Udo Kasemets. Photo by Andre LéducAssessing the legacy of a musician is tricky any day, but particularly when celebrating the person’s birth centenary, and especially when he was my teacher, colleague and then, friend, over several decades. It’s even more daunting when that person is the prolific composer, pianist, vocal coach, choral conductor, music journalist and educator, and mentor to several generations of Toronto musicians, Udo Kasemets (1919-2014). 

Kasemets considered himself a perennial outsider. He also, however, possessed the entrepreneurial chops to stretch the definition of what it meant to be a composer – and somehow to survive doing just that throughout his fascinating, multifaceted and prolific career. For most of his life he was, as he put it, “always trying to get things going.”

The outlines of his biography may provide a few clues to this enigmatic man. Born into a musical Estonian family (his father Anton Kasemets was an organist, influential choral conductor, composer and musicologist), he was educated in Tallinn and, after WWII, in Germany. In 1951 Kasemets immigrated to Canada. He made Hamilton and then Toronto the home where his musical career grew; during his long life he mentored several generations of musicians, me included. 

This is not the first time I’ve written about Kasemets in The WholeNote. In my 2010 article, In Appreciation of Udo Kasemets, Robert Aitken, founding artistic director of New Music Concerts calls him “probably the most uncompromising musician in Canadian musical history”; while my 2014 article, Toronto’s Musical Avant-Gardist: Udo Kasemets (Tallinn 1919 – Toronto 2014) A Remembrance in Five Decades, leaves no doubt about its contents.

A number of organizations have taken Kasemets’ 100th birth year as a cue to program his extraordinary compositions. We’ll look at several Toronto concerts scheduled throughout November. To aid us with background, I’ve reached out by email to Canadian musicologist Jeremy Strachan, Estonian flutist (and Ensemble U: member) Tarmo Johannes, Toronto pianist and concert curator Stephen Clarke, and composer Linda Catlin Smith. They knew Kasemets personally, either performing his work or writing extensively about it.

I first asked my interviewees why Canadians should care about Kasemets’ musical legacy.

Jeremy Strachan was the first to reply. “Udo was one of Canada’s most prolific composers and a trailblazing figure, bringing the avant-garde to listeners in this country. Although he is remembered fondly by those he knew and worked with, by and large his work has flown under the radar, outside of the small circle of enthusiasts of experimental music scattered across Canada. Aside from being a composer, concert promoter and writer, he was also a teacher and collaborator who brought many people together. I’m reticent to say ‘without Udo...’ but he really did an extraordinary amount of work to ensure that experimentalism in music and the arts had a legitimate place in the Canadian cultural landscape.”

Tarmo Johannes. Photo by Harri RospuTarmo Johannes weighed in with his Estonian musician’s perspective. “He is a little known in Estonia – unfortunately too little. It has been our mission in Ensemble U:  to introduce him more to our audiences, draw attention to his music and to situate him as a very important, very enriching part of Estonian music culture, a figure with no parallel in the Estonian ‘homeland.’ On the other hand let’s not forget that he returned to Tallinn in 2006 as an honorary guest of the Days of Estonian Music festival. There was a concert full of his music, a masterclass at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, interviews, articles, though there haven’t been many performances since.”

From Stephen Clarke, seasoned interpreter of Kasemets’ piano works: “Kasemets with Susan Layard, his singer/companion, travelled to Tallinn where he gave lectures – in Estonian, the first time he spoke it since the 1940s (!) – and performances. The German pianist Florian Steininger contacted me some years ago asking for scores of Kasemets’ later piano works. He has been performing them around Europe.”

Johannes further observed: “As an Estonian, I’ve been impressed by how many people talk about him with deep respect, admiration and warmth. But first of all, let’s consider his output as a composer. Having studied several of his scores it has become more and more clear how strong his works are. My group Ensemble U: has considerable experience interpreting open scores. Even then, working with a Kasemets score still sometimes means we have to struggle for hours with quite complex sets of rules, yet time and again after unravelling the sounds, we’ve been astonished by the quality of his work! I’ve heard Kasemets sometimes referred to as Canada’s John Cage. Well, okay, but concerning his compositions, in my humble opinion, Udo Kasemets did it better.”

Clarke was just as unequivocal in his assessment: “I’m convinced that had Kasemets emigrated to the US instead of Canada, his would be an iconic name as a maverick composer along the lines of Harry Partch, for instance. But Udo kept a fairly low profile and any self-promotion was anathema to him.”

“Fortunately he moved to Toronto,” Clarke continued, “or I might never have had the friendship and collaborations with him! Musicologist Jeremy Strachan recently completed his doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto on Kasemets’ work. This is highly encouraging, not only for preserving a legacy, but for opening doors for further exploration. Kasemets’ work is prolific and vastly ranging.”

Udo Kasemets’ Timepiece for a Solo Performer: aleatoric graphic score from the anthology, Notations (1969), collected by John Cage & Alison Knowles & documented via chance operations produced with the I Ching.Linda Catlin Smith, performer in many Kasemets pieces and coordinator for his massive work Counterbomb Renga, as well as for the recording of his Eight Houses of the I Ching, put it this way: “Udo is important to Canadian music for his unique and individual approach to music making. He’s also notable for his many concerts dedicated to celebrating other artists, especially poets such as Octavio Paz, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky and Susan Howe.”

I asked Strachan about Kasemets’ trailblazing 1960s and 1970s contributions to experimental music composition and performance in Toronto. 

“Udo was sort of the right guy at the right place at the right time in 60s Toronto. It was a period of transition and possibility, and he was determined to make an intervention in the suffocating conservatism of Canadian musical culture. He was, I think, uniquely equipped with the skills, the pedigree, and the disposition to shake things up at a time when there was a desire for something to happen, but he also had the required skills when he was forced to go it alone. In the 70s, you start to see the emergence of arts councils, artist-run spaces, and more collectivization and support; Udo really didn’t have that in the 60s. [Earlier] he had to forge alliances with galleries and navigate a frankly hostile musical terrain to present his work and the work of avant-garde composers.”

Smith added: “He was incredibly active in his early years in Canada, and was a passionate participant along with the other composers of the day presenting concerts, working with the League of Composers, bringing John Cage’s work to Canada, etc. He had a devoted following of listeners who came to many of his self-produced events. He also attended many, many concerts over the years, and was a keen supporter of younger composers and performers.

Toronto audiences can explore for themselves why Kasemets’ music still attracts musicians, composers and musicologists at the following events. 

Canadian League of Composers, 1955.  Front (L-R): Jean Papineau-Couture, John Weinzweig, John Beckwith. Back (L-R): Louis Applebaum, Samuel Dolin, Harry Somers, Leslie Mann, Barbara Pentland, Andrew Twa, Harry Freedman, Udo KasemetsNew Music Concerts: Kasemets@100

November 12, New Music Concerts presents Kasemets@100 at Walter Hall, University of Toronto, with guest Ensemble U: and pianist Stephen Clarke. Ensemble U: is the most active contemporary music ensemble in Estonia. Touring widely, it has gained recognition for performing very demanding works without a conductor. 

This celebration of the eclectic compositions of Udo Kasemets has another aim: to build musical bridges between Kasemets’ Estonian heritage and his Toronto career. The program features four works by Kasemets from the 60s, 90s and 2000, but also includes works by outstanding Estonian composers Märt-Matis Lill (b. 1975) and Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes (b. 1977), compositional voices unfamiliar to most Toronto audiences. 

An unusual programming touch for a contemporary music concert is the inclusion of Giovanni Palestrina’s sacred motet Tu es Petrus (1572); it directly addresses a Kasemets comment: “When studying Palestrina I sensed that musical order was larger than the sum of its components, however cleverly, imaginatively, and systematically they were put together.” It reflects the Kasemets view that composing music is a human approach to grasping the vastness of the multiverse and to creating order from its constituent parts. 

Array Music: Udo Kasemets @ 100

November 23, Array Music presents Udo Kasemets @ 100 performed by the Array Ensemble at the Array Space. This concert also pays tribute to “a towering figure in Toronto’s experimental music scene” with a program of his lesser-known chamber works curated by Array pianist and longtime Kasemets collaborator Stephen Clarke.

The inclusion of the 1948 Kasemets work, Sonaat in E, Viiulile ja Klaverile, Op.10, in the concert reveals a relatively conservative compositional style in his 20s, an aesthetic he brought to Canada. During the first decade of his career here, Kasemets performed, directed and organized concerts not of the experimental music of the day, but rather European high-art music of past centuries. Proof: he was the founder-director of the Toronto Bach Society (1957/8), and also of Musica Viva (1958/9), a pioneering Toronto organization in that it performed both new compositions and early music.

Clarke’s case for programming the 1948 work? “Udo’s earlier activities with choirs and traditional classical music aren’t so surprising given his inclusive views on what music is and can be. His Violin Sonata might be the most shocking piece of Kasemets anyone has ever heard: precisely because it’s not shocking!”

Kasemets at Estonian Music Week

Toronto’s Estonian Music Week (EMW), November 14 to 17 this year, partners with Latitude 44, an Estonian digital conference being held in Toronto for the first time. I’d be willing to bet that if Udo Kasemets were in his prime today, he’d be dreaming of fresh experimental music-tech interfaces for Latitude 44 and organizing performance events for it. (For more on EMW, see the sidebar to this story.) 

November 14, we can hear a prime example of a music-tech work at EMW when American composer Scott L. Miller’s immersive audio-visual concert work Raba is performed three times by Ensemble U: at the WE Global Learning Centre. Raba (“bog” in Estonian) is experienced by the audience wearing VR headsets. Audience members visually explore a 360-degree film while Ensemble U: performs the synchronized music. The ensemble and playback speakers physically surround the audience, providing each audience member with their own individual audio, as well as visual, experience.

November 17, the outstanding Toronto accordionist Tiina Kiik performs the 1993 Kasemets composition Kuradi Kiik (Satan’s Swing) for solo accordion at the EMW’s wrap party at Tartu College. Kasemets wrote the work especially for Kiik, a well-known musician in the Estonian community, whose repertoire includes classical, folk and improvised music. The party headlines the Estonian singer-songwriter Vaiko Eplik, a pop music star in his country, who has released 21 albums and produced music for many other artists.

Udo Kasemets: outsider or scene builder?

Let’s conclude our Kasemets centenary overview with one of his common declarations: “I’ve always been an outsider.” Strachan feels it’s not simply an off-handed statement of self-deprecation but rather speaks of a generation whose “attachments to place is far more grounded in displacement, dislocation and rupture – a diminished sense of rootedness” – one of modernism’s conditions.

Although Kasemets vigorously maintained his self-perceived outsider status to the end and questioned the lasting impact of his earlier accomplishments with cool skepticism, Strachan however assesses his legacy rather differently. Strachan’s 2014 Array Space lecture, Udo Kasemets: Uncompromising Experimentalist, ends with an optimistic appraisal: “The activity we see happening in Toronto today: with experimental music thriving ... new performance spaces opening as quickly as other ones close, and a sense of community among performers which is intergenerational, dynamic and always renewing itself – to me, that’s the promise that Udo saw in the 1960s, fulfilled.”

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Estonian Music Week – November 14 to 17


In addition to the two EMW concerts already mentioned here is another concert pick, providing a taste of the rest of the festival’s several performances.

On November 15 (Artscape Sandbox, Toronto) and November 16 (Cotton Factory, Hamilton) you can hear the quirky duo Puuluup (“wooden magnifying glass” in Estonian), from Viljandi, a town in southern Estonia. They’ve developed a unique musical hybrid variously dubbed “Estonian neo-folk” and ‘folktronica.” Their talharpas – horse-hair four-stringed bowed or plucked lyres – featured in the Estonian folklore revival, provide essential textures in their music, along with live electronic looping, electronic pedal effects, alternative bowing and amplified drumming techniques. Finnish jouhikko (a closely related bowed lyre) are also part of the mix. The duo’s catchy vocal melodies, harmonies and raps in the Estonian language draw inspiration from the village leiks (songs) of Vormsi island, Russian or Ukrainian chastushkas, and from more distant global music traditions. The tone is wry and unconventional, with lyrics about wind turbines, Polish TV heroes, fat cakes, and the “uncomfortable feeling that your neighbour’s dog might try to bite you while you take out the trash.” The old mashes with the new in their live performances and music videos, or as described in seasonally appropriate Baltic imagery, “sticking together like water and sleet.”

Estonian Music Week is co-presented with Latitude 44 a digital conference which introduces Estonia as the “world’s first digital society.” How did this Baltic country, about 24 times smaller than the province of Ontario, become such a digitally advanced society? Estonian e-engineers and managers share their success stories at the WE Global Learning Centre, 339 Queen St.E. Toronto.

“Estonia, a small country, big traditions.” This country with a population of 1.3 million has over two million yearly concert visits. Massed national song and dance festivals have played an important role in the development and preservation of Estonian identity. During the “Singing Revolution,” for example, many thousands of Estonians gathered for massed choral demonstrations between 1986 and 1991, putting pressure on the USSR government to end decades of Soviet occupation. In 1991 Estonia achieved independence, nonviolently.

World music fans double the population of the town of Viljandi during the Viljandi Folk Music Festival which presents world music acts from all over the world. Jazz is prominent in the popular Tallinn Music Week and at the Jazzkaar Festival. Estonia also boasts a number of top composers, such as Arvo Pärt, among the world’s most performed living composers, and Veljo Tormis, who based some of his successful works on ancient regi songs. The country has also produced several fine conductors such as Neeme Järvi, Tõnu Kaljuste and Paavo Järvi, the latter having conducted Canadian musicians on a 1994 all-Kasemets CD on the Koch International label.

Alexina Louie with Lydia Adams (left) and Alex Pauk, conductor, Esprit Orchestra (right). Photo by Malcolm CookThe recent announcement of composer Alexina Louie as the winner of the 2019 Molson Prize in the Arts, the first time the $50,000 prize has been awarded to a female composer, signalled something of a sea change in the world of Canadian music that’s been developing gradually.

Alexina Louie and the Canada Council’s Marc-Olivier Lamontagne. Photo by Malcolm CookThe prize was presented to Louie by the Canada Council for the Arts, on stage at Esprit Orchestra’s season-opening concert at Koerner Hall this past October. “One of Canada’s most highly regarded and most often performed composers, performed and broadcast internationally,” the citation read. “Her commissioned works range across all musical genres, including ballet and opera.” It’s an award that recognizes Louie’s place at the forefront of the many women who have propelled themselves to positions of significant influence in Canada’s classical music community through both their activism and artistic achievements. 

In a blog on the Esprit Orchestra website Louie states: “I’m proud of my large catalogue of wildly diverse compositions. They range from pedagogical piano pieces for children, a full-length main stage opera, my ‘ground-breaking’ comedic five-minute made-for-TV operas (created with my collaborators, director Larry Weinstein and librettist Dan Redican), to more unconventional, leading-edge compositions. In my pieces I aim to create something captivating, magical, touching, inspiring. It doesn’t matter if the work is meant for a young piano student or the audience of National Ballet of Canada, I cannot be satisfied with my work unless I aim high. I also avoid writing the same piece over and over, a trap that is easy to fall into. However, pushing boundaries and propelling yourself into new personal artistic territory can be frightening. The compositions listed in my catalogue span many decades. You can hear my musical voice taking shape in the earlier pieces. There are works from those formative years that still affect me deeply. They still ring true after so many decades.” And in a subsequent conversation Louie told me that the Molson Prize is especially meaningful to her because nominees come from all the arts, not just music. “When you look at the list of past winners, it spans the full range of artists in Canada from Alice Munro, Glenn Gould, Mary Pratt to Bill Reid, Margaret Atwood and of course, Alex Pauk, and so on.” 

The Molson Prize is just one recent recognition of Louie’s prominence. Just a few days prior to her receiving it, she was also presented the Arts and Letters Award by the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. John Stanley, the club member who nominated her for the award wrote: “Her work has been performed by all of Canada’s important symphony orchestras, locally and on tour. In addition, her works have been performed in the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States as well as in China. She was recently commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra to write a Triple Concerto for the orchestra’s concertmasters, a task which she fulfilled with great mastery and verve. The concerto was performed in all three cities in 2017/18. In 2019, she was the featured composer at Finding a Voice, a festival devoted to women composers, held in Cork, Ireland. This year, her work was also performed by the Ensemble symphonique Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The Canadian writer Emily-Jane Hills Orford has described Ms. Louie’s work’s ‘ethereal quality [that] transcends both time and place and leaves the audience, as well as the performers, with a distinct feeling of being in a trance, a dream. The unique sounds and colours of Alexina Louie’s music enlighten the listener, allowing the music, the performer and the audience to experience an idea, to gain knowledge of an emotion.’”

The Arts and Letters Award ceremony included performances of her vocal and piano music by soprano Caroline Stanczyk and pianist Morgan-Paige Melbourne; her accordion music, performed by Matti Pulkki; as well as excerpts from her made-for-TV operas, all introduced by the composer herself. She made the point that, though she’s a thoroughly Canadian composer, her musical voice is heard and recognized around the world. She told me: “In my desire to communicate and express my message, I’ve striven for a universality in my musical language.” 

It should be noted here that I am not an unbiased observer! On a personal level, I’m proud of the role I played in encouraging Louie’s early development in the 1980s, having arranged her very first commission through CBC Radio, as well as the broadcasts of her works on the national CBC network program Two New Hours. These broadcasts introduced Louie’s music to a national audience through the CBC’s Radio Two network. Our recordings of her music in concerts were also disseminated internationally through the International Rostrum of Composers and the network of international program exchange that CBC had with organizations like the European Broadcasting Union. 

I also produced her very first recordings on CD: clarinetist James Campbell and percussionist Beverley Johnston recorded her Cadenzas for Centrediscs in 1986, and the 2019 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award-winning pianist Louise Bessette recorded Music for Piano with me for CBC Records in 1993. Three years later I also produced a CBC Records CD with accordionist Joseph Macerollo that included the first recordings of Louie’s Earth Cycles for solo accordion, as well as her trio for accordion, harp and percussion, Refuge, the work I had commissioned in 1980 on the occasion of her return to Canada after ten years living in California.

Akemi Mercer-Niewöhner (left) and Rachel Mercer (Mercer Duo). Photo by Bo HuangI’ve also recently collaborated with another woman at the forefront of Canadian musical creativity, cellist Rachel Mercer, along with her violinist sister, Akemi Mercer-Niewöhner: their new recording of six works by Canadian women has now been released on the Centrediscs label. A few years in its making, the CD, Our Strength, Our Song, combines three of Mercer’s recently commissioned duos for violin and cello with three 20th-century Canadian duos. 

Rebekah Cummings. Photo by Claire DambioThe title of the recording comes from one of the works on the recording – one of the last compositions by the late composer Rebekah Cummings (1980–2019) who wrote of her composition: “Our Strength, Our Song is a tribute to the empowering generational bonds between women, and the beauty of sisterhood. I was so inspired to compose for a pair of sisters (the Mercer Duo), and for two instruments that support and complement one another so perfectly – unique, yet part of the same family – like sisters.” Cummings, who was Bulgarian-Canadian, found inspiration in the traditional two-part folk singing of Bulgarian women, and writes in her notes: “These songs are a strong, common bond among the women and girls in the community, and a remarkable way in which the older generation upholds the younger and imparts wisdom, culture, values, beauty and strength. This piece is based on a short theme written in traditional Bulgarian folk-singing style, recurring but ever-evolving, tenaciously rising again despite opposition, pain and struggle. The violin and cello personify the voices of sisters across generations, sharing and cultivating this ancient, everlasting song.”

Alice Ho. Photo by Bo HuangThis new recording also includes commissioned works by Alice Ho – her Kagura Fantasy, a new duo inspired by a Japanese fertility ritual – and by Jocelyn Morlock – Serpentine paths, depicting life’s twisting pathways. The pre-existing duos are by Violet Archer (Four Duets for Violin and Cello,) Jean Coulthard (Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello,) and Barbara Monk Feldman (Pour un nuage violet.) Rachel Mercer told me she feels Our Strength, Our Song – the recording – is “relevant to the current time we are in; celebrating and supporting the power and liberated expression of women. In this case we also hope our recording encourages others to play these older works that have been rarely performed.” It’s a fascinating mix of contrasting styles and approaches, all performed with verve and brilliance by this outstanding sibling duo. It’s a production I’m particularly pleased with. 

Abigail Richardson-SchulteRachel Mercer has been commissioning new works since 2010, when she asked Dundas, Ontario-composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte to compose a piece for the Mercer-Park duo (with pianist Angela Park.) The resulting work, Crossings, remains in their repertoire and is regularly programmed on recitals. Her most ambitious project to date was the creation of 14 new works (by seven women and seven men from every region of Canada), commissioned through her quartet, Ensemble Made in Canada. Titled the Mosaïque Project, it was inspired by a desire to reflect the diverse regions of Canada in music and media, and consists of three components: the 14 commissioned piano quartets; a national concert tour extending through the 2018/2020 seasons; and a specially designed website that showcases audience-generated artwork inspired by the musical commissions. There is now an impressive web presence to explore at mosaiqueproject.com, involving “artists from across Canada including performers, composers, visual artists and web designers, in order to create an evolving artistic work that can be experienced by audiences, participants and online visitors throughout our country and internationally. Our aim is to celebrate the diversity and richness of Canada through the eyes and ears of its people.”

Mercer’s most recent commission is a cello concerto by pianist/composer Stewart Goodyear. She tells the story like this: “In 2015, I received an email from Stewart Goodyear, saying that he wanted to write me a cello concerto! We’ve known each other since we were 13 and playing in a trio together at the RCM Toronto (with Susanne Hou) and had played together a couple of times since, but this was completely out of the blue to me. I couldn’t believe it, but he said he was already sketching ... forward to 2016 ... I didn’t hear more about the concerto, but ended up playing the Canadian premiere of his piano quartet with Ensemble Made In Canada at Ottawa Chamberfest ... finally in 2017 NACO [National Arts Centre Orchestra] was interested in programming the cello concerto and we received funding from the Ontario Arts Council and a research project at UOttawa. It will be a co-commission between me and NACO. I’m looking forward to seeing the score very soon and the premiere will happen on February 14, 2020 with my orchestra [National Arts Centre Orchestra].” 

For Mercer, as she told me, her desire to commission new repertoire is because “It feels like the closest I can come to being part of a creation, besides the interpretive creation that happens on stage.”

The composer, Louie, and the interpreter, Mercer, are just two examples of women who have been steadily changing the direction of the creative tide in the creative branch of the Canadian classical music community. Others come easily to mind, such as the prolific collaborations I witnessed over the years between the late composer Ann Southam (1937-2010) and pianists Eve Egoyan and Christina Petrowska Quilico. 

Gemma New. Photo by Anthony ChangOver the span of more than 20 years, I have been involved in the production of 14 CDs of Southam’s various and varied piano compositions. And the current collaboration between Hamilton Philharmonic (HPO) music director, Gemma New, and HPO Composer-in-Residence, Abigail Richardson-Schulte, seems to have exciting potential through their new initiative called the Composer Fellowship Program. In this program, emerging composers can apply to work with the orchestra. Richardson-Schulte says “Gemma is a great supporter of contemporary Canadian music at the HPO and I’m so pleased that we are able to commission, present, and mentor. We have a practically all-Canadian series (Intimate and Immersive), which is a larger instrumentation version of our previous What Next Festival (which was also Canadian new music). In addition to the Composer Fellowship, we have three main stage premieres by women this season – me, Alice Ho and Juliet Palmer. Gemma is conducting all of our new music at the HPO which shows her dedication to it.”

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

Left: Pamelia Stickney. Photo by David Visnjic. Right: Lev Termen.My theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. Its two antennas emerge from a closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your right hand gets, the higher the theremin’s tone. The second antenna controls volume. It is bent, looped, gold, and horizontal. The closer you bring your left hand, the softer the instrument’s song. The farther away, the louder it becomes. But always you are standing with your hands in the air, like a conductor. That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor …

Canadian author Sean Michaels’ debut novel (Random House) was called Us Conductors and the quotation above is from it. When Michaels won the 2014 Giller prize the citation read: “He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.” It’s based on the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the theremin, set in the glittery Jazz Age of New York in the 20s, the grim gulags and prisons of Stalin’s 1930s Soviet Union, and includes Terman’s love affair with a beautiful young violinist – Clara Rockmore. Full disclosure: after a few pages I forgot entirely that I was reading fiction, and in the end was left with a fascination I have not been able to shake. 

There’s something about the theremin and its ethereal voice that makes it hard to brush off because you just can’t put your finger on it – figuratively or literally. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) composer Miklós Rózsa used the theremin for a kind of alienation leitmotif. All you need to do is hear a little of that soundtrack and the entire film will slither back into your mind and ear-worm you for days.

On November 16 (7:30pm), Hedgehog Concerts presents a performance in Toronto’s intimate concert jewel-box – Heliconian Hall. It will offer the opportunity for a close encounter with the instrument that gives that supernatural something to film and television scores for science fiction and thrillers. 

But when first introduced in concert halls of North America, Great Britain and Europe, the repertoire was art music: Schubert and Glinka, for example, at Albert Hall where “The human voice, the violin, viola, cello, bass and double-bass, the cornet, horn, trombone, saxophone, organ, and almost every instrument you can think of, are all beaten at their own game by this one simple little apparatus” (The Musical Standard, London 1927). A hundred years later, while the theremin’s capacity for beauty is often and unjustly overlooked, it is newly championed by its closest friends.

Pamelia Stickney is one of these – a leading player in the theremin world, who will help us celebrate the instrument’s centennial year, along with Viennese pianist Thessi Rauba, performing three specially commissioned sonatas for theremin and piano by Canadian composer Alexander Rapoport – including the Canadian premieres of Sonata No.2 and Sonata No.3. Rapoport will introduce the works himself.

Composer-in-residence with the Talisker Players from 2001 to 2017, Rapoport’s had diverse commissions for orchestral, choral and chamber music, film scores, and incidental music for live theatre and musical comedy. But this new theremin learning curve was more or less self-inflicted.

Rapoport became aware of Stickney through Rauba, who is Rapoport’s wife. Stickney and Rauba had already worked together in Vienna. Rapoport did some arrangements for them and they decided he should write an original piece. “The First Sonata was a lot of fun, so I was able to talk them into letting me do two more. I wish I could do a hundred or so, as Haydn did with his symphonies and string quartets. By that time you’ve learned something.” 

Stickney began her musical career as a Los Angeles jazz/rock musician after spending her teens playing piano, violin, viola, cello and contrabass. She had her first personal encounter with the instrument while working on a recording project in 1999. Stickney’s jazz background led to what emerged as a walking bass theremin technique. Today, based in Vienna, she performs internationally, and collaborates and records with a wide range of artists and ensembles. Stickney was instrumental to the final design of Robert Moog’s Etherwave Pro theremin.

Pianist and educator, Thessi Rauba, is active in Vienna’s alternative music scene, performing with her brother, instrument-inventor Hans Tschiritsch, thereminist Stickney, and accordionist Otto Lechner. She also performs one-person shows combining piano performances with literary readings. Rauba plays and records a diverse repertoire including jazz, popular and classical music.

Will it be gimmicky? Rapoport had this to say: “Wait until you hear Pam play! The theremin is a thoroughly legitimate instrument with special capabilities and also limitations, just like any other. It is also an instrument where a performer’s individual expression comes out much more than you would imagine, in my view because of the infinite variation in intonation and vibrato.”

The last word here goes to Sean Michaels:

The theremin has always been a machine with two strangenesses. There is the strangeness of the playing: palms flexing in empty space, as if you are pulling the strings of an invisible marionette. But the stranger strangeness is the sound. It is acute. It is at once unmodulated and modulating. It feels both still and frantic. For all my tweakings of timbre, the theremin cannot quite mimic the trumpet’s joyous blast, the cello’s steadying stroke. It is something Else.

Yes, the Elseness is what brings audiences to their feet. It is what inspires composers like Schillinger and Varèse. But there is no escaping the other part, too: like the pallor of an electric lightbulb, like the heat of an electric stove, the theremin’s sound is a stranger to the Earth.

MJ BUELL is the regular writer of We Are ALL Music’s Children

 Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Massey Hall, 1911Remarkably, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has had only eight conductors in the course of its 125-year history that will be celebrated in an anniversary gala concert at Koerner Hall this coming October 20. Even more remarkable, five of those – Augustus Stephen Vogt (1894-1917); Herbert A. Fricker 1917-1942; Sir Ernest MacMillan (1942-57); Elmer Iseler (1964-1998); and Noel Edison (1997 to 2018) – account for almost 120 years of the 125. This is not to say, however, that the length of an individual’s tenure is the sole indicator of its importance.

David Fallis. Photo credit Dean Artist ManagementThere’s an old saying that if you want something done well, give it to a busy person. David Fallis, who took up the reins as the TMC’s interim artistic director in 2018 after the abrupt departure of Noel Edison, and will step down at the end of the coming season, is a case in point. By TMC standards it will have been a very brief tenure, but he will have made his mark at a pivotal moment for the choir.

By the time this issue of the magazine has been published, he will have led the Choir’s September 28 Singsation workshop, and the TMC will be at work preparing for the October 20 anniversary concert, which Fallis will conduct, and beyond that, their annual Festival of Carols (December 3 and 4) at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra as their guests. There are also the TMC’s own upcoming guest appearances to prepare: Beethoven’s Ninth, with Orchestra Toronto, in an October 27 concert titled “Freude,” commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s November 7 and 9 opera-in-concert performances of Massenet’s Thaïs. Oh, and then (for Fallis not the TMC) there’s the small matter of conducting Tafelmusik for Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, in a five-performance run, commencing October 31.

Fallis dropped by the WholeNote office for a flying visit en route to rehearsing the University of Toronto MacMillan Singers (who are also between conductors), and we tried to touch on one topic at a time, more or less in order of appearance.

Singsation SaturdaysThe TMC’s “Singsation Saturdays” is an ongoing series of workshops that are generally very well attended by a wide range of participants, from across the GTA, who are united by a love of choral singing. There will be five this season, each led by a different eminent conductor and organized around a particular topic or theme. The theme for Fallis’ September 28 session is music composed for the TMC over its 125-year history. “For this Singsation,” Fallis says, “we’re doing How They So Softly Rest by Healey Willan. Interestingly, the Healey Willan Society website says it was written for the Mendelssohn Choir, but I once saw a Hyperion recording of it (can’t remember the choir) that said it was written for the choir at St. Paul’s. We’ll claim it anyway! Also commissions we’ve had with Peter Tiefenbach and Tim Corlis, and one piece commissioned by the Mendelssohn Youth Choir when it existed, from Derek Holman.”

That Fallis would choose to focus on commissioned works for his workshop should come as no surprise, given his work as longtime artistic director of Toronto Consort, and given the TMC’s own track record: “The Mendelssohn has a long history of commissioning new Canadian music, although sometimes irregularly,” he says. “I’ve certainly encouraged them to keep doing it, especially if they want to maintain their leadership in choral music.”

Andrew Balfour“Singing through the Centuries” is the title of the October 20 Koerner Hall anniversary gala concert, the idea being to include repertoire spanning the three centuries in which the choir has sung. It won’t be a “Mendelssohn light” concert though, with three substantive works on the program: Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem representing the 19th century; Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms the 20th; and Andrew Balfour’s Mamihcimowin (The act of singing praises) a new TMC commission from a composer with a distinctive and powerful musical voice, who, as Carol Toller wrote, for The Globe and Mail earlier this year, is “drawing on his First Nations identity to nudge the the Canadian classical-music scene out of its stodgy Eurocentric traditions.”

“I just received the full score,” Fallis says, with a gleam in his eye that speaks volumes. (It is Thursday September 19 as we sit chatting, which means only four Monday rehearsals before the concert.) “It’s not much more difficult than the Stravinsky.”

Sir Ernest MacMillan. Photo by Noel RubieAs for the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, it speaks, by association, to a time in the history of the choir spanning all the way from the 1930s and Sir Ernest MacMillan’s early interest in Stravinsky, to a CBC Symphony Orchestra recording of the work in 1962-3, with Stravinsky himself conducting, and featuring Elmer Iseler’s Festival Singers. A year later Iseler began his unmatched 36-year conductorship of the TMC, bringing the Festival Singers with him as a professional core ensemble within the choir, much as later on Noel Edison would do with the Elora Festival Singers. In 1965, at the sesquicentennial of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, the TMC under Iseler, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia of Music, “presented a program that included, among other works, Godfrey Ridout’s The Dance; [Sir Ernest] MacMillan’s arrangement of the French Canadian folk song Blanche comme la neige; and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms ...”. On October 31 1965, the Boston Globe reported, “There is something fresh, stimulating, vital, about the Iseler-Mendelssohn combination, and the result vocally and musically is remarkable. Diction is superb. Chords and polyphonic textures are always in perfect balance.”

Augustus Vogt. Photo credit Toronto Public LibraryAs for the opening work on the October 20 program, whether or not the Fauré Requiem was actually performed during the Mendelssohn’s first five years of existence under Augustus Vogt’s leadership, I have not been able to ascertain, even after poring over the almost complete set of early program books in the TMC’s own library. Vogt, as organist-choir director of Jarvis Street Baptist Church from 1888 to 1906, would have known the Fauré. “Unlike Mozart and even Vivaldi,” Fallis points out, it was written to be used in a church setting.”

Vogt’s connection with Jarvis Street Baptist helped establish the preconditions for the TMC to come into existence, but the event that triggered it at that specific time was undoubtedly the opening of Massey Hall on June 30 1894, with an inaugural concert presentation of Handel’s Messiah. It could not have been the Mendelssohn Choir by that name as the choir for that concert, for the simple reason that the size of the choir was Mendelssohnian – 500 choristers – reflecting in the burghers of this town a predilection for oratorio on a grand scale, such as that which had accompanied the first performance of Mendelssohn’s own Elijah in Birmingham 48 years earlier. It’s likely that many of Vogt’s Jarvis Street church choir were among that first Massey Hall contingent, including core members of the fledgling TMC.

David Fallis’ own first recollections of the TMC make for a nice story too. “I think I sang with them before I was aware of who they were,” he says. “I was in the treble choir – from the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, under Lloyd Bradshaw – called for in the score of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. It was the Canadian premiere at Massey Hall, under Walter Susskind, in November 1964. I must have been all of eight years old. It made quite an impression. Lois Marshall, Victor Braun and Peter Pears all sang it.”

It was a performance that marked the transition from Walter Susskind’s caretaker conductorship of the TMC; conductor-in-waiting, Elmer Iseler, actually prepared the choir for the performance. Fallis went on to sing the War Requiem, again with the CCOC, for the TSO under Seiji Ozawa. “It was a few years later,” he says, “and my voice was breaking by then.”

Come the end of 2019, Fallis will relinquish performance conducting duties for the TMC as guest conductors take the podium for each of the three winter/spring concerts. But Fallis was a key member of the team figuring out the artistic details of the three visits.

First up, on February 22, will be Chicago-based John William Trotter, in a program at Yorkminster Baptist titled “Romantics and New Romantics.” Next, on April 8 and 10 at St. Anne’s, in a program titled “Sacred Music for a Sacred Place,” will be Gregory Batsleer, currently dividing his choral duties between Huddersfield and Scotland. Last, on May 30, it will be the turn of Montreal-based Jean-Sébastien Vallée, who will conduct a program titled “Great Poets in Music” at St. Andrew’s Church (at King and Simcoe).

“The repertoire for each of the concerts is very carefully chosen,” Fallis says, “reflecting the artistic priorities of the TMC, and a balance of music, old and new.”

Assessing the chemistry between a guest conductor and choir is more difficult than with a symphony orchestra. Typically, the TMC devotes “a month of Mondays” to prepare for a concert, rather than, as a symphony orchestra would, ramping things up in the week before the concert. “Realistically,” Fallis says, “you can’t ask guest conductors to come back to town four weeks in a row for one day to watch how they rehearse with the choir.” Instead, Fallis explains, each of these three conductors is being asked to stay on till the Monday after their performances, to lead the choir in a first rehearsal of material for a “hypothetical next concert.”

It’s a nice extra detail.

An interim conductor doesn’t get to make the same kind of imprint on an orchestra or choir as a permanent hiring would. One inherits a “sound” and does not seek to change it using blunt instruments like the annual re-audition process to filter for one’s preferences. Besides, large choirs are infinitely less agile than smaller ensembles responding to change. “That being said,” Fallis says, “every conductor is in some sense, a stylist. You work with your material, and you focus on things you care most about achieving. Things like attention to text, for example ...something I believe strongly in.”

Short as his stay will have been, he will have left his mark.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

fanfarebannerSoundstreams’ founder and artistic director Lawrence Cherney has long been impressed by the breadth and depth of trumpet repertoire across the ages, and as a former trumpet player myself, I am always happy to hear him out on the charms of this favoured instrument. Now Cherney has gone one step further and created a whole concert to make his point.

On October 3, Soundstreams presents “Top Brass” at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, featuring three brilliant trumpet soloists, Canadians Jens Lindemann and Ingrid Jensen, and Norwegian Ole Edvard Antonsen. Each of the three soloists has their virtuoso solo moments in the concert, but Cherney and his Soundstreams team have upped the ante by commissioning several works by leading Canadian composers for multiple trumpets, performing with a variety of accompanying forces, including a virtuoso string orchestra led by Joaquin Valdepeñas. The composers’ comments about the works they are contributing were as fascinating and as varied as the works themselves promise to be.

AnnaPidgorna. Photo by Amanda BullickVancouver composer Anna Pidgorna was commissioned by Cherney and Soundstreams to create a work for the three trumpet soloists and string orchestra. Pigdorna’s composition, which drew inspiration from the Biblical seven trumpets of Revelations, is titled The Three Woes, the designation of the last three of these trumpets. Pigdorna writes: “The Fifth Trumpet (First Woe) prompts a star to fall from heaven and open the bottomless pit, releasing acrid smoke and locust-like creatures, which are actually scorpion-tailed warhorses with human faces and lion’s teeth. These ‘locusts’ will repeatedly sting anyone who lacks the seal of God on their foreheads. The Sixth Trumpet (Second Woe) will release four bound angels who will lead an army of 200 million mounted on horses with lion’s heads and snakes for tails. This army will kill exactly a third of the mankind that didn’t already die from forest fires, bloody oceans, poisoned waters and the dimming of sunlight. The Seventh Trumpet (Third Woe) will bring in Christ’s second coming and the final judgment of the remaining people, after which paradise will be established on Earth and Christ will rule in peace and happiness for ever and ever, Amen.”

Pigdorna continues: “The ancient authors of the Bible were certainly imaginative in the catastrophes they described, but reading this I can’t help thinking that much of this is already happening, due to global climate change. Ocean life is dying from rising temperatures; forests are burning en masse, dimming sunshine with smoke; fresh water is being polluted by industry. Thinking of the ending of the prophecy which promises Earthly Paradise, I can’t help wondering how the remaining people will manage to live happily ever after on a ruined planet after surviving war and major cataclysms and watching most of their brethren get slaughtered.”

Pigdorna’s musical setting of this dramatic scenario begins with most of the instruments positioned throughout the hall, and two of the three trumpets on opposite sides of the balcony, leaving one onstage. The cellos and basses of the string ensemble remain onstage, but the more portable violins and violas begin the piece out of their normal concert positions, around and even among the audience. As the work progresses through the soundings of each of the Three Woes, the players gradually move to the stage. The end of the work is a musical depiction of the arrival of Earthly Paradise. Pigdorna, whom I first met when her works were introduced to Toronto audiences by the Thin Edge New Music Collective, told me she’s currently writing an opera on a scenario from this same Biblical story.

Ingrid JensenThe idea of including choreography in the score, to move performers through the performance space is not a new one. Listeners familiar with the music of Murray Schafer recognize this sort of device as completely normal in Schafer’s works. There is, for example, intricately detailed choreographed movement in his 1977 orchestral composition, Cortège, as well as in several of his 13 string quartets, and in many other of his works. Schafer’s music appears in the Soundstreams Top Brass presentation too; an unaccompanied solo trumpet (Ingrid Jensen) performing Schafer’s Trumpet Aubade, conceived as a morning song to be performed on a wilderness lake. It’s a work that appears in Wolf Music, a made-for-radio production that Schafer and I produced at Wildcat Lake in the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve in 1997, and now available as a Centrediscs recording, available from the Canadian Music Centre.

Toronto composer and conductor, Brian Current has often conducted Schafer’s music. They have also been teaching colleagues at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In 2011, when Schafer was awarded the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (Ontario), Schafer chose Current as his protégé. For Top Brass, Soundstreams commissioned Current to create an homage to Schafer, a Serenade for Three Trumpets. Current calls Schafer “Canada’s pre-eminent composer whose research, altruism, talent and hard work I have admired for years.” Current, a multiple-prize-winning composer, who is enjoying an enviable career of his own, wrote in his program note, “In response to Schafer’s Aubade, I offer this brief evening song, or Serenade, for three trumpets playing overlapping patterns. Traditionally, a serenade is a composition or performance delivered in honour of someone or something.” For his salute to Schafer, Current places his trumpet soloists at three points in the hall, surrounding the audience.

Another expression of collegial admiration appears in the program as Ole Edvard Antonsen performs Paths by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930–1996). In 1994, Takemitsu expressed his own admiration in this haunting solo trumpet composition, in memory of his friend, Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913–1994). Takemitsu’s own death followed two years later.

Heather SchmidtTitanomachy is a double concerto for solo trumpet, solo piano and string orchestra by Alberta-born composer, pianist, author and filmmaker, Heather Schmidt. It’s a work that Schmidt has wanted to compose for trumpeter Jens Lindemann for some time, as a vehicle for the two artists to perform together. The chance to realize the idea came when Soundstreams commissioned the work for Top Brass, and invited Schmidt to write herself into it as piano soloist. The title refers to a mythical battle between two factions of Greek gods – the Titans and the Olympians. Schmidt reasoned, “The pitting of two soloists against each other seemed to lend itself to the concept of a battle.”

In her program note, Schmidt writes: “The piece opens with the trumpet playing towards the inside piano strings with the damper pedal down, as if echoing the beautiful landscapes of the ancient Greek territory of Thessaly where the Titanomachy took place. After a more lyrical section that evokes the ‘calm before the storm,’ the battle begins. From there, it’s an escalation to the end, with trumpet and piano trying to outdo each other. As part of the trumpet’s tactics, there is an escalation of ‘weapons’ as the trumpet switches from flugelhorn, to C trumpet, to piccolo trumpet.” Schmidt, a true polymath, has been composing music since the age of five, and her mammoth canon of works continues to grow. I produced her debut CD, Solus, for Centrediscs in 2003, as well as a CD of the piano works of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, for Naxos in, 2010.

Jens LindemannSchmidt and Lindemann also appear together in Top Brass in Mysteries of the Macabre, three arias from György Ligeti’s (1923–2006) opera, Le Grand Macabre. The coloratura arias of the character, the Chief of the Secret Political Police, were arranged for trumpet and piano, with Ligeti’s enthusiastic permission, by Elgar Howarth, an English composer, conductor and trumpeter. Howarth had, in fact, conducted the world premiere of Ligeti’s opera in 1978.

Top Brass’ ambitious program will cover three centuries and several contrasting styles of trumpet music. The concert leads off with the Concerto for Three Trumpets, Tympani and Strings, one of 13 trumpet concertos by the Baroque master Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767.) It’s a rousing, joyful opening, almost fanfare like, as if to kick off Soundstreams’ season with musical affirmation. (The trumpets of Telemann’s time would have been natural, valveless instruments, unlike the trumpets that Antonsen, Lindemann and Jensen play.)

Twentieth-century French composer André Jolivet (1905–1974) composed two trumpet concertos, works he referred to as “my ballets for trumpet.” Ole Edvard Antonsen’s recent CD on the BIS label, includes both Jolivet concertos. Soundstreams’ presentation features Antonsen, along with Heather Schmidt, in Jolivet’s Concertino for Trumpet, Piano and Strings which was composed in 1948, and in fact was set with choreography on several occasions. The piece reveals Jolivet’s interest in jazz, a genre he became increasingly aware of after World War II. The vigorous outer movements of the concertino surround a notably bluesy middle movement. The prominence of both the trumpet and piano in the outer movements make this brisk and urbane piece almost a double concerto.

From her perspective, Schmidt told me she loves such a diverse program. “Of the three works I’m performing, each one has its unique challenges. My piece, Titanomachy is filled with concerto-style virtuosity. The Jolivet has challenges within the vein of a contemporary style ensemble piece. And the Ligeti has a significant theatrical element including vocalizations, playing maracas and other non-traditional components within the piano part.”

Without a jazz presence, Soundstreams’ trumpet bonanza would be incomplete. Vancouver-born Ingrid Jensen is one of the most respected trumpeters in the world of contemporary jazz. Now based in New York, she has an international career. She plays a custom Monette trumpet built for her by the master builder Dave Monette. In addition to her performances with the trio of virtuoso trumpeters, she appears in Top Brass with her jazz trio, with pianist Robi Botos and bassist Mike Downes. Alberta composer and trumpeter Allan Gilliland’s Stranger on the Prairie is another vehicle for Jensen, together with orchestral strings. Gilliland said he had been thinking about how to combine his experience as an orchestral composer with his experience as a jazz musician. This led to the concept of a series of “Jazz Concertos” for soloists who were comfortable in both the classical and jazz idioms, such as Jensen. In 1995 the legendary Canadian jazz composer and trumpet and flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler (1930–2014) made an arrangement for four trumpets, of the Irving Berlin song, How Deep is the Ocean? Ingrid Jensen decided to rearrange Wheeler’s arrangement, in this case, for three trumpets, accompanied by piano and bass, and her version of the piece will round out Top Brass.

In a video produced to promote Top Brass, trumpeter Jens Lindemann proclaims: “The best thing about the evening is that it’s going to be a clash of three trumpet titans, epic on a scale not seen since The Three Tenors. And even better, because the tenors couldn’t play brass instruments.”

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

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