Sam ShalabiThough he now splits his time between Montreal and Cairo, guitarist, oudist and composer Sam Shalabi was born in Libya to Egyptian parents. He and his family immigrated to Canada when he was five. He started his musical career in Montreal in the mid-90s, and has played guitar and oud with a number of different groups, including the critically acclaimed Shalabi Effect, which he has led since its inception in 1996.

On Saturday, March 24, Shalabi’s Land of Kush will play at the Aga Khan Museum as part of the institution’s Global Conversations Series, presented in partnership with the Music Gallery. Land of Kush is a large ensemble, with over 20 members slated to play at the Aga Khan, and will feature as special guest artists the Cairo-based musicians Nadah El Shazly (vocals) and Maurice Louca (keyboards), both of whom are frequent collaborators of Shalabi’s.

Land of Kush will be performing Shalabi’s Sand Enigma, the latest in a series of six large-scale compositions written specifically for the ensemble, three of which so far (Against The Day, Monogamy and The Big Mango) have been released by Montreal’s Constellation Records.

WN: Sand Enigma will have its world premiere here at the Aga Khan at the end of March?

SS: Yes.

So this will be the fourth release for Land of Kush, is that correct?

I think it’s going to be a release at some point… but it’s going to be logistically difficult to record it, that’s the only thing, because Maurice and Nadah … they live in Egypt, and they’re going to go back to Egypt, and so it’s going to be a bit difficult to record it. But in terms of the fourth piece, it’s not the fourth piece, actually. There’s actually six pieces, only three of which have been [recorded].

And so the last recording that was released would have been The Big Mango.

That’s right.

Nadah El Shazly - photo by Alan Chies

Two of the prominent themes [of] The Big Mango were gender and Arabic culture. I was wondering if those figured into Sand Enigma – and if not, what are some of the themes that came into play when you were writing and conceptualizing this work?

[Sand Enigma] is kind of an unusual piece, in that in some ways it’s probably the least explicit piece that I think I’ve done, partially because the piece … was meant to be a solo album. And so the pieces were kind of written in a weird way, [in that] they were not meant to be played by humans (laughs).

… [It] started its life first as pieces that I wanted to do with Nadah El Shazly, and then that didn’t really work out due to time, because we were working on her album. And then I thought, well, “I’m going to take these pieces and adapt them to a solo album,” because there is a kind of thematic continuity with the pieces. And then as I was working on it, I realized that it might be interesting to try something which I’ve never done before, which is to take solo pieces, and somehow try to adapt them for Kush, which took a little while to do for the reason that some of the music was not meant to be played by [other] people. So I had to simplify it and re-notate it and tweak it.

In terms of the theme, there is a theme to [Sand Enigma], but I’m kind of resistant to say what it is …[it’s] a kind of a mirror, in a way; the piece has kind of a mirror quality to it, to whoever is listening to it or experiencing it. That’s all I’ll say.

Kind of like a theme, or perhaps a collection of themes, that reveals itself within the actual performance of the piece [in front of] an audience?

Yes, exactly, exactly.

Maurice Louca

So what do [Maurice Louca and Nadah El Shazly] – the special guests for this particular performance – bring to this piece that’s unique, and maybe different than some of the previous things that you’ve done with this ensemble?

Well, they bring the sand (laughs). Part of it is a natural thing, I guess, a natural collaboration, and part of it is a desire of mine to have more of that [as] part of what I do in Kush. Since at least Monogamy, or just after Monogamy, I’ve been working with Maurice, and that’s become a big part of what I do. I play with him in two bands, and tour with him a lot, and we’ve collaborated a lot. And then Nadah, we’ve worked a lot in Egypt, and collaborated on her album, and collaborated on other things, and so… it [seemed] like a sort of natural progression to work with two musicians I love working with, and two friends. But the other part of it, I think, is that I can kind of do things with them that I might not necessarily be able to do without them, in that I can do more maqam … They just bring out another set of references that I have been working with in my solo stuff. In terms of the more Arabic, Egyptian sounds… it’s a little bit more foreign for a lot of the members of Kush to completely dive into that, so I think with Nadah and Maurice I was more free to write music that I knew, and in particular [music that] Nadah would be able to sing, because she’s used to singing stuff like that.

You’ve said about modern Egyptian classical ensembles that, even though they incorporate a fair number of Western sounds or Western instruments, they’re not exactly fusion ensembles; that they’re taking from other practices in order to evolve from within, to grow of their own volition. I was wondering if that’s an accurate description of Land of Kush, and what you think about the terms “fusion” and “world music.”

I think that the important thing is to do something that feels somewhat natural, and feels somewhat right. So I think that, in terms of the fusions, or the music, whatever I do obviously my Egyptian background and my Arabic background is a big part of it. But it’s not the only thing.

I think, basically, you have to have something interesting to say. It doesn’t necessarily have to be earth-shatteringly meaningful, but it should be something that at least for you, as a writer or as a musician, is interesting. And I think that requires delving into yourself, delving into why you would even have anything to say. And so to say that what I’m doing is fusion, or is world music, at this point, I don’t really care if people describe it as that. There’s stuff that I’ll do that sounds like it could be Western music, or stuff that I do that sounds like it’s completely Arabic music. I think the interesting thing for me is how to tap into something that is a synthesis of all that, that is already in myself or in an individual, and that feels or sounds not contrived, to myself and to whoever else is involved in it, or is listening to it.

I definitely need something to say … there has to be some reason. Hence the space between Kush pieces, why there’s a certain number of years between the pieces, and why we almost never do the same piece more than twice. We almost never perform these pieces more than once or twice, because I think they are kind of something that I need to do, as opposed to something that I feel like I should be doing.

And so that’s what it is. It’s sort of a re-engagement with who I am, as a writer, as a musician, a person, whatever; and trying to do that every time, if that makes sense. I don’t know if that makes sense (laughs).

Absolutely, it makes sense. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how someone else might describe it, what you’re trying to do is to create something that feels honest and relevant to you as an individual.

Yeah, exactly, exactly, exactly. And so those elements are there because those are interests that I have. They’re not conscious. If they were, it would be something that I would be less interested in.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at, on Instagram and on Twitter.

junobannerThe five composers who have works nominated in this year’s JUNO category for Classical Composition of the Year form a formidable group of mid-career Canadian creators: James Rolfe, Alice Ho, Andrew Staniland, Jocelyn Morlock and Vincent Ho. I first met them as emerging young composers through my work at CBC Radio; since then, all have developed into significant artists, shaping the future of Canadian composition. I recently asked each of them to frame their currently nominated piece in the context of their past and current work.

James RolfeJames Rolfe: When I first met James Rolfe (b.1961) he was a prize winner in the CBC/Radio-Canada National Competition for Young Composers in 1990, which I coordinated for CBC Radio. His winning composition, Four Songs on Poems by Walt Whitman for bass voice and piano, revealed early evidence of his gift for writing for the voice. In 1998, his opera Beatrice Chancy, commissioned by Queen of Puddings and the first of his ten operas, at the current count, introduced the vocal world to soprano Measha Brueggergosman.

Breathe James RolfeRolfe’s current JUNO-nominated composition Breathe was commissioned in 2010 by Soundstreams Canada. The impetus for the commission was to provide a new Canadian work for Soundstreams to bring together the vocalists in the European group, Trio Medieval, and the musicians of the Toronto Consort, directed by David Fallis. Breathe appears on a Centrediscs release, and also gives the CD its title. Rolfe says the JUNO nomination is welcome recognition for all the great artists who made this CD – writers, singers, musicians and production team. “The three pieces on it are dear to my heart: my collaborations with their writers (André Alexis, Anna Chatterton, Steven Heighton) led me to places I had never been – lyrical, emotional and playful places I still return to in my current work, places I can still find new means of expression, new ways to weave voices together.” In addition to Breathe (libretto by Anna Chatterton), the CD includes two dramatic Rolfe works commissioned by Toronto Masque Theatre, Europa (libretto by Steven Heighton) and Aeneas and Dido (libretto by André Alexis).

Towards the end of March, and just a few days after JUNO night, Rolfe’s newest opera The Overcoat will have its world premiere at the St. Lawrence Centre in a co-presentation by Canadian Stage and Tapestry. Morris Panych is the librettist, whose book is based on the short story of the same name by the 19th-century author Nicolai Gogol (1809–1852).

Alice Ping Yee HoAlice Ping Yee Ho: My first encounter with the music of Alice Ping Yee Ho (b.1960) was in 1994 and during another CBC Radio broadcast of a composers’ competition, when we broadcast her orchestral work, Ice Path from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s (WSO) New Music Festival. Ho’s work was a finalist in the WSO Canadian Composers’ Competition, and her music already bore the trademarks of her vividly colourful style.

Incarnatiion Duo Concertante contains Alice Ping Yee Hos Coeur a CoeurHo’s Glistening Pianos was nominated in the 2015 JUNO Classical Composition of the Year category, and her duo for violin and piano, Coeur à Coeur, is nominated in that same category this year. The work was written especially for the husband-and-wife team, Duo Concertante: violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves. Ho explains: “The idea of the commission came at a sushi dinner in Toronto, with the idea of a composition about Nancy and Tim’s life. Their beautiful story of two lovers and artists struggling and pursuing their dreams is real and inspiring. The element of writing from the heart becomes something I cherish in my ongoing works, regardless of styles or genre.” The recording is on a CD titled Incarnation on the Marquis label.

Alice Ho recently completed a children’s opera with librettist Marjorie Chan, The Monkiest King, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus. Public performances of the opera will be at the Lyric Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts on May 26 and 27. Ho’s most recent recording will be launched shortly after JUNO night. It’s a CD of her chamber music titled The Mysterious Boot, featuring flutist Susan Hoeppner, cellist Winona Zelenka and pianist Lydia Wong on the Centrediscs label.

Andrew StanilandAndrew Staniland (b.1977) was the second winner of the Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music at the U of T Faculty of Music in 2003 for his composition for clarinet, cello and electronic sounds, titled Tapestry. From its inception in 2002, a component of the Kieser prize (for the first ten years it was awarded) was a broadcast of the winning work on CBC Radio Two. This was how I met Andrew. Just a few years later, in 2009, he became the Grand Prize winner in the first and only CBC/Radio-Canada Evolution Young Composers Competition at the Banff Centre.

Encount3rs Rencontr3s containing Andrew Stanilands Phi CoelestisLast year, Staniland’s Dark Star Requiem (with librettist Jill Battson) was nominated in two JUNO categories: Best Classical Album, Vocal or Choral; and Classical Composition of the Year. This year he’s once again nominated in that latter category for his ballet score, Phi Caelestis. The ballet was commissioned by the National Arts Centre for Alberta Ballet and choreographer Jean Grand-Maître. It’s one of three new ballets created through an initiative called Encount3rs that paired three composers, three choreographers and three ballet companies. All three ballets have been recorded on an Analekta CD titled Encount3rs Rencontr3s. Staniland had this to say about the nomination: “Phi Caelestis is a work that is very dear to my heart, as it represents one of the most rewarding collaborations I have ever experienced involving choreographer Jean Grand-Maître, conductor and artistic director Alexander Shelley and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Further, I have much admiration and respect for each and every one of my fellow nominees, which makes this nomination extra special. We have wonderful composers in Canada!”

Staniland told me his next project is “to compose a new piece for five choirs! The premiere is at Podium in St. John’s on Canada Day 2018. But this month I am extra excited about the upcoming Newfoundland and Labrador tourism campaign, a part of which
I wrote the music for. The video, featuring the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, will be released in March and it looks absolutely superb. I can’t wait to share it.”

Jocelyn MorlockJocelyn Morlock (b.1969) came to prominence in 2002 when we submitted her Lacrimosa as CBC Radio’s entry to the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. Lacrimosa was voted one of the top ten works presented that year, and it was subsequently broadcast in over 20 countries. In 2003 she received the Canadian Music Centre Prairie Region Emerging Composer Award at the WSO New Music Festival. In 2004, the Vancouver vocal group Musica Intima commissioned her work, Exaudi for solo cello and voices, for performance with the renowned British cello soloist, Steven Isserlis. The recording of the work on the ATMA label garnered a JUNO nomination for Classical Composition of the Year in 2011. In 2014 Morlock became composer-in-residence with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO).

Life ReflectedThis year, Jocelyn’s JUNO nomination for Classical Composition of the Year is for a recording with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) on the Analekta label on a disc called Life Reflected. Her work is titled My Name is Amanda Todd. Morlock told me, “My Name is Amanda Todd is very different from my other work in some ways. It is a very specific piece about the strength and power of a young woman in the face of cyberbullying, and it is a collaboration with maestro Alexander Shelley and the NACO and with Amanda’s mother, Carol Todd. It was my intent to write music that could show how bright and wonderful a person Amanda was, rather than only focus on the idea that she was just a victim, because she was so much more than that. Amanda, and her mother Carol (who founded the Amanda Todd Legacy and works tirelessly to promote awareness around cyberbullying, internet safety and mental wellness), are heroes.” The work was commissioned by NACO as part of a full program of multimedia works reflecting on the lives of four heroic Canadian women and their journeys to find their individual voices. Morlock said: “What My Name is Amanda Todd has in common with my other work is my desire to connect with listeners on an emotional level.”

Morlock is currently completing two commissions, one from the Vancouver Cantata Singers and the other for the VSO. The latter work, O Rose, will celebrate Bramwell Tovey’s final concert as VSO music director this June, and will share that concert with the Mahler Resurrection Symphony.

Vincent Ho - Photo by Hans ArnoldVincent Ho (b.1975) was studying for his master’s degree at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, when his String Quartet No.1 was presented at the Massey Hall New Music Festival and broadcast on CBC Radio Two in the year 2000. The recording we made for that broadcast on the CBC Radio Two network program, Two New Hours, was leased by Skylark Music and became part of Ho’s debut CD in 2007. This was the same year that Ho became composer-in-residence for the WSO. He held that post for seven years, a prolific time for him, as he produced several important works, including his Arctic Symphony and The Shaman, a concerto for the acclaimed Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and orchestra. In 2009 he won the Audience Prize in the CBC/Radio-Canada Evolution Competition for Young Composers for his work Nature Whispers.

The Shaman Arctic SymphonyThe WSO, conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, Dame Evelyn Glennie and the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Performers recorded the Arctic Symphony and The Shaman for broadcasts on CBC Radio Two. Those broadcasts were leased by the WSO, remastered for Centrediscs, and released last year. That release is nominated in the category of Classical Album of the Year: Large Ensemble, and Ho himself is nominated in the Classical Composition of the Year category for The Shaman. Ho says, “Being nominated for a JUNO is a tremendous honour for any Canadian musician. It means I am being recognized for my work. For me, there are two kinds of recognition: external and internal. This upcoming JUNO event is an external recognition, and for that I am extremely honoured. When something like this happens it makes me stop and reflect on the long journey that brought me here. This is where the internal recognition comes in. As an artist I am very process-oriented, meaning that my creative work is an ongoing journey of self-discovery and growth manifested in musical form.”

Ho comments about the work itself, “The Shaman was written seven years ago and it was the product of my musical thinking and circumstances surrounding my life at the time – I was in my third year as the WSO’s composer-in-residence, it was my first concerto for an internationally recognized artist, and my career was just starting off. Due to the importance of the commission, I put my heart and soul into the creation of the work, aiming to deliver the best possible product I could create.”

Ho is currently the new music advisor to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the Artistic Director of Land’s End Ensemble. He continues to be busy with numerous commissions.

The JUNO jury will select one Classical Composition of the Year for 2018; all five of these Canadian composers have done the work to be worthy of the accolade.

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

Bryan Holt (left) and Amahl Arulanandam. Photo by Alice Hong.When I visit Toronto cellists Amahl Arulanandam and Bryan Holt in rehearsal, the first thing that I get is a warning. 

“We’re already talking over each other,” they say, laughing. “You’re going to have to just look at
one of us. Or point.”

It’s a testament to the type of eagerness – the kind of warmth and energy – that they bring to their music. As much as they are colleagues, Arulanandam and Holt – together, cello duo VC2 – are clearly friends. They also clearly care, in a very earnest way, about what they do.

And it’s an enthusiasm that’s catching. Since its founding in 2015, VC2 has performed across the country and internationally, including appearances last year at the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Festival, Ottawa Chamberfest and the soundSCAPE Festival in Maccagno, Italy. This month, they’ll be playing a duo program on February 2 at designer Rosemarie Umetsu’s Yamaha Recital Space in Toronto, before taking the program on a two-week tour to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland with Debut Atlantic. Once they’re back in Toronto, they’ll play another duo set March 2 at the Music Gallery at 918 Bathurst, in a double bill with violin/percussion group Duo Holz. And following that, they head (slightly) eastward again, to reprise their tour program on March 18 at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Belleville, Ontario.

The program for the tour, and for the February 2 concert preceding it, is based around the idea of Beethoven. More accurately, it zeroes in on three cellist-composers of Beethoven’s time – Anton Kraft, Bernhard Romberg and Jean-Louis Duport – who operated in Beethoven’s inner circle, and whose music influenced Beethoven’s own. They’ve also commissioned five new works, from five modern-day Canadian cellist-composers, that take Beethoven’s five cello sonatas as their inspiration.

Arulanandam and Holt pride themselves on what they call a “multi-genre” performance practice. Both having studied under Matt Haimovitz at McGill and with Shauna Rolston in Toronto, they’re now voracious musical generalists: chamber musicians, but also new music specialists, and between them, fans of jazz, world music and heavy metal.

Here, it all comes to the fore: classical masterworks by Beethoven paired with the lesser-known music of his contemporaries, plus new music by five cellists – Fjola Evans, Hunter Coblentz, Raphael Weinroth-Browne, Matt Brubeck and Andrew Downing – whose influences span far beyond that scope. It’s a series of constellations that together form an image of Beethoven and his friends as inventors and innovators – and of this present-day group of cellists as modern incarnations of the same.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Let’s talk about your upcoming show, “Beethoven’s Cellists.” How did that idea start?

Arulanandam: Part of it had to do with Bryan’s doctoral thesis research on cello pedagogy. He came across the names of these cellists who all were very deeply linked to Beethoven.

Holt: All these guys who were around Beethoven weren’t only phenomenal cellists, they also were inventors of a kind. Romberg, who was one of Beethoven’s earliest colleagues, is actually the whole reason why the cello’s fingerboard has this sort of divot in it for the C-string to vibrate.

A: There were a bunch of actual equipment innovations that they came up with. The modern bow that we use was invented right around that time; Beethoven would’ve first come across it with Romberg.

I was reading recently about how that bow really influenced Beethoven’s cello writing. If you look at his first two cello sonatas, you’ll see a lot of long slurs and phrases that, with old-style Baroque or transitional bows, wouldn’t really have been possible. And so he would’ve met these cellists with all this new equipment, and started really exploring extremes of colour and dynamic range for the cello in a way that composers hadn’t done before.

H: I think that’s what made him such a great composer, in the end. Because Beethoven’s all about experimentation, and contrast. In Opus 1, he’s already experimenting with extremes. And by Opus 5, he’s already “Beethoven.”

Amahl Arulanandam (left) and Bryan Holt. Photo by Alice Hong.How did you first present the idea to Debut Atlantic?

A: We applied to Debut Atlantic two years ago – two seasons in advance, for them.

H: And it was very much just a skeleton [at the time]. We’d identified these composers [from Beethoven’s time], and we decided that we were going to commission cellists to write new works. But we hadn’t assigned pieces to individual people. So over the last couple of years we sort of figured out how that was going to go. And we scheduled the concert at Atelier Umetsu over a year ago, because we knew we were going to have the tour and that this was going to be the big jumping-off point.

What really struck me about the program for the tour was that it seems like a perfect microcosm of how you describe yourselves as a duo – taking these classic masterworks and finding the contemporary parallels.

A: That’s what we were going for. A lot of our MO as a duo – and even individually – is sort of reinventing the old. Because that stuff is still great. There’s a lot of amazing music being made now that has nothing to do with any of that, but I don’t think it takes away from how important and necessary music [like Romberg’s] was. They were breaking new ground in that time. They helped Beethoven break new ground. And we felt like the people we commissioned are people who are also constantly pushing boundaries in terms of the cello. They’re all doing their own thing; they’re all completely different.

How did you settle on those five composers? Were you just looking for Canadian composer-slash-cellists, and that ends up being a short list?

A: There are more than you would think!

H: It still wasn’t a super long list. But with all of them we had a history, or at least one of us did. Fjola Evans and I went to high school together and had the same teacher. And then Hunter Coblentz – Amahl’s known him since he was little.

A: Hunter came to mind immediately because we had played a duo of his that he wrote – one of the first non-pop tunes that we ever did. And we picked Raphael because we loved his music, and because he and I both really connect [because of our interest] in metal. The second Beethoven sonata is like – really, really, heavy metal. Like it’s metal before metal. And Raphael was the first guy that sort of jumped out when we were thinking about that sonata.

H: And then with Andrew and Matt, we both worked with them in the jazz context. I think we both had lessons with Andrew at some point. And we’ve both taken lessons with Matt Brubeck, to learn how to improvise on the cello.

Amahl Arulanandam (left) and Bryan Holt. Photo by Alice Hong.Have you two been playing together for a long time?

A: We’ve known each other for a long time, and we’ve played together in other contexts, other chamber ensembles and cello ensembles. But we’d never really played together as a duo. A few years ago, Bryan got contacted by a friend of a friend who was an event planner and was looking for a cello duo to do some Michael Jackson and Guns N’ Roses, that kind of stuff. So we got together and did that. And it was fun. And did a few more of those, and realized “Hey, we work well together in this context. Let’s see what else is out there.”

We started off as a cover band, and then–

H: –We’re still a cover band.

A: –We’re still a cover band. Just of different stuff.

How has your process changed over the last couple of years of playing and rehearsing together?

H: I think we’ve become a lot more efficient at rehearsing. It was a little too much like best friends hanging out, at the beginning. And [we’ve become] better at delegating tasks between the two of us. We’ve figured out each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

A: With rehearsing – it just gets more efficient each time. The last few rehearsals we’ve had, we’ve kind of just gone with it, and before we realized it, two and a half hours had gone by. We’re now more able to separate the business and being friends...and we can get things done. Quicker.

After the Music Gallery, what’s next?

A: We’ve thrown all of our focus at this right now. But we also have these germs of ideas that we need to put into motion. We’re hoping to go into the studio in April and record all five of these commissioned works. We want to put those down and release an album.

H: There are also a few commissions [in the works], and some possibilities of projects with dance as well. And there are other cellist-composers [who we plan to work with]. We’ve been in touch with a couple others, whose names I won’t reveal – but there are a lot of possibilities. This is only the beginning.

VC2 presents “Beethoven’s Cellists” on February 2 at the Yamaha Recital Space at Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu, Toronto, followed by a two-week tour in Atlantic Canada.
For tour dates, visit

Sara Constant is a flutist and music writer, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be reached at

Laila Biali“Humber at 50: A Celebration Through Music” took place on the evening of January 17 at the RCM’s Koerner Hall, just under 20 kilometres east of Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus, which houses their Creative and Performing Arts school.

The choice to host the event at Koerner Hall was wise, for multiple reasons. The first: Koerner, with a capacity of 1135, was almost completely full, with current Humber students, faculty, staff and alumni comprising a significant portion of the audience. The second: from each level of Koerner’s lobby, attendees had a clear view of the CN Tower, which was lit up in Humber’s blue and gold colours. Not immediately visible, but equally illuminated, was the Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square, which was visited during the day by Mayor Tory for a photo op with the Humber Hawk, the college’s mascot.

Although the event was a celebration – through music – of the 50th anniversary of Humber College as a whole, it also served as a de facto celebration of Humber’s music program, which was established in 1972, following the founding of the college by a mere five years. This predates the beginning of jazz courses at the University of Toronto, which were first introduced in the 1979/1980 academic year. With the exception of special guest artist Kurt Elling – who, in fairness, has worked and performed with Humber students in the past, as part of the school’s annual artist-in-residence initiative – the evening’s performers were all faculty and alumni of the music program. Moreover, eight of the program’s 14 pieces were either arranged or composed by faculty and alumni.

The proceedings were emceed by Garvia Bailey, host of JAZZFM.91’s Good Morning, Toronto, and the performances were structured in roughly chronological stylistic order. The first half of the concert was played by the Humber Faculty Big Band, led by Denny Christianson, the director of the music program, and began with Arlen and Mercer’s 1942 hit That Old Black Magic. Arranged by trombonist Al Kay – who was in attendance, although unable to play, due to an injury – the song featured trumpeter John MacLeod, who was amongst Humber’s early graduates in the mid 1970s, and Ted Quinlan, head of the Guitar Department. Next up was Duke Ellington’s Fantazm, arranged by John LaBarbera, with an excellent performance by Pat LaBarbera, whose soprano sax was balanced and exciting both in his treatment of the melody and in his solo, and by Nancy Walker, whose self-possessed, evocative playing was particularly well-suited to the eerie solo piano section in the arrangement’s middle section.

Following the beautiful 3/4 Calendula – composed by, and featuring, tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald – special guest vocalist Kurt Elling joined the big band for the remaining four songs of the set, beginning with Mike Abene’s decidedly Lydian treatment of Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out. Elling is a confident, natural performer, whose easy command of the stage drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd when he started singing the standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, which featured a bluesy, muted cornet solo from MacLeod, and an athletic guitar solo from Quinlan. I Like The Sunrise – another Abene arrangement, with lyrics by Elling – paired Elling with Brian O’Kane, in a winning turn on flugelhorn. The set ended with Tutti for Cootie,  a swinging, medium-tempo piece that switched between minor and major, and served as a showcase for the talents of bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Larnell Lewis.

Elling – Grammy-winning, DownBeat Critics’ Poll-topping, Obama Administration White House-performing – is a star, and maintains a far-reaching international tour schedule. It is a testament to the calibre of the Humber Faculty Big Band, and to Elling himself, that his appearance in the first set felt like a real collaboration, and never, as can sometimes be the case in such situations, like a hired gun going through the motions. As mentioned above, Elling has a history with the program, and both he and the band exemplified a dedication to excellence, a generosity of spirit, and an engaging sense of fun that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

After a brief intermission, the second half of the concert commenced with Rik Emmett (of Triumph and later solo fame) and Dave Dunlop performing their instrumental piece Red Hot. Emmett and Dunlop have been frequent collaborators, and the two have performed as the duo Strung-Out Troubadours since their eponymous debut album was released in 2006. Emmett introduced the next song – Triumph’s popular 1981 hit Magic Power – by opining, to ample cheers, that the Humber faculty has always stood for the “magic power of the music.” Following Emmett and Dunlop, singer-pianist Laila Biali took the stage to perform her funky, odd-metre original Upside Down, with the help of Lewis, bassist Rich Brown and the horn section of Colleen Allen, Shirantha Beddage, Brian O’Kane and Kelsley Grant. Elling and Pat LaBarbera returned to the stage to join Biali for Randy Bachman’s Undun, on which LaBarbera took, perhaps, his most compelling solo of the evening.

rinsethealgorithm at The Rex (from left): Larnell Lewis (drums), Luis Deniz (alto sax), Robi Botos (piano) and Rich Brown (electric bass)Rich Brown’s rinsethealgorithm were up next, taking the stage to perform Brown’s melancholy Promessa, on which the bandleader-bassist took a beautiful, compelling solo. Brown is a masterful player, with a rare combination of great tone, time, melodic sense, and tastefully deployed chops, and it is fitting that rinsethealgorithm – a band lovingly emulated by Toronto jazz students in practise rooms for well over ten years now – had a place of prominence on the bill. Forward Motion, their second song, showcased the remarkable talents of saxophonist Luis Deniz and pianist Jeremy Ledbetter, in addition to a thrilling drum solo by Larnell Lewis. Lewis – a recent Grammy winner with the American band Snarky Puppy, Humber alumnus, and current faculty member – is a joy to listen to, and, it should be noted, was on stage for 12 of the evening’s 14 songs, sounding just as comfortable playing big band swing as he did playing rinsethealgorithm’s fusion-forward repertoire.

It should be noted that Humber has four distinct music programs: a BMus in Jazz and Commercial Music, a Certificate in Jazz Performance, a Graduate Certificate in Music Business and a Graduate Certificate in Music Composition. Enrolled in these four programs are approximately 400 students, whose training, provided by “a faculty of 17 full-time and 80 part-time teachers,” includes “performance, production, songwriting and composition in jazz, pop, R&B, Latin and world music.” It is imperative for a good music program to foster both individual talents and to create a productive, healthy community in which these talents can thrive; the success of the former cannot, generally, exist without the health of the latter. In this regard, Humber seems to be performing admirably: as 2016 JUNO Award-winning alumna Allison Au puts it, Humber succeeded in providing her with “an incredible network of musical mentors and peers,” and gave her “the tools and confidence to find [her] own voice in both composition and performance.”

In addition to its postsecondary music program, Humber’s School of Creative and Performing Arts operates the Community Music School, founded in 1980, and “originally established to offer children and youth an alternative form of music education to traditional classical lessons.” The Community Music School is a rarity in the Canadian educational landscape; while analogous programs exist within the classical world, such as the RCM’s Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists, pre-college mentorship opportunities for students interested in jazz and commercial music – beyond, of course, private lessons – are somewhat limited. These opportunities are typically found in high school band programs, or in ensembles associated with music festivals, such as the National Youth Jazz Combo and the Conn-Selmer Centerstage Jazz Band (MusicFest Canada), or the TD Jazz Youth Summit at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. (The JAZZFM.91 Youth Big Band, a free weekly program for qualifying students, is also an important group.) But the Community Music School, which, for senior students, has weekly private lessons, faculty-guided small ensembles and instruction on improvisation, provides the kind of scaled-down college environment that prepares students for success in post-secondary music-program studies.

Programming an event like Humber at 50 is challenging, as administrators must balance artistic concerns with the necessity to showcase a representative cross-section of institutional talent. While the Humber Faculty Big Band played the full first set, the second-set acts – Rik Emmett, Laila Biali, and rinsethealgorithm – played two songs each before passing the baton, detracting (probably inevitably) from the concert’s momentum. And yet, as the concert progressed, the importance of the programmatic variety became clear.

Neil Young’s Heart of Gold was billed as the “Grand Finale” – a kind of built-in encore, as Bailey reminded the audience during the standing ovation that followed – and with Biali, Elling, Brown, Lewis, Emmett and the horn section of LaBarbera, Allen and Beddage, it served as an intergenerational, genre-fusing representation of the music program as a whole. While the description may seem like a cliché, the Humber music program really does give every indication that its strength lies in its diversity: by giving students both a solid grounding in tradition and the encouragement to create new works, the school has created a strong community of musicians who are doing great things.

As the concert drew to a close, it became clear that there was another important benefit of hosting the celebration at Koerner Hall: the central location, amongst older institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto, and the Royal Conservatory itself, served as an apt reminder that Humber College – at a comparatively young 50 years – has achieved remarkable success in a relatively short amount of time.


Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Ēriks Ešenvalds“Overpow’ring light burst upon my startled senses!” 
– Northern Lights, Ēriks Ešenvalds

At a certain point in the blended storytelling, music, and video multimedia monument Ēriks Ešenvalds calls Nordic Light Symphony, he has singers wet their fingers, running them against the rims of glasses filled with various amounts of water. The movement causes ethereal pitches and overtones, evoking one of the greatest natural phenomena beyond our planet - the Aurora Borealis.

The Aurora Borealis has long captured the imagination of Ešenvalds, as it has countless others for millennia. This striking magnetic effect, also known as the Northern Lights, is inseparable from the people who live in the Northern regions of the planet. Stories, spirituality and life itself have been built around and through these stellar experiences. But they are a visual experience, without sound. “Keep in mind this is the Earth’s largest atmospheric optical phenomenon,” Ešenvalds told Inga Ozola of Latvian Public Broadcasting. “When it overcomes the starry skies above you, your vision alone cannot take it all in.”

Ešenvalds comes to Toronto as part of a visit organized by the Orpheus Choir of Toronto for the Canadian premiere of his Nordic Light Symphony. Premiered in 2015 with the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and State Choir Latvija, conducted by Māris Sirmais, the work was awarded the Latvian Grand Music Award, the highest musical honour of the composer’s home country. This was Ešenvalds’ third time receiving the award for choral compositions in his career.

Laura Adlers, of the Ottawa-based Adlers Agency, is a core part of the team that has led to Ešenvalds coming to Canada. She was with him in 2015 when he gave the keynote at the Singing Network in St John’s, Newfoundland (and kissed the cod, which as the story goes makes him an official Newfoundlander). A lot of what interests him is the “connection of nature and faith,” sentiments well-shared with inhabitants of The Rock. Nature strongly shapes his musical and creation process; and he is incredibly careful with his craft. “I have learned first to find the idea or story of the piece,” he said in an interview with choral conductor, composer and music journalist Andrea Angelini on her website. “Then I go to the library to find perfectly suitable lyrics; and only then I have my nibbled pencil and a blank music sheet and at my piano I compose the piece.”

Nordic Light was an expedition of love. The work is the result of four years of research and the culmination of a very careful thought process inherent in his unique approach to storytelling. Overlapping with a two-year appointment at Trinity College, Cambridge University, UK, completed in 2013, Ešenvalds studied 150 books and spoke with experts on the Aurora Borealis. “I was fascinated by their dimensions, the versatility of their colours, and forms, and the mystical legends rooted in Northern folklore (including folksongs),” he said on Part of Nordic Light relies on the storytellers themselves as part of the multimedia experience of the narrative. By video, 22 storytellers bring life to the music directly from the North from the Iñupiat and Inuit peoples, and people from Iceland, Latvia, Finland, Norway, and Estonia. In total, Nordic Light explores 33 distinct stories about the lights.

In a TEDx Talk given in Riga, Ešenvalds explains the diverse stories he learned. He acknowledges that many of these stories are gone, lost: “The unique cultural heritage had disappeared.” Yet, a multitude of stories remain in many places where the lights are perceived and mythologized. Latvian skies rarely see the lights, but they are not unknown. Folklore tells stories of fallen warriors continuing their fights across the sky. To some, it is a giant fox jumping around, throwing the lights up into the sky along with the snow. For others, it is spirits playing soccer. Some of the stories are more sinister: if you whistle at the lights, they’ll chop your head off.

Robert Cooper, conductor of Orpheus, is a strong supporter of Ešenvalds. In 2011, one of Cooper’s singers returned from a trip to Latvia with a pile of Ešenvalds’ music, a name that was virtually unknown at the time outside of Latvia. “I was so intrigued by his music,” says Cooper, “especially his longer piece Passion and Resurrection, unlike his other smaller works. I’m always looking for extended works for Orpheus and this was dramatic and theatric with semi-chorus and a demanding soprano line.” Cooper performed the Passion in 2011 and again in 2013, with Ešenvalds visiting the second time as his popularity increased.

Cooper recalls: “Ēriks started telling me about this story, about all the stories around Nordic Light and I was very intrigued.” Orpheus joined with the Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union, the State Choir of Latvia, the Berlin Radio Choir, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and chorus, and the City of London Sinfonia to commission the Symphony.

With Ešenvalds himself coming, many choral educators and groups across the region became interested in having him workshop. The program has evolved to incorporate various regions, multiple choirs and several Canadian cities, all made possible by the incredible support of Latvian Canadians, but also as part of Latvia’s international celebrations of 100 years of independence. As Ešenvalds’ popularity has grown, so too has that of Riga-based music publisher Musica Baltica. Distributed internationally under Edition Peters, Musica Baltica will be touring with Ešenvalds as a lead in the centenary celebrations and were a key partner in this tour.

Ešenvalds is particularly excited about his visits to universities along the trip. He will be visiting Mark Vuorinen, at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo (February 26); Jean-Sébastien Vallée, at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University (February 27); and John Armstrong at the University of Ottawa (February 28). Ešenvalds himself is an educator, having studied at the Latvian Academy of Music where he now teaches, since completing his Cambridge University residency.

In Toronto, the Orpheus Choir and That Choir are joined by their music directors – Bob Cooper and Craig Pike, respectively – for the Nordic Light Gala performance. Pike says: “Rehearsing Ešenvalds works, apart from being incredibly fulfilling, challenges us spiritually, musically and existentially.” Both ensembles are enjoying the experience. “He writes with a great deal of depth. There’s a quiet inner spirit,” shares Cooper. “You know that something is happening behind his notes that he has really considered.”

Prior to the performance, there will be the Canadian premiere of the documentary Nordic Light: A Composer’s Diary followed by a one-on-one with Ešenvalds. Over the course of the visit, Ešenvalds will engage with audiences and musicians from Kitchener to Toronto, Ottawa to Montreal. He’ll be back in Canada for Podium 2018 in St John’s, Newfoundland.

Composers of Ešenvalds’ calibre are rare finds; evocative storytellers at heart who listen to the world a little differently than the rest of us. And in listening, they can create a palette of sounds that evoke amazing things – the popping of the trees in deep cold, the wind over the land, the sounds of birds in the pitch black of night, and the especially powerful sound of hearing whales breathing in the fjords of Iceland – things heard and recreated in music by Ešenvalds. In many ways, Nordic Light is an act of listening, translated through Ešenvalds’ unique way of hearing the world.

Toronto Events

A Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Wednesday February 21, 2018, 7pm. St John’s Evangelical Latvian Lutheran Church, Toronto.

Canadian Premiere of Nordic Light: A Composer’s Diary and One-on-One with Ēriks Ešenvalds. Saturday February 24, 2018, 3pm. Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

Nordic Light Gala Concert featuring the Canadian Premiere of the Nordic Light Symphony. Saturday February 24, 2018, 7:30pm. Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.


A Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Monday February 26, 2018, 7pm. Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo.


Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Tuesday February 27, 2018, 7:30pm. Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal.


A Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Wednesday February 28, 2018, 7pm. St Joseph’s Church, Ottawa.


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