland’s cycle, on the other hand, sets a long, four-part poem by American Wallace Stevens. The CASP concert, which takes place at the RCM’s Temerty Theatre, also includes Lloyd Burritt’s Moth Poem. Lawrence Wiliford said, “We are thrilled to have commissioned and to be presenting an incredible new work by Ana Sokolović in recognition of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation and are delighted that we will be presenting the Canadian debut of a brilliant set of songs by Andrew Staniland as part of the the 21C Festival at the RCM.” Baritone Ian MacNeil will sing the Staniland and Burritt songs with pianist Mélisande Sinsoulier. COC Ensemble director Liz Upchurch will accompany the Sokolović cycle, sung by soprano Danika Lorèn, mezzo soprano Emily D’Angelo, tenor Aaron Sheppard and baritone Bruno Roy. In fact, it’s an all-Canadian cast!
The 21C Music Festival consists of nine concerts and 31 premieres in the space of five days, May 24 to 28. Besides the concerts already mentioned, there are performances of contemporary music by the Bang on a Can All Stars, violinist Benjamin Bowman with pianist Claudia Chan, the Cecilia String Quartet, Cinq à Sept, Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà and the Soundstreams Emerging Composers Workshop. The affordable Festival Pass makes it possible for every new music lover to take in the entire program. The major sponsors of the 21C Music Festival are Michael and Sonja Koerner.
David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.
- Written by David Perlman
- Category: Features
Denis Brott, founder and artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Festival (MCF/FCM), now in its 22nd year, and I are about 20 minutes into a lively phone conversation and I’m explaining to him why this year, more than any other so far, I have a hunger to play hookey from my work here and head east to take in all three weekends of MCF/FCM.
“I heard the complete Beethoven String Quartet cycle done by the Amadeus Quartet in Toronto over a two-week period in April 1976,” I explain. “Eight months after arriving in Canada. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I think. It was…” I struggle for words.
“So you know what I am talking about then,” Brott jumps in. “It is really a life-altering experience and I am hopeful the public will appreciate it as such, and appreciate the wonderful playing of what I consider to be the foremost young quartet before the public today.”
He’s talking about the Dover String Quartet, winner of the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, and the fact that the quartet will play the entire Beethoven cycle at MCF/FCM on three consecutive Fridays and Sundays starting May 26 and ending Sunday, June 11, 2017.
“How long has something like this been in the planning?” I ask.
“Years,” he replies. “Three, probably. I was in Banff the year they won, teaching. And I was asked to give a lecture on the final day of competition, right before the Beethoven round, on the subject of the emotional language of Beethoven. I had been there all week listening to all the rounds with avid interest and I had picked out right from the beginning the exceptional nature of the Dover Quartet, their emotional intelligence. They ended up being grand prize winners and winners in almost every area of the competition.”
He invited them to MCF/FCM right away, he says, and they’ve been there almost every year since. “This profession [chamber music] is one where people actually make friendships and colleagues and experience camaraderie,” he says. “It’s one of the things that makes chamber music different from almost every other segment in the music world.”
The idea of doing the cycle was one that he raised with them right from the start. “I planted in their ear right away that any quartet that takes itself seriously has to play the cycle – something I remember from when I jumped into the Orford Quartet in 1980. In one year I had to learn all the quartets and play the cycle. Believe me that was quite an undertaking.” It was during Brott’s eight years with the Orford that the quartet completed their landmark recordings of the Beethoven quartets for Delos over an 18-month period from 1984 to 1986.
“So I encouraged the Dovers, and said when you have it up, let’s do it at the festival. And when it became clear that this would be the year, I said, okay so then we should do a festival theme of Beethoven; the whole idea of Beethoven’s role as a pivotal figure in the transition between the classical and Romantic era.”
Beethoven has fascinated Brott for decades, he says. “I have played every single piece he wrote that has a cello in it, and it’s a musical language that I understand and enjoy, and more than enjoy, that I am in awe of. I am privileged to have access to playing this music and obviously in designing this season I wanted to have a Beethoven work on every concert or most concerts where possible, and that’s what I have done. And I have put it together with a great deal of care over the last year and a half, two years; you know it takes about that long.”
The Dover Quartet, it should be said, will have completed two other complete Beethoven cycles this season, one in Buffalo, one in Connecticut. But each will have consisted of coming to town for two concerts, on three occasions spread out through the year.
“I come back to what I said before,” says Brott. “Experiencing the cycle in a condensed time frame, for audience and performers is quite remarkable. I remember doing it with the Orford at the Rubens House in Antwerp, the atelier of the artist Rubens, and there was a concert every second night with one night in between. So let’s say the Dover have been in training for doing this, and they are looking forward to it; needless to say we are looking forward to it immensely.”
Of the aforementioned other two Beethoven cycles on the Dover Quartet’s calendar this year, the Buffalo engagement is a highly idiosyncratic one: the “Slee Cycle,” which has been running since 1955, requires quartets to perform the cycle in the exact sequence preferred by Frederick Slee who endowed it.
“Did you have discussion with the Dovers about the sequence for your festival?” I ask. His reply is emphatic. “You are asking a fundamental question about what I believe in as a director, instigator, shepherd, call it what you like. The way you have people perform at their best is by letting them do what they want, as artists, people of distinction. On something like this I would never impose my will. They are presenting, it is in my interest for them to be playing at their best.”
Listening to Brott talk about the rest of the programming for the festival (and the Beethoven cycle is only the main course of a very satisfying full-course musical meal), the same sense of enjoyment at empowering inclusion comes through again and again. All built around the camaraderie he referred to earlier in describing chamber music’s unique place in the musical world.
“So how many people do you think will come for the whole cycle?” I ask, wistfully returning to the idea of making a two-week and two-day pilgrimage, for my older self to revisit one of the formative experiences of my musical life.
“How many people will take in the whole cycle? I don’t know. But it is a festival in every sense; an immersion, a celebration, so you have to be into immersion, not just social concertgoing. It’s for people who are as passionate about the music as the musicians. Just think of it this way. Two or three weekends in a row in Montreal is not so bad!”
David Perlman can be reached at email@example.com
- Written by David Perlman
- Category: Features
In the well-known Edward Lear nonsense poem from which Jumblies Theatre derives its name, the Jumblies set sail in search of adventure, less than adequately provisioned. As the end of the opening stanza has it:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
You can see where, as an image, this would have captured the imagination of Ruth Howard, almost 20 years ago, precisely because of the great and glorious impracticality of it all. How fine to be launching an arts venture which almost by its inherent design would be nigh impossible to keep afloat following the usual professionalized arts rules: one-, two- and three-year business plans; spit-spot arts management; immutable calendar-based deadlines for shows and grants and budget reports.
Howard and I met in late April in The WholeNote podcast studio, to talk about a current Jumblies’ project, titled Touching Ground Festival. Official start and end dates for Touching Ground are May 13 to June 23, but its tendrils extend backwards in time, more than a decade, and its potential offshoots extend just as many years into the future, because of the astonishingly dense web of community-based, social and artistic connections, that go into every project this remarkable organization undertakes.
Just the description of Touching Ground in Jumblies’ own releases about the festival, speaks to this layered complexity: A suite of new works inspired by three years of exploring themes of Toronto’s layered and Indigenous histories and present landscapes. All works and events feature community members as art-makers, singers, dancers and performers, and many artists from Jumblies and our offshoots and partners.
The range of activities encompasses installations, audio tours, newly created short films and discussions about them, photographic and art exhibitions, dance and creative explorations, open art-making drop-ins, a work-in-progress musical, a comic book launch, and other workshops and presentations.
And there is music everywhere, lots of it, including: the ongoing involvement of Jumblies own “mixed-ability choir” directed by Shifra Cooper; Métis fiddle tunes by Alyssa Delbaere Sawchuk; a new choral work by Martin van de Ven, with original songs by Rosary Spence, inspired by and running concurrently with an installation about Toronto’s Treaty histories and current implications.
Of particular note, in terms of The WholeNote’s usual musical preoccupations, on Saturday and Sunday, June 3 and 4 at the Evergreen Brick Works, will be a performance titled Four Lands presented with Continuum Contemporary Music, and including new musical works created by composers Jason Doell and Juliet Palmer. Palmer is no stranger to Jumblies’ ways of working, having been the composer for the community play, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, that was the culmination, in 2011, of Jumblies’ four- year community arts residency in East Scarborough.
The range of venues announced so far is as wide-ranging and eclectic as the range of activities: the Ground Floor (Jumblies new City Place street-level home base/studio, just east of Bathurst and north of the Gardiner); the previously mentioned Evergreen Brick Works; the new Fort York branch of the Toronto Public Library; under the Gardiner; Canoe Landing Park; Historic Fort York; and Cedar Ridge Creative Centre in Scarborough, which exists as a legacy project of Jumblies’ earlier East Scarborough community play project.
In all this welter of facts it’s hard to get a fix on what makes this festival a cohesive “thing,” a bit like trying to figure out what it is that made Edward Lear’s Jumblies sieve a boat! The answer to that lies partially in looking back at the “thing” called “the community play” an idea developed by English theatre professionals-turned activists Ann Jellicoe and Jon Oram and exported to Canada right at the start of the 1990s. Dale Hamilton’s Spirit of Shivaree which took place in the ruins of the Old Woolen Mill in Rockwood, Ontario, was the first instance of community play principles put into practice here, and it was in Rockwood that Ruth Howard caught the bug. She talks about it interestingly and at length in our podcast interview so I’ll be brief here. Basically the community play involves going into a community for no less than 24 months for the purpose of creating a theatre work on an epic scale, about, with and for that community, based on “wholehearted social inclusion” of everyone who wants to get involved, and a commitment to ongoing rewriting of the script so that everyone who wants a part can have one. And just as important, to bring to the undertaking the same professional commitment, resources and aesthetic standards as to any professional production.
For Jellicoe and Oram, the community play movement almost by definition entailed a retreat from large urban centres. Howard’s efforts have taken an intriguingly different path, seeking out the living smaller communities within the megacity, disempowered by amalgamation: Mabelle and Dundas in Etobicoke; Lawrence Heights; Davenport-Perth; East Scarborough: each in turn became home base for Jumblies for three or four years at a time, while the community itself crafted the story that needed to be told there.
In the final stanza of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies, after “twenty years or more” the Jumblies reach dry land, safe at home again: “And everyone said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!’”
“Tall” might not be quite the right word, but with Touching Ground, one senses that Jumblies has moved, in some ways, beyond its community play roots but without abandoning their principles.
The company’s extraordinary Train of Thought project in 2015 saw them travel west to east across Canada: 70 artists, two and a half months, 25 stops, hundreds of participants – following the railway, finding stories, abandoning the railway in the places where the railway has done the abandoning “so sometimes a minivan convoy of thought, sometimes a chartered bus of thought, whatever it took. Starting before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee but catching up with each other as we went.” What made that project possible, Howard says, was the three years of outreach that went into it, community by community, not just arriving on the scene. Ideas and artifacts born of that tour are everywhere to be found in Touching Ground.
Another big change for Jumblies is, for the first time, having a viable urban base (albeit in a faceless new urban neighbourhood struggling for an identity) to use as the “Ground Floor” from which to launch its forays. A third, and perhaps most thought-provoking change, is in the kind of partnership the Four Lands performances at the Evergreen Brick Works represent: partnerships, encouraged by arts agencies, with established, “shipshape” organizations like Continuum, and others. It will be interesting to see as, and if, these partnerships evolve over the years, who benefits more from the association. Expertise in keeping sieves afloat is no small talent in these artistically troubled times.
For more details on the Touching Ground Festival as it develops visit touchinggroundfestival.ca
David Perlman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Written by Brian Chang
- Category: Features
As someone who sings, I can’t imagine my life without choral music in it. For many people this is a true statement. Dedicating time to sing invigorates, relaxes, strengthens and builds the body and mind. Every day there are countless articles being shared about the value of choral ensemble and the physical and mental benefits. In this month of choral celebration in The WholeNote, I’ve assembled six stories from choristers in choirs across the region. Taken together they are suggestive of the gorgeous choral tapestry of music and ensemble in our region. Moreover, they tell the same story – how choral music fulfills the need to share and be part of a greater whole.
For those of you who have never sung in a choir, choral music is unlike other forms of music. Humans have a fundamental, instinctual reaction to the sound of other human voices. Whether it’s Whitney Houston, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or Pentatonix – we all relate to the sound of human voices raised in song. There’s something incredibly powerful about joining voices together to create something so much greater than one person could ever hope to do alone. The metaphorical and physical power of this expression of music is unlike anything else. Don’t be afraid to try!
For those of you who do sing in a choir, take a moment when you are singing next. Don’t sing. Just have a look around at what is happening: listen, take it in. Even for a moment, this is why you are here, not just for yourself, but to share with all these other people.
Finally, for those of you who like choral or classical music, keep coming to concerts and donate. Choral music is the only major performing arts medium that does not pay its primary artists – the choristers. With the exception of a handful of choirs like Tafelmusik, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Elora Festival Singers, the vast majority of choristers you see on stage are doing it for free. They don’t derive a penny of profit, and in most cases pay to be part of the ensemble. Choral music cannot exist without an audience and you are more important to this process that you can imagine.
“One of the main reasons why I chose Florivox over other ensembles in the city is that it is a non-audition choir,” shares Kayla Stephenson. “I had not been part of a choir for over a decade prior to Florivox so I was a little apprehensive about…well everything! My first rehearsal included a lot of confusion, wrong notes and questionable rhythms. But despite all that, I was welcomed and encouraged to keep pursuing my interest in singing. Florivox members have been very supportive and have helped me to develop my singing abilities over the past several years.”
Kayla gets to the root fear of a lot of people interested in choral music – the dreaded audition. Florivox, Univox and a host of other great non-auditioned choirs in the city can help navigate this space. Not every choir needs to perform at the level of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Choirs at every level are representative of the diversity of experience and music in our city. The Univox and Florivox families are great examples of inclusive music-making.
Stephenson tells us more about the unique approach the choir takes. “Each year, Florivox has a weekend retreat,” she shares. “We pile in our cars and head north of the city, for a weekend of singing and socializing! One evening, before dinner, each choir performed a piece we had learned earlier that day. Standing in a beautiful cabin-style hall, overlooking a peaceful Muskoka lake, here we were performing a piece together as a choir after just a few short hours of rehearsal. I will never forget the sense of accomplishment and happiness I felt singing to our fellow choristers.”
Soprano, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir
Most choristers, even the professional ones, have other duties. Francine Labelle is a soprano with Tafelmusik but also the director of public relations at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Over her career, she’s been able to perform and tour countless times with various ensembles. One sticks out in particular: “A six-week tour of France with the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM) in 1984 remains one of the highlights of my musical life,” she shares. “There was something magic about performing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in old cathedrals.”
Tafelmusik, with its focus on early music, requires a different musical approach. Flexibility, articulation, and a strong understanding of period phrasing are heightened even more in a Baroque ensemble. Labelle enjoys this singing very much. “I simply love Baroque music, and it seems to like me too! By that I mean it suits my voice and fits my personality,” she shares. “I truly love choral singing; the collaborative aspect entails a certain dose of self-effacement which I find essential.”
“I do prefer singing with small ensembles,” she says. “Though I have been with the group for 22 years, I continue to enjoy the music and the camaraderie, but still have to pinch myself once in a while when I think of how lucky I am to be on a stage with such talented musicians.” Many of us find ourselves in a Tafelmusik Chamber Choir performance feeling much the same way.
Tafelmusik has an exciting year ahead, not least of all some great programming with the Bach Mass in B Minor and the coming of a new artistic director, Elisa Citterio, who fully takes the reins next season.
Tenor, Grand Philharmonic Choir
Regionally, there are excellent choirs all around. The Grand Philharmonic in Kitchener is one such example. Mike Garboll shares his thoughts on the experiences. “The excitement and opportunity to sing so much of the world’s choral repertoire with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and outstanding soloists under our conductor Mark Vuorinen, is exhilarating, soul fulfilling and magical,” he shares. “It is the depth and breadth of the intoxicating and addicting vast choral literature by the giants of classical music that compels me every year to subject myself to Mark Vuorinen’s ‘voice checks’ (basically a re-audition).”
Garboll’s story and path in choral music had an early start. “(It) would be as a Grade 9 high school student in the North York Youth Choir under the legendary Lloyd Bradshaw. It was during the first orchestral rehearsal of Zadok the Priest…the mounting expectation in the orchestral introduction that leads to the overwhelmingly brilliant, powerful and majestic explosion by the chorus took my breath away and left me awestruck. It continues to do this to me to this very day.”
Soprano, Exultate Chamber Singers
Sarah Maria Leung is a singer and a conductor. Just finished in her master’s in Choral Conducting at the University of Toronto, she’s been part of Exultate Chamber Singers for several seasons now, but it’s not the first choir she has sung with. “I have been singing since first grade, so…it’s been a wonderful 18 years now. Each ensemble I sang with taught me something valuable as a musician and as a human being. I received most of my aural skills and sight-reading skills through singing in choir, especially in university. I got to travel to many countries and gained some lifelong friends from all over the world.”
She provides added insight, “I understand how the music we sing influences how we understand the human experience. Because of all these beautiful memories that I had making music with others, I want to allow other people, through conducting and singing, to have the same wonderful experiences that I had and will continue to have.” Sarah has a host of diverse musical experience from around the world, starting in Hong Kong and including Los Angeles and European stops.
She has many stories from along the way including singing Britten’s War Requiem, in Walt Disney Hall, but the experiences go much further back. “I guess I’ll trace back to one ‘concert’ back in my high school days,” she shares. “It was about a week before competing in the biggest school music festival in Hong Kong, and it’s our choir’s tradition to perform our pieces in front of the whole school during an assembly. In order to boost our confidence (or throw us a challenge, whichever), our music director at the time decided to have us scatter in the audience. Not just in the aisles, but in the seats – so our schoolmates and teachers were right next to us! But I wasn’t scared at all – one thing I learned in singing in that choir was that singing is about touching people’s hearts with our music…We really sang our hearts out. Many of our teachers and classmates cried after hearing our performance. Afterwards, over 100 people (from about 500 students) auditioned for the choir the next time we held an audition!”
Soprano, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Ann-Marie tells me about the places she is humbled to have performed in over her 19 years with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. “The music we perform, and the places where we’ve performed them, the friendships we form, and the sense of community and the support system that is developed is altogether memorable.” TMC is at the pinnacle of large ensembles in not only the region, but the country, in terms of history, the quality of sound, the size, the administrative support, reputation and diversity of performance opportunity: from singing on the stage of Roy Thomson Hall, the Sony Centre, the atrium of Brookfield Place or the Student Learning Centre at Ryerson University, St. Paul’s Basilica, Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts or Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre – performing in these venues is a real privilege.
One of the crown jewels for performance in Canada is Koerner Hall at the Telus Centre at the Royal Conservatory. For Ann-Marie, last November provided one of those amazing experiences unique to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah. “The choir sang exquisitely! We breathed and sang as one, and were perfectly attuned to Noel’s [Edison, conductor] every gesture. Speaking for myself, I was transported by the music, and the excellent soloists. It was a truly symbiotic performance. Although a recording could not have duplicated the mood of both the audience and the singers, and that it was a unique experience, it would have been amazing to have a physical record of that performance and to be able to say, ‘I was there.’”
Tenor, That Choir
“I think That Choir has a really unique dedication to storytelling and performance,” shares Don Pyper, a That Choir tenor. “That all starts with Craig [Pike, the conductor]. He always challenges us to bring more to the music than just singing the notes on the page. Doing contemporary choral music reminds me that choral music is alive, it’s evolving, and has something to say about the modern world.” That Choir focuses entirely on a cappella choral music. Few choirs focus entirely on this repertoire and few do it as well as That Choir.
Due to Pike’s extensive relationship-building, charisma and contacts all over the place, That Choir is incredibly active beyond just the boundaries of the 6ix. Pyper shares a rather perfect story of the power of music to connect and enhance communities it touches. “That Choir sang a concert in Barrie a few months ago. At one point Craig asked a little girl in the front row if she knew how to conduct and she responded “I’m only seven!” Craig brought her onstage and told her to move her arm up and down, down beat, up beat, really basic, then brought us in on something we had just sung and then walked off the stage, leaving this girl all by herself, arm waving, all of us eyes-glued to her while we sang. She looked awestruck, thrilled, terrified, spellbound. You choose an adjective. But the look on her face was the distillation of why everyone in the choir loves choral. I think most of us, audience included, both laughed and cried when she walked back to her seat next to her dad. It was just a beautiful moment in time.”
Brian Chang sings tenor in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and other Toronto-based choirs. He is The WholeNote’s Choral Scene columnist.
- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: Features
One of the aims of World Fiddle Day Toronto, which takes place Saturday May 20 at the Aga Khan Museum, is to celebrate bowed string instruments of all musical traditions, not just the music made by the globally dominant violin family. In organology (the study of instruments) the Chinese erhu, (technically a bowed two-stringed spike lute) is a prominent, though quite distant, member of the extended violin family. And WFDT has chosen Amely Zhou, the young Canadian erhu soloist trained in both Chinese and Western music, to be that instrument’s flagbearer in this year’s workshops and evening feature concert.
Zhou began her music studies at an early age in the city of Shenzhen, located in southeastern China near Hong Kong. She states in a 2015 interview that she “started learning erhu when I entered Shenzhen Art School in Grade 4…In my studies with my teacher Lei Zhang, I was constantly inspired by his music and by the sweet tone he could achieve from this simple-looking instrument. The soulfulness of the erhu still carries my feelings and emotions away, along with the vibrations of the strings.”
After immigrating to Canada, in 2007 she joined the Toronto Chinese Orchestra, where she serves today as the bowed string section assistant principal. In 2010 she co-founded the Chinese-Western fusion band Spire for which she both performs and arranges music.
While enrolled at York University she won the university’s 2013 Concerto Competition as the erhu soloist in the Red Plum Capriccio. Zhou graduated in 2015 from York with an Honours B.A. in Music, and that year was accepted into the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music summer program with a full scholarship to continue her erhu studies.
The high value she places on connecting with fellow musicians and audiences is among the most distinguishing features of her playing. As her biography on the Small World Music website notes, “Amely inspires others with her open-hearted and emotive playing. While challenging herself to the fullest, she premiered more than 30 new works by composers around the world.”
Among the GTA’s most prominent younger generation erhu soloists, Zhou is passionate about promoting traditional Chinese music in Canada. On the other hand she also actively challenges her musical world by frequently collaborating with musicians representing musical expressions based in the Western vernacular, and further afield: Iran, India and Azerbaijan.
One of her projects has been premiering contemporary works mixing erhu with other instruments. These include works by University of Toronto student composers Roydon Tse, Tse Yueng Ho, Chen Ke, Lin Yuting and Adrian Ling, as well as by senior composers Chan Ka Nin (Double Happiness) and Alice Ho (Four Seasons). In 2014 she commissioned and premiered Wind Chaser for erhu and piano by emerging Toronto composer Matthew Van Driel.
In her 2015 interview Zhou shares an insight into a core musical value, one which extends beyond that of culture of origin, vocation and career. “My teacher Lei Zhang…not only taught me how to play erhu, but also how to be a good person. Music teaches a person patience and kindness. You will have to be able to inspire yourself before you can inspire others with your music.”