overcoat bannerOn our cover

Cover Photo by Dahlia KatzAsked about the photo, Geoff Sirett, who plays the lead in the upcoming The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is refreshingly candid. “I’d love to be of help, but I’m not really sure what to say. We did two photo shoots months apart with a lot of different ideas. I mostly went with the flow!” Tapestry artistic director Michael Mori was happy to fill in the blanks: “We were looking for a way to capture the essence and the newness of it. This world premiere production introduces new text, new music, opera singers, and live orchestra to the concept of Morris Panych’s original physical theatre piece, which was an enormous hit. Akakiy staring into the tuba gives us a taste of the character’s contemplative psychology, introduces the new dynamic element of music, and teases the surrealist world that the show traverses.”


There is a bubbling excitement in every conversation I am having with members of the creative team for The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, which will have its world premiere on March 29 at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre in an epic three-way co-production between Tapestry New Opera, Canadian Stage and Vancouver Opera.

This excitement, from all accounts, was there from the very beginning of the project, although in the words of Tapestry’s artistic director Michael Mori, it began “almost by accident” at Tapestry’s annual new opera incubator, the composer librettist laboratory (LibLab). Each summer four composers and four librettists are brought together for the LibLab, and over the course of about ten days go through an operatic speed dating process, each creating with different partners four brand-new mini-operas no longer than about five minutes in length.

At the 2014 LibLab, award-winning Canadian composer and former LibLab participant James Rolfe was acting as mentor to that summer’s composers when for the first time ever, a composer had to drop out due to a musical emergency back home. Rolfe, who had been – in Michael Mori’s words – “feeling funny about just observing and not taking part,” now had his chance to jump into the mix, and as chance would have it, one of the librettists he was partnered with was two-time Governor General’s Award-winner and prolific playwright and director, Morris Panych. They hit it off immediately.

At the LibLab, pressure is high and time is short to find good ideas to base a new opera upon, and as Panych put it to me: “Let’s be honest, you start to run out of ideas and I thought, hey, The Overcoat, that could be interesting, because I’m always trying to think when I develop those little scenarios, could this be expanded into a full opera... and as a short story and not a novel (which are really hard to adapt) it already has a lot of the storytelling elements that you want.” At that point, though, he wasn’t really thinking yet about a full opera but about a particular scene “which I thought would be a charming scene to do with James, where the tailor and his wife measure (the main character) Akaky for a new coat” – the overcoat of the title. The project had begun.

To see where this new theatre piece is headed, it’s helpful to look back at where it has already been. Gogol’s famous 1842 short story The Overcoat, about an ordinary man whose life is turned upside down by first acquiring and then losing a wonderful new overcoat, has already had a long and successful theatrical life in the groundbreaking physical theatre production created by Panych with Wendy Gorling in 1998. Originally an experimental production for the students at Studio 58 theatre school in Vancouver, then a full-fledged professional production that took Vancouver and Toronto by storm, it travelled around the country and then the world, garnering great acclaim and many repeat engagements. The extraordinary thing about this earlier production was that it was performed without words. The storytelling was all done through movement, created collaboratively by the company under the guidance of Panych and Gorling, but also very tightly choreographed to carefully chosen and shaped musical selections from the works of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch.

This first production was so quintessentially wordless, and so successful in its physical storytelling, that my first question to Panych about the new Overcoat was where the inspiration came from to do – in effect – the opposite, putting words back into the mix. His answer was that the experiment at the LibLab lit the spark but that once it did, the opportunity was there to explore a “whole different idea for the show than it originally had” in that there had to be “a development of intellectual ideas because now there were words” – something he had, in fact, long been contemplating.

The original version had been a thrilling and very successful experiment, but a new opportunity had now arisen – going back to Gogol’s original story and exploring it again from the point of view of philosophical and intellectual ideas that could be brought out through the new libretto and new score, to be expressed and explored by the singers with the audience. As Panych explained, they went back to the leading character Akaky being an accountant (as he is in the short story) and “I came up with this idea of singularity and numbers, of people counting and not counting, which developed through into the piece as an idea about human value and existentialism and what the coat actually means in terms of its intrinsic social and moral value.”

Back at the LibLab when the Overcoat scene was presented, it immediately struck a chord with both singers and audience. Mori says that Panych had very quickly written a very clever mini-libretto for the scene of the tailor and his wife creating the coat for Akaky “based on how deeply he knows the story and the interplay between the characters, and I think James was intrigued and wrote the music very quickly. We heard it and said ‘It’s almost Gilbert and Sullivan in a way’ – not because it was British, it was very Morris – but because it was so fast and the energy was really exciting.”

Almost immediately after the LibLab and the success of the presentation of the scene to an invited audience (including an intrigued Mathew Jocelyn, artistic director of Canadian Stage), Tapestry found the funding for a libretto workshop and the development snowballed from there, moving very quickly through two more workshops to reach the point where it is now about to go into rehearsal for the full production. Vancouver Opera joined in along the way, as co-commissioner of the piece, as did Canadian Stage, as a season presenter.

Both Panych and Rolfe commented upon the speed of this process, Panych writing the libretto very quickly as he knew the story already so intimately, and Rolfe connecting so quickly to the material that the score was also completed very fast. In Panych’s words: “I wrote the libretto and James took it, and I emailed and called him a few times and said ‘Any changes?’ and he said ‘Not really, it’s perfect,’ and he wrote the score. We did the first and second workshops and staged it [so that we would have a] template for working on the show, then see where to go from there.”

When I asked Panych and Rolfe about the original use of Shostakovitch and if it had any bearing on the new music, both said that it was really just a starting point and that Rolfe’s music is completely new and original, although “very Russian in feeling,” and that this was both right and exciting. The cast has been cut down to 11 from 23, although there is still a “mad chorus” and ensemble numbers that Rolfe says he is excited by (as well as by the character interaction throughout). The show is sung through without spoken dialogue, but written so that the story and ideas can be clearly shared and communicated, and with a great sense of energy and pace. As Rolfe says, the score is also written with an awareness that the production will still have a very strong physicality. “The music is a twisted circus,” Panych says. “It’s acrobatic, you feel its tunefulness, you feel the beat of it but you don’t recognize it, similar to Prokofiev but in a much more modern way; it pushes forward in unexpected and exciting ways.”

There will also be a 12-piece orchestra, a luxury for a new opera production, led by music director Leslie Dala.

Panych is very clear that people should not come to this new Overcoat expecting to see the old version. The famous big set pieces created for the wordless choreographed world of the original, such as the ballroom scene or tailor shop with “semi-naked men in the shop creating the coat,” will not be there. With the smaller cast and the emphasis on the singing, the words, the ideas and the production will be much more intimate. Although the original design team of Ken Macdonald, Nancy Bryant and Alan Brodie will be creating a similarly designed world on a smaller scale, the action will be purposefully much more “downstage, closer to the audience.”

At the same time, there is still a desire to retain some of the signature theatrical physicality of the original and Wendy Gorling will be joining the company at the start of rehearsals as movement director; two members of the original wordless Overcoat will also be there to anchor that physical style. Most of the singers in the cast have been with the show through the development process of the workshops, cast primarily for their singing and acting ability, but also with an eye to their ability to move and take part in more experimental production styles. Peter McGillivray and Keith Klassen, in particular, being longterm performers with Tapestry and in new opera around the country, are known for their expertise in interpreting new work.

Joining the cast in the most recent workshop as the leading character Akaky was Geoffrey Sirett, a young Canadian baritone with a quickly growing reputation not only for the richness of his baritone voice but for his fearless physicality in more experimental productions, with Against the Grain Theatre, for example, where he shone in their staged Messiah. Cast in the workshop on the advice of Mori, Sirett proved adept at the physicality explored during that process, impressing the director and staying on to lead the company as work on the full production began. While he didn’t have physical training as part of his opera studies, Sirett credits his early experience working with choreographers James Kudelka, Lawrence Lemieux and Bill Coleman on dance/opera crossover works at Citadel + Compagnie as providing him early on with “the opportunity to explore contemporary movement and get in touch with my physical self.”

James Rolfe (left) and Morris Panych - photo by Nathan Kelly

As this issue goes to print, The Overcoat company will be in rehearsal and the process will have begun of discovering exactly what the eventual production will look like, how physical it will be and what new nuances might arise. The template is there but the final journey of discovery is just beginning.

Hearing the show described as almost more of a “musical than an opera” by its librettist and director because of its clarity, energy and pace, it sounds as though The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is living right on that edge of new opera and music theatre creation, reaching to find the best medium to tell stories that matter and connect with audiences of today.

Opening night is March 29, with two previews on March 27 and 28 and performances until April 14. The show then travels out west, where it will play at the Vancouver Opera Festival April 28 to May 12.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Metropolitan Methodist ChurchMetropolitan United Church is one of Toronto’s most musical places of worship. Founded two centuries ago in 1818, the Methodist congregation grew so rapidly that by 1872 a new, imperiously gothic church was built, seating 1800 congregants with additional room for 300 choristers. Described as Canada’s “Methodist Cathedral” or “Mother Church of Methodism,” Toronto’s Metropolitan Wesleyan Methodist Church became Metropolitan United Church in 1925 after the unification of Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians.

Unfortunately, this newly dedicated church was all but destroyed by fire in 1928, replaced by the current Metropolitan United Church building in December 1929. Featuring Canada’s largest pipe organ with over 7,200 pipes (increased to 8,200 in 1998), Metropolitan developed many of the musical programs for which it is now famous – the Silver Band, the concert series and the outstanding choirs – during the 1930s and 1940s.

Metropolitan United Church’s tradition of musical excellence continues to this day, evolving and increasing its outreach over the decades, most recently under the guidance of Minister of Music Patricia Wright. Under Dr. Wright, the Music at Metropolitan program has expanded to include the Wayne C. Vance Organ Scholar program and the annual Jim and Marg Norquay concert, this year featuring Rezonance, Metropolitan’s newly-minted ensemble-in-residence, in their presentation of the “Mystery of the Unfinished Concerto.” (For those who find the classics a bit stuffy, this coming May Music at Metropolitan also presents “Showtunes for 200,” a multimedia concert of standards from operetta and musical theatre.)

Along with these newer initiatives are the older, more traditional presentations, including a weekly organ recital series (on a temporary hiatus due to renovation) and Met’s famous Good Friday choir and orchestra concerts. Both these weekly organ recitals and large choral concerts are Metropolitan traditions, each started in the 19th century and continuing unbroken to the present day, with significant improvements in quality and programming; for example, this year’s Good Friday concert features Bach’s magnificent Mass in B Minor.

In anticipation of this concert and in celebration of Metropolitan’s bicentennial, we asked Dr. Wright to share her thoughts on Music at Metropolitan’s past, present and future.

WN: Metropolitan United is a historic church with a historic music program. Tell us about the history of music at Met, especially related to the development of what is now Music at Metropolitan, a freestanding concert series.

PW: Metropolitan has always regarded music as a ministry. In 2004 I was covenanted as the first congregationally-dedicated minister of music within the United Church of Canada, the first denomination to officially regard music as a ministry.

There is a long tradition of midweek concerts as well as a concert series, which is not new; Frederick Torrington [director of music 1873-1907] had a series of Thanksgiving Day concerts, presenting choir and orchestra performances. S. Drummond Wolff led what was probably the first [Metropolitan] performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1946, and in 1964 Paul Murray led the Brahms Requiem on Passion [Palm] Sunday. Melville Cook [director of music 1967-1986] expanded the concerts, eventually giving three concerts a year with orchestra, and started performing the St. Matthew Passion each year on Good Friday.

[In 1987] I inherited this tradition of a Festival Choir concert on Good Friday and we have performed a variety of repertoire since, including Bach’s St. John Passion [eight times], Mass in B Minor [four times], Brahms Requiem, and large choral works by Duruflé, Fauré, Chilcott and Rutter, among others. This is my 32nd Good Friday concert and there are some singers in the choir who have been involved in these Festival Choir performances longer than I have!

Patricia Wright

Met turns 200 this year and selecting the music for such an important season likely required much thought and consideration. Why did you choose the Mass in B Minor for this year’s Festival Choir performance?

The Mass in B Minor is the biggest choral and orchestra work we perform. To me, [the Mass in B Minor] is the summation of Bach’s work. It is, from my perspective as an organist, conductor and Bach lover, the greatest piece in choral literature, if not all of music. The way Bach put it together, combining music that he took from other cantatas with newly composed material … and he never heard it performed in his lifetime!

Last June [my husband and I] were at the Leipzig Bach Festival and the last concert of the week was the Mass in B Minor. We’re in the Thomaskirche, sitting in the chancel with Bach’s grave plate in front of us, hearing the Mass in B Minor – that is a lifetime experience, so touching and moving, I can’t describe it.

Beyond the traditional Good Friday concerts, the Music at Metropolitan series has grown considerably over the past few years. Now that it incorporates a variety of sacred and secular presentations, what role do you see Music at Metropolitan taking in Toronto’s musical landscape?

We started experimenting with a variety of programs – choral and brass concerts at Christmas, for example – then we branched out into vocal recitals. This wasn’t a new idea; vocal concerts were happening at Met during Melville Cook’s time. In the 1970s there were summer concerts in the park [in front of Metropolitan, on Queen Street], so [Music at Metropolitan] is a combination of past and present. We’ve presented all kinds of concerts under the Music at Metropolitan label, including concerts by our own singers, guest singers and performers, leading organ recitalists, and for the first time, our own ensemble-in-residence, Rezonance Baroque Ensemble. They gave a concert last fall, are giving another in April [the Mystery of the Unfinished Concerto on April 22], and we also give lighter shows [such as Showtunes for 200]. We’ve branched out into all kinds of concerts!

We want Metropolitan to be known as a place where people from any or no faith tradition can come and be touched by music, because music transcends traditions. Metropolitan, in all areas of its ministry, is a place where people can come and be comforted: spiritual comfort through music; physical comfort through our downtown outreach programs. I inherited one of Toronto’s important and historic musical traditions and I am honoured to be a steward of that tradition into the future. Metropolitan has always regarded music as ministry and outreach and I hope that’s what Metropolitan continues to represent to this community in the future.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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 www.colinstory.com, 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 www.debutatlantic.ca.

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

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