The Bells of Old York in the tower of St. James’ Cathedral at the corner of King and Church Streets are very much part of Toronto’s increasingly rich musical environment. On Sunday mornings, they ring out at 10:00 for an hour before the morning service, each bell turning full circle on a wheel, handled by a live person controlling it at the end of a very long rope – imagine Quasimodo! The band of ringers does not ring a recognizable musical tune. Instead, they ring methods or ring the changes, a centuries old skill developed in England in the 16th century which continues today in church towers there and around the world.
The first couple of rows of the sanctuary floor at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church are rather busy for a Monday when none of its major musical tenants (Tafelmusik, Toronto Consort, Talisker Players), is rehearsing. I am sitting in the front row, firing questions at Bassam Bishara, Wen Zhao and Terry McKenna who are perched at stage edge, instruments in hand. WholeNote webmaster Bryson Winchester, doubling as videographer for the day, is one row behind me, taking notes on what it will take to immortalize my interviewing brilliance. And in the midst of it all, WholeNote cover photographer Air’leth Aodhfin is quietly going about his business, snapping photos.
“How about the pipa in the middle and the two gentlemen on either side,” suggests lutenist McKenna.
“For what it is worth, for the concert [Toronto Consort’s Lutefest, May 7 and 8] I think I will be staging it so that Bassam is in the middle, Terry is to his right and Wen is to his left.” (The voice comes from behind me, about four rows back. It’s Toronto Consort artistic director David Fallis, keeping a careful eye and ear on the proceedings.) “That way the oud, which is the instrument from which the other two descended, is in the middle, at the centre of the Silk Road, so to speak, with its offspring on either side – the lute to the west, the pipa to the east.”
University Settlement House, Toronto’s first community-based social service centre, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. And to mark the occasion, Toronto’s premier piano duo, James Anagnoson and Leslie Kinton, will play a special benefit concert at the Glenn Gould Studio on April 18.
The concert is a fitting tribute to an institution that’s long held music as one of its core values. But University Settlement is much more than a music school in the conventional sense. And there’s a unique story behind every musician who passes through its doors.
A shy teenage boy lives with his mother in Ontario Housing in the Grange neighborhood. His mother recognizes his special gift for musical expression and takes him to University Settlement for lessons. He qualifies for a subsidy and excels in his studies. He later goes on to study at a prestigious professional school at a renowned conservatory of music.
It was almost three years ago that soprano Sondra Radvanovsky walked out onto the stage of the Luna Gala at Roy Thomson Hall and sang the Bolero from Verdi’s I vespri Siciliani. The audience was enthralled – and puzzled. Who was Sondra Radvanovsky, and what was she doing at a gala celebrating Canadian opera singers?
“People came up to me asking where I came from,” Radvanovsky told me when I spoke with her in New York City this past January.
“I told them that I’ve been living in Oakville for six years.’” I was sitting with Radvanovsky in a café close to Lincoln Center, where she had sung the opening performance of Verdi’s Stiffelio with the Metropolitan Opera the previous night. Just down the street was the apartment she was staying in with her Canadian husband, Duncan Lear.
Radvanovsky hasn’t sung here in Toronto again, in concert or in opera. But that is going to change. On March 20 she is giving a concert in Roy Thomson Hall with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a frequent and much-loved visitor to Toronto. On May 8 she sings the Verdi Requiem with the Grand Philharmonic Choir under Howard Dyck. And next October she opens the new season of the Canadian Opera Company with her first Aida.
Radvanovsky is regarded as the leading Verdi soprano of her generation. Her repertoire is well-stocked with Verdi operas, including what’s become her signature role, Leonora in Il Trovatore, which she has performed something like 165 times. Yet she also sings many other operas, ranging from Eugene Onegin and Rusalka to Cyrano de Bergerac, Manon Lescaut and Susannah, with Maria Stuarda and Norma coming up.
After living here for nine years, Radvanovsky is still widely referred to as an American singer. Even the COC describes her as “the stunning American soprano” in their brochure for next season. So I started our interview by asking her whether she felt Canadian in any sense. Her answer surprised – and delighted – me.
One of Toronto’s favourite musicians is a Montrealer: conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin. And it’s been fascinating to watch the rise of this gifted artist, from Toronto’s vantage point.
In 2003, Quebec conductor Bernard Labadie suggested that Toronto’s Bach Consort invite Nézet-Séguin to conduct Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. (According to Toronto Symphony Orchestra bass player, Tim Dawson, who carries much of the responsibility for the Bach Consort, Labadie said, “Yannick is really very good, you know.”) In October 2004, he stepped in to conduct the Toronto Symphony at the last minute, replacing an ailing Emmanuel Krivine in an all-Russian programme, which included Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. This performance, as I recall, was received with unanimous critical acclaim. In March 2005 he returned to the TSO as guest conductor. Of those performances one reviewer wrote: “soloist and orchestra maintained a sensitive balance and the music came through as an integrated whole. Nézet-Séguin deserves the lion’s share of credit.” He has been back in Toronto every year since then as guest conductor; and in 2007, in the midst of conducting Gounod’s Faust for the Canadian Opera Company, was whisked from the Four Seasons Centre to Roy Thomson Hall, to lead the TSO, replacing Valery Gergiev.