2208 Jumblies Banner2208 Feat JumbliesIn the well-known Edward Lear nonsense poem from which Jumblies Theatre derives its name, the Jumblies set sail in search of adventure, less than adequately provisioned. As the end of the opening stanza has it: 

 Far and few, far and few,

 Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

 Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

 And they went to sea in a Sieve.

You can see where, as an image, this would have captured the imagination of Ruth Howard, almost 20 years ago, precisely because of the great and glorious impracticality of it all. How fine to be launching an arts venture which almost by its inherent design would be nigh impossible to keep afloat following the usual professionalized arts rules: one-, two- and three-year business plans; spit-spot arts management; immutable calendar-based deadlines for shows and grants and budget reports.

Howard and I met in late April in The WholeNote podcast studio, to talk about a current Jumblies’ project, titled Touching Ground Festival. Official start and end dates for Touching Ground are May 13 to June 23, but its tendrils extend backwards in time, more than a decade, and its potential offshoots extend just as many years into the future, because of the astonishingly dense web of community-based, social and artistic connections, that go into every project this remarkable organization undertakes.

Just the description of Touching Ground in Jumblies’ own releases about the festival, speaks to this layered complexity: A suite of new works inspired by three years of exploring themes of Toronto’s layered and Indigenous histories and present landscapes. All works and events feature community members as art-makers, singers, dancers and performers, and many artists from Jumblies and our offshoots and partners.

The range of activities encompasses installations, audio tours, newly created short films and discussions about them, photographic and art exhibitions, dance and creative explorations, open art-making drop-ins, a work-in-progress musical, a comic book launch, and other workshops and presentations.

And there is music everywhere, lots of it, including: the ongoing involvement of Jumblies own “mixed-ability choir” directed by Shifra Cooper; Métis fiddle tunes by Alyssa Delbaere Sawchuk; a new choral work by Martin van de Ven, with original songs by Rosary Spence, inspired by and running concurrently with an installation about Toronto’s Treaty histories and current implications.

Of particular note, in terms of The WholeNote’s usual musical preoccupations, on Saturday and Sunday, June 3 and 4 at the Evergreen Brick Works, will be a performance titled Four Lands presented with Continuum Contemporary Music, and including new musical works created by composers Jason Doell and Juliet Palmer. Palmer is no stranger to Jumblies’ ways of working, having been the composer for the community play, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, that was the culmination, in 2011, of Jumblies’ four- year community arts residency in East Scarborough.

The range of venues announced so far is as wide-ranging and eclectic as the range of activities: the Ground Floor (Jumblies new City Place street-level home base/studio, just east of Bathurst and north of the Gardiner); the previously mentioned Evergreen Brick Works; the new Fort York branch of the Toronto Public Library; under the Gardiner; Canoe Landing Park;  Historic Fort York; and Cedar Ridge Creative Centre in Scarborough, which exists as a legacy project of Jumblies’ earlier East Scarborough community play project.

In all this welter of facts it’s hard to get a fix on what makes this festival a cohesive “thing,” a bit like trying to figure out what it is that made Edward Lear’s Jumblies sieve a boat! The answer to that lies partially in looking back at the “thing” called “the community play” an idea developed by English theatre professionals-turned activists Ann Jellicoe and Jon Oram and exported to Canada right at the start of the 1990s. Dale Hamilton’s Spirit of Shivaree which took place in the ruins of the Old Woolen Mill in Rockwood, Ontario, was the first instance of community play principles put into practice here, and it was in Rockwood that Ruth Howard caught the bug. She talks about it interestingly and at length in our podcast interview so I’ll be brief here. Basically the community play involves going into a community for no less than 24 months for the purpose of creating a theatre work on an epic scale, about, with and for that community, based on “wholehearted social inclusion” of everyone who wants to get involved, and a commitment to ongoing rewriting of the script so that everyone who wants a part can have one. And just as important, to bring to the undertaking the same professional commitment, resources and aesthetic standards as to any professional production. 

For Jellicoe and Oram, the community play movement almost by definition entailed a retreat from large urban centres. Howard’s efforts have taken an intriguingly different path, seeking out the living smaller communities within the megacity, disempowered by amalgamation: Mabelle and Dundas in Etobicoke; Lawrence Heights; Davenport-Perth; East Scarborough: each in turn became home base for Jumblies for three or four years at a time, while the community itself crafted the story that needed to be told there.

In the final stanza of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies, after “twenty years or more” the Jumblies reach dry land, safe at home again: “And everyone said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!’”

“Tall” might not be quite the right word, but with Touching Ground, one senses that Jumblies has moved, in some ways, beyond its community play roots but without abandoning their principles.

The company’s extraordinary Train of Thought project in 2015 saw them travel west to east across Canada: 70 artists, two and a half months, 25 stops, hundreds of participants – following the railway, finding stories, abandoning the railway in the places where the railway has done the abandoning “so sometimes a minivan convoy of thought, sometimes a chartered bus of thought, whatever it took. Starting before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee but catching up with each other as we went.” What made that project possible, Howard says, was the three years of outreach that went into it, community by community, not just arriving on the scene. Ideas and artifacts born of that tour are everywhere to be found in Touching Ground.

Another big change for Jumblies is, for the first time, having a viable urban base (albeit in a faceless new urban neighbourhood struggling for an identity) to use as the “Ground Floor” from which to launch its forays. A third, and perhaps most thought-provoking change, is in the kind of partnership the Four Lands performances at the Evergreen Brick Works represent: partnerships, encouraged by arts agencies, with established, “shipshape” organizations like Continuum, and others. It will be interesting to see as, and if, these partnerships evolve over the years, who benefits more from the association. Expertise in keeping sieves afloat is no small talent in these artistically troubled times.

For more details on the Touching Ground Festival as it develops visit touchinggroundfestival.ca

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

2208 Feat Choristers BannerAs someone who sings, I can’t imagine my life without choral music in it. For many people this is a true statement. Dedicating time to sing invigorates, relaxes, strengthens and builds the body and mind. Every day there are countless articles being shared about the value of choral ensemble and the physical and mental benefits. In this month of choral celebration in The WholeNote, I’ve assembled six stories from choristers in choirs across the region. Taken together they are suggestive of the gorgeous choral tapestry of music and ensemble in our region. Moreover, they tell the same story – how choral music fulfills the need to share and be part of a greater whole.

For those of you who have never sung in a choir, choral music is unlike other forms of music. Humans have a fundamental, instinctual reaction to the sound of other human voices. Whether it’s Whitney Houston, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or Pentatonix – we all relate to the sound of human voices raised in song. There’s something incredibly powerful about joining voices together to create something so much greater than one person could ever hope to do alone. The metaphorical and physical power of this expression of music is unlike anything else. Don’t be afraid to try!

For those of you who do sing in a choir, take a moment when you are singing next. Don’t sing. Just have a look around at what is happening: listen, take it in. Even for a moment, this is why you are here, not just for yourself, but to share with all these other people.

Finally, for those of you who like choral or classical music, keep coming to concerts and donate. Choral music is the only major performing arts medium that does not pay its primary artists – the choristers. With the exception of a handful of choirs like Tafelmusik, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Elora Festival Singers, the vast majority of choristers you see on stage are doing it for free. They don’t derive a penny of profit, and in most cases pay to be part of the ensemble. Choral music cannot exist without an audience and you are more important to this process that you can imagine.

 

Kayla StephensonKayla Stephenson

Alto, Florivox

“One of the main reasons why I chose Florivox over other ensembles in the city is that it is a non-audition choir,” shares Kayla Stephenson. “I had not been part of a choir for over a decade prior to Florivox so I was a little apprehensive about…well everything! My first rehearsal included a lot of confusion, wrong notes and questionable rhythms. But despite all that, I was welcomed and encouraged to keep pursuing my interest in singing. Florivox members have been very supportive and have helped me to develop my singing abilities over the past several years.”

Kayla gets to the root fear of a lot of people interested in choral music – the dreaded audition. Florivox, Univox and a host of other great non-auditioned choirs in the city can help navigate this space. Not every choir needs to perform at the level of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Choirs at every level are representative of the diversity of experience and music in our city. The Univox and Florivox families are great examples of inclusive music-making.

Stephenson tells us more about the unique approach the choir takes. “Each year, Florivox has a weekend retreat,” she shares. “We pile in our cars and head north of the city, for a weekend of singing and socializing! One evening, before dinner, each choir performed a piece we had learned earlier that day. Standing in a beautiful cabin-style hall, overlooking a peaceful Muskoka lake, here we were performing a piece together as a choir after just a few short hours of rehearsal. I will never forget the sense of accomplishment and happiness I felt singing to our fellow choristers.”

 

Francine Labelle Peggy LampotangFrancine Labelle

Soprano, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir

Most choristers, even the professional ones, have other duties. Francine Labelle is a soprano with Tafelmusik but also the director of public relations at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Over her career, she’s been able to perform and tour countless times with various ensembles. One sticks out in particular: “A six-week tour of France with the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM) in 1984 remains one of the highlights of my musical life,” she shares. “There was something magic about performing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in old cathedrals.”

Tafelmusik, with its focus on early music, requires a different musical approach. Flexibility, articulation, and a strong understanding of period phrasing are heightened even more in a Baroque ensemble. Labelle enjoys this singing very much. “I simply love Baroque music, and it seems to like me too! By that I mean it suits my voice and fits my personality,” she shares. “I truly love choral singing; the collaborative aspect entails a certain dose of self-effacement which I find essential.”

“I do prefer singing with small ensembles,” she says. “Though I have been with the group for 22 years, I continue to enjoy the music and the camaraderie, but still have to pinch myself once in a while when I think of how lucky I am to be on a stage with such talented musicians.” Many of us find ourselves in a Tafelmusik Chamber Choir performance feeling much the same way.

Tafelmusik has an exciting year ahead, not least of all some great programming with the Bach Mass in B Minor and the coming of a new artistic director, Elisa Citterio, who fully takes the reins next season.

 

mike garbolMike Garboll

Tenor, Grand Philharmonic Choir

Regionally, there are excellent choirs all around. The Grand Philharmonic in Kitchener is one such example. Mike Garboll shares his thoughts on the experiences. “The excitement and opportunity to sing so much of the world’s choral repertoire with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and outstanding soloists under our conductor Mark Vuorinen, is exhilarating, soul fulfilling and magical,” he shares. “It is the depth and breadth of the intoxicating and addicting vast choral literature by the giants of classical music that compels me every year to subject myself to Mark Vuorinen’s ‘voice checks’ (basically a re-audition).”

Garboll’s story and path in choral music had an early start. “(It) would be as a Grade 9 high school student in the North York Youth Choir under the legendary Lloyd Bradshaw. It was during the first orchestral rehearsal of Zadok the Priest…the mounting expectation in the orchestral introduction that leads to the overwhelmingly brilliant, powerful and majestic explosion by the chorus took my breath away and left me awestruck. It continues to do this to me to this very day.”

Sarah Maria LeungSarah Maria Leung

Soprano, Exultate Chamber Singers

Sarah Maria Leung is a singer and a conductor. Just finished in her master’s in Choral Conducting at the University of Toronto, she’s been part of Exultate Chamber Singers for several seasons now, but it’s not the first choir she has sung with. “I have been singing since first grade, so…it’s been a wonderful 18 years now. Each ensemble I sang with taught me something valuable as a musician and as a human being. I received most of my aural skills and sight-reading skills through singing in choir, especially in university. I got to travel to many countries and gained some lifelong friends from all over the world.”

She provides added insight, “I understand how the music we sing influences how we understand the human experience. Because of all these beautiful memories that I had making music with others, I want to allow other people, through conducting and singing, to have the same wonderful experiences that I had and will continue to have.” Sarah has a host of diverse musical experience from around the world, starting in Hong Kong and including Los Angeles and European stops.

She has many stories from along the way including singing Britten’s War Requiem, in Walt Disney Hall, but the experiences go much further back. “I guess I’ll trace back to one ‘concert’ back in my high school days,” she shares. “It was about a week before competing in the biggest school music festival in Hong Kong, and it’s our choir’s tradition to perform our pieces in front of the whole school during an assembly. In order to boost our confidence (or throw us a challenge, whichever), our music director at the time decided to have us scatter in the audience. Not just in the aisles, but in the seats – so our schoolmates and teachers were right next to us! But I wasn’t scared at all – one thing I learned in singing in that choir was that singing is about touching people’s hearts with our music…We really sang our hearts out. Many of our teachers and classmates cried after hearing our performance. Afterwards, over 100 people (from about 500 students) auditioned for the choir the next time we held an audition!”

 

Anne Marie Barrett TandyAnn-Marie Barrett-Tandy

Soprano, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Ann-Marie tells me about the places she is humbled to have performed in over her 19 years with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. “The music we perform, and the places where we’ve performed them, the friendships we form, and the sense of community and the support system that is developed is altogether memorable.” TMC is at the pinnacle of large ensembles in not only the region, but the country, in terms of history, the quality of sound, the size, the administrative support, reputation and diversity of performance opportunity: from singing on the stage of Roy Thomson Hall, the Sony Centre, the atrium of Brookfield Place or the Student Learning Centre at Ryerson University, St. Paul’s Basilica, Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts or Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre – performing in these venues is a real privilege.

One of the crown jewels for performance in Canada is Koerner Hall at the Telus Centre at the Royal Conservatory. For Ann-Marie, last November provided one of those amazing experiences unique to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah. “The choir sang exquisitely! We breathed and sang as one, and were perfectly attuned to Noel’s [Edison, conductor] every gesture. Speaking for myself, I was transported by the music, and the excellent soloists. It was a truly symbiotic performance. Although a recording could not have duplicated the mood of both the audience and the singers, and that it was a unique experience, it would have been amazing to have a physical record of that performance and to be able to say, ‘I was there.’”

 

Don PyperDon Pyper

Tenor, That Choir

“I think That Choir has a really unique dedication to storytelling and performance,” shares Don Pyper, a That Choir tenor. “That all starts with Craig [Pike, the conductor]. He always challenges us to bring more to the music than just singing the notes on the page. Doing contemporary choral music reminds me that choral music is alive, it’s evolving, and has something to say about the modern world.” That Choir focuses entirely on a cappella choral music. Few choirs focus entirely on this repertoire and few do it as well as That Choir.

Due to Pike’s extensive relationship-building, charisma and contacts all over the place, That Choir is incredibly active beyond just the boundaries of the 6ix. Pyper shares a rather perfect story of the power of music to connect and enhance communities it touches. “That Choir sang a concert in Barrie a few months ago. At one point Craig asked a little girl in the front row if she knew how to conduct and she responded “I’m only seven!” Craig brought her onstage and told her to move her arm up and down, down beat, up beat, really basic, then brought us in on something we had just sung and then walked off the stage, leaving this girl all by herself, arm waving, all of us eyes-glued to her while we sang. She looked awestruck, thrilled, terrified, spellbound. You choose an adjective. But the look on her face was the distillation of why everyone in the choir loves choral. I think most of us, audience included, both laughed and cried when she walked back to her seat next to her dad. It was just a beautiful moment in time.” 

Brian Chang sings tenor in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and other Toronto-based choirs. He is The WholeNote’s Choral Scene columnist.

2208 CoverBannerTheWholeNote 2208 Cover Lipstick 01025xOne of the aims of World Fiddle Day Toronto, which takes place Saturday May 20 at the Aga Khan Museum, is to celebrate bowed string instruments of all musical traditions, not just the music made by the globally dominant violin family. In organology (the study of instruments) the Chinese erhu, (technically a bowed two-stringed spike lute) is a prominent, though quite distant, member of the extended violin family. And WFDT has chosen Amely Zhou, the young Canadian erhu soloist trained in both Chinese and Western music, to be that instrument’s flagbearer in this year’s workshops and evening feature concert.

Zhou began her music studies at an early age in the city of Shenzhen, located in southeastern China near Hong Kong. She states in a 2015 interview that she “started learning erhu when I entered Shenzhen Art School in Grade 4…In my studies with my teacher Lei Zhang, I was constantly inspired by his music and by the sweet tone he could achieve from this simple-looking instrument. The soulfulness of the erhu still carries my feelings and emotions away, along with the vibrations of the strings.”

After immigrating to Canada, in 2007 she joined the Toronto Chinese Orchestra, where she serves today as the bowed string section assistant principal. In 2010 she co-founded the Chinese-Western fusion band Spire for which she both performs and arranges music.

While enrolled at York University she won the university’s 2013 Concerto Competition as the erhu soloist in the Red Plum Capriccio. Zhou graduated in 2015 from York with an Honours B.A. in Music, and that year was accepted into the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music summer program with a full scholarship to continue her erhu studies.

The high value she places on connecting with fellow musicians and audiences is among the most distinguishing features of her playing. As her biography on the Small World Music website notes, “Amely inspires others with her open-hearted and emotive playing. While challenging herself to the fullest, she premiered more than 30 new works by composers around the world.”

Among the GTA’s most prominent younger generation erhu soloists, Zhou is passionate about promoting traditional Chinese music in Canada. On the other hand she also actively challenges her musical world by frequently collaborating with musicians representing musical expressions based in the Western vernacular, and further afield: Iran, India and Azerbaijan.

One of her projects has been premiering contemporary works mixing erhu with other instruments. These include works by University of Toronto student composers Roydon Tse, Tse Yueng Ho, Chen Ke, Lin Yuting and Adrian Ling, as well as by senior composers Chan Ka Nin (Double Happiness) and Alice Ho (Four Seasons). In 2014 she commissioned and premiered Wind Chaser for erhu and piano by emerging Toronto composer Matthew Van Driel.

In her 2015 interview Zhou shares an insight into a core musical value, one which extends beyond that of culture of origin, vocation and career. “My teacher Lei Zhang…not only taught me how to play erhu, but also how to be a good person. Music teaches a person patience and kindness. You will have to be able to inspire yourself before you can inspire others with your music.”

Andrew Timar

2208 Feat Shulman Banner2208 Feat ShulmanWhen Nora Shulman won the associate principal flute position with the Toronto Symphony in 1974, it was the second orchestral job she’d ever had. Now, it’s also her last. After 43 years with the TSO – 31 of those as its principal flutist – Shulman is retiring at the end of this season. When she leaves, she’ll have been the longest-serving principal flutist in the history of the orchestra.

But before that, she has one major solo left to play. On May 26 to 28, Shulman will appear as a soloist with the TSO in American composer Charles Griffes’ Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918). Paired on a program with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, two short works by Frederick Delius and Chan Ka Nin, and the Grieg Piano Concerto, the piece oozes rich, early-20th-century lyricism – and makes for a powerful swan song.

“The Griffes is personally a very appropriate choice for me,” said Shulman when we spoke in late April. “I played it with the orchestra many years ago – it’s one of the very, very most beautiful pieces in our repertoire. So I was enthusiastic about playing it again.

“It is a piece that you simply revisit,” she adds. “A piece that you probably played when you were a teenager or in your early 20s…and you revisit it as a teacher because your students play it, and you revisit it as a performer. For me, it’s coming home, to repertoire that I truly love and feel comfortable with.”

As she finishes her final season with the orchestra, “coming home” – and letting go of the gigging mentality – has begun to feel like a common thread. “I’m [trying to] accept the idea that retirement doesn’t have to be going into the next job,” she says. “I’ve worked for almost 50 years. It’s okay not to be putting myself into another kind of a job.

“A friend of mine gave me the best advice – because a lot of people say, ‘What are you going to do next?’ And I’ve found it a difficult question to address. The person who gave me perhaps the wisest counsel said ‘Don’t think about it; just live your life. And enjoy the time and the space that you’re going to have.’”

In Shulman’s case, that means teaching – both privately and on faculty at the University of Toronto – and revisiting personal projects. For one, she plans on returning to her study of the traverso, and the earlier flute repertoire that goes along with it. She’ll also be playing a central role in the organization of the second annual Flute Day at U of T, in October 2017. And in the meantime, she’ll be enjoying the breathing room.

For her colleagues and students, it comes as no surprise that Shulman would have the personal fortitude necessary to hold a position like hers for over four decades – and to exit it on her own terms. “She’s really unique in her ability to just understand what a student needs,” says Sophie Lanthier, a U of T flutist who has studied with Shulman for the last four years. “Studying with Nora is almost like going to her for a prescription – not just for what I need to improve but how I need to improve it. She has so much perspective from her time with the TSO, and so much knowledge of the context of the flute within an orchestra. She makes you want to work harder when you work with her.

“I don’t know where I’d be as a flute player, if I hadn’t decided to study with Nora when I did,” Lanthier adds. “She’s world-class.”

Flutist and piccoloist Camille Watts, who has sat in the flute section of the TSO with Shulman for 27 years, agrees. “Nora is a dream colleague,” she says. “When you sit next to somebody for all these years, you feel with them, you think with them – you become a kind of unit of sound and of music-making together. Nora is in that way a completely inclusive, generous player – responding to what she hears with incredible creativity and integrity. Every concert means something to her. And besides that, we have fun. You can’t have better than that.”

And as for Shulman’s own takeaway from the Toronto Symphony? As she talks about her years with the orchestra – from the transition to Toronto from her first job in Denver to the photo she still has of Sir Andrew Davis and Maureen Forrester at the Great Wall from their tour to China in 1978 to the new music she’s been learning for the final concerts of this season – it becomes clear that some gigs are long-lasting for a reason. And that through it all, she’s never lost sight of what a job like this has meant to her.

“It was really having a dream come true, getting a position as a principal flute player,” she says. “I was lucky – and I’ve never really lost that feeling of gratefulness and privilege. And I’ve always taken it very seriously. Never for granted, not one day.”

Nora Shulman will perform Griffes’ Poem for Flute and Orchestra with the TSO May 26 to 28, as part of her final season with the orchestra.

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

2207 Feat BachBethlehemAccording to Chaucer, April is the month that with its sweet showers “pierces March’s drought to the root,” causing all kinds of people, music lovers not excepted, to get a bit giddy and take themselves off on all manner of “sundry pilgrimages.” As a lifelong chronic agoraphobe who typically gets on airplanes only for trips revolving around grim duty of one kind or another, I was until last year, a steadfast exception to the Chaucerian rule. But 2016 was different. Not once but twice I noted my nearest exits, turned off all electronic devices and faithfully obeyed the fasten seatbelt sign as I took off into the wide blue yonder for the purpose of attending music festivals in other parts of the world.

I am, therefore, now an expert on the subject of music festivals. So pay attention.

Rule number one: Other than the ones that take place in your hometown and can therefore be ignored unless you have guests, there are only two types of festivals.

One is the kind of festival that is sufficiently compelling in its own right that it causes you to journey some place you never have thought of visiting, even if you had heard of it.

The other is a festival you never heard of but taking place somewhere so special in its own right that you feel compelled to go there at least once in your lifetime. And when you do, you discover that there’s a festival there that tickles your musical fancy, so you go to it because you are already there.

There’s one of each kind in this story: the 2016 first annual Jerusalem Summer Opera Festival falls into the second category; the 110th Annual Bethlehem Bach Festival falls into the first.

2207 Feat BachBethlehem2The Bethlehem Bach Festival takes place in Bethlehem, PA, nestled in the Lehigh Valley region of Southeastern Pennsylvania, this year on the weekends of May 12-13 and May 19-20. Colonized in the first half of the 18th century by Moravian settlers, Bethlehem became also, in the 1860s (across the river from the old town), the site of Lehigh University, a private school established by businessman Asa Packer. (The church that bears his name, on the Lehigh campus, remains the venue for the performance of the Bach Mass in B Minor that is the climax of each year’s festival.) And between the two halves of the town, along the riverbank is the looming rusting hulk of what was, from the 1880s till the 1990s, the steel mill from which Bethlehem Steel derived its name. Twelve years after the mill was built, in 1898, the Bethlehem Bach Choir came into being. Two years after that it gave the first ever complete North American performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass. Through that whole galvanic century, the choir and the festival have endured through thick and thin, because they bring to the music not just a consistently high standard of musicianship, but a precious intangible – the fact that the music is a living expression of community.

I’ve written before about how my first awareness of the Bethlehem Bach Festival came about because of the non-stop procession of top-flight Canadian soloists to the festival, especially since Greg Funfgeld took on conductorship of the choir in 1983. Countertenor Daniel Taylor, for example, returns for the 19th consecutive year, joined again this year by soprano Agnes Zsigovics (a protégée of Taylor’s at the University of Toronto, and surely a performer to watch) and by Benjamin Butterfield, also a frequent visitor but absent last year. The three US soloists are also regulars: soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, baritone William Sharp and Dashon Burton, bass. One of Funfgeld’s gifts as a conductor is his sense of balance and blend; another is his loyalty to his performers. Talk to the soloists and they will tell you that as much as anything, the opportunity to renew beloved musical relationships in a consistent context is one of the things that keeps them coming back.

It’s been said that North America (at least from a colonial perspective) has too much geography and not enough history, while the problem in the Middle East is just the reverse. But if one thinks local rather than global, the distinction starts to blur. Walk from the Hotel Bethlehem (built in the 1920s with Bethlehem steel!) through the old Moravian Quarter, across the bridge past the hulk of the steel mill, where signs of civic landscaping and urban renewal are visibly starting to happen on the river edge, up the opposite hill to the Packer Church, and take your place in the audience. There will always be more than one generation of the same family in the choir that looks back at you. And the music, when it starts, will have a healing sound that is only possible when it is as current as it is timeless.

Jerusalem Opera Festival: Last summer’s trip to the Jerusalem Opera Festival had several memorable moments. One was sitting, late at night, on the rooftop licenced patio of the Mamilla Hotel in downtown Jerusalem, after returning from the evening’s main event, a thoroughly enjoyable outdoor performance of Rigoletto at the 6000-seat Sultan’s Pool amphitheatre, a few hundred feet down the hill. There’s something infinitely less annoying about amplification and outdoor acoustics when the surroundings are as genuinely imposing. (Although I do remember thinking, as an ambulance barrelled down the hill, klaxon blaring, alongside the amphitheatre, right on cue, that maybe this time Gilda would be saved! The second night’s performance, at the Sultan’s Pool again, titled “Opera Paradiso,” was, to my taste less successful, featuring a range of operatic moments from film, sung and performed live by singers and orchestra while the related movie excerpts flickered silently onscreen.

I found myself wondering if there was perhaps a trap for the festival in trying to attract the same 6000 people two days in a row to the one venue, rather than setting the goal of doing the same show twice in a row to grow the audience, and to lay on other things, large and small, for each audience on their “other” night. A better way to build partnerships in the community, said my small-town brain.

As it happens, this year’s Jerusalem Festival has just been announced, and someone else must have been thinking along the same lines I was. There will be two performances of Nabucco, June 21 and 22 at Sultan’s Pool. It will be very interesting to see what else, if anything, operatic or not, gets programmed head to head with those two performances.

My favourite story from the whole visit indicates the size of the challenge ahead. We were in Tel Aviv, home base of the Israeli Opera, at the end of the visit, being shown around the props and costumes room, backstage. Our guide, an opera staff member, was talking frankly about how the two cities were completely different worlds. (“It’s an hour’s drive at a speed of 30 centuries an hour,” someone said.) The NIOC staffer described how her own children, growing up backstage among the props and costumes, had never even been to Jerusalem until they were five or six years old. Holding tight to her hand as they walked through the souks with their dizzying variety of cultural and religious garb, one of the children turned to her, pointing at someone walking by in unfamiliar attire. “Mommy, what costume is that?” the child asked.

The greatest challenge for this particular festival, it seems to me, is that Jerusalem as a city is itself a living opera, on a grander, more viscerally demanding scale than anything the arts can hope to muster. It will be interesting to see how much attention this particular festival can hope to grab moving forward.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

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