PRO et CONTRA IMG 0684 3000 bannerScene from Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA. Courtesy Eifman BalletGood ballet is a feast for the senses, whether classical or contemporary in style. Music, movement and design create a symbolic display or depict character and story, with dancers moving through space delineated by the choreographer’s specific interweaving of physical steps and musical phrases, offset by the physical design of set, costumes and lighting. But conveying inner stories is not typically the art form’s long suite.

Having no words is usually an integral part of the definition of ballet; yet, recently, choreographers have been getting closer to finding a way to articulate thoughts and feelings that demand words as their medium of expression. Balletic adaptations of Shakespeare’s later, more complex plays are a case in point. Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet is extraordinarily effective at communicating Hamlet’s intellectual and spiritual torment. Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale is magical in how clearly the complexity of Leontes’ jealousy is conveyed.

The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, coming to Toronto this month, has become internationally renowned for full-length ballets of great psychological depth; ballets that require not only a choreographer able to meld music and movement in ways that will invoke a powerful, detailed response in audiences, but also dancers able to embody his creations. Around the world, audiences have responded with great applause dubbing the company “unique” in their approach.

Boris Eifman. Courtesy Eifman BalletThis week I had the exciting opportunity to speak with Boris Eifman, the founding artistic director and choreographer of the Eifman Ballet as the company prepares to begin a new North American tour in Toronto with Eifman’s latest production, the already acclaimed: Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA.

What makes the company unique, Eifman says, is that in every ballet he choreographs, they “are really trying to reflect on the interior world of the characters, showing the emotions and feelings of that inner world through the language of dance and movement.” While grounded in the strong traditions of classical Russian ballet that emphasize having a clear storyline, emotional content and strong acting, they have taken those elements into the present, utilizing new contemporary choreography, modern design and cutting-edge technology. Founded by Eifman in 1977 as the Leningrad New Ballet, the company recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and boasts a dedicated ensemble of phenomenally talented dancers who are also very skillful actors. “In fact they are unique,” says their director, because “their acting and dancing skills are equal.” He credits these abilities and their “wonderful personalities” for constantly inspiring him in the creative process.

When it comes to the company’s individual ballets, inspiration can come from different directions, Eifman says: “When I was doing Mozart’s Requiem it was the music that came first. When I did Anna Karenina, it was definitely the story and the great novel by Tolstoy.” For this ballet, Tchaikovsky, PRO et CONTRA, he says, it is in equal parts the music and the story of the tormented life of the great composer. “Basically,” he says, “it is like a deathbed confession. What I am trying to do is show the secret or mystery of the life of this absolutely unique human being who, in spite of leading an incredibly difficult life, was yet able to create the phenomenal music that we all love.”

Interestingly, the phrase “mystery of life” also occurs in the title of an earlier Eifman ballet about the composer: Tchaikovsky:The Mystery of Life and Death. I asked him about the connection. “They are completely different works from different times,” he says. “When the first production came out in 1993, it caused a great scandal because the ballet explored Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality; and because of the social climate in Russia at the time it was felt that the great composer – who is of course an icon for every Russian – was being defamed. There were demonstrations, protests against the theatre, and I even received death threats.”

“Now we are in a different time, when homosexuality is not unknown or taboo to the extent it was 25 years ago,” he says. “The new ballet [created in 2016] Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA is a completely different production that raises many different questions about Tchaikovsky’s difficult life and the effect it had on his artistic creations, even while drawing on some of the same biographical facts.”

He explains: “Tchaikovsky [1840-1893] was a very religious person but, of course, at that time, especially in Russia, to be a homosexual and to be religious was not supposed to be possible, as being a homosexual was considered to be one of the greatest sins. That is why all his life he was torn between God and the Devil, so much so that it was like a split in his personality; and that is a main focus of this production.”

The idea of the split personality is given tangible form in the ballet. “Tchaikovsky is two characters in this production; one is Tchaikovsky the composer, and the other is his alter ego. One is always trying to move up to meet God, and the other trying to move down to meet the Devil.”

Watching the official trailers for the ballet on YouTube, one can see that concept being echoed literally in the choreography; Tchaikovsky and his double usually move vertically, often one lifting or lowering the other, while the rest of the company swirls around them dancing on the horizontal plane, enacting scenarios from Tchaikovsky’s life, or fantastic visions where his real life and artistic creations intertwine.

This led to one of my big questions for the choreographer. Given that Tchaikovsky composed some of the world’s most dearly loved ballet scores for works that are considered to be archetypal classical ballets, most notably Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, I wondered if we would hear any of this music in the new ballet, or see any images from or snippets of the original Petipa choreography woven into the new story.

I was surprised by his answer: the music from the ballet scores is not used at all. While all written by Tchaikovsky, the music is taken from six different symphonic works (including Symphony No.5 in E Minor and the Serenade for Strings in C Major). On the other hand, images reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and his operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are incorporated into the all-new choreography. “The main focus is to find out and understand what provoked the particular pieces that we all know by heart and think we understand. What was behind these creations? Why did he create these and not something different?”

(For those who don’t want to know, beware! There are spoilers coming up.)

“The main focus is to find out and understand what provoked the particular pieces that we all know by heart and think we understand.” Scene from Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA. Courtesy Eifman BalletIn what appears to be a long vision of his life flashing before his eyes, Tchaikovsky’s Double merges into von Rothbart, Drosselmeyer and Onegin. Visions of his disastrous marriage to his student Antonina Milyukova (who is said to have reminded him of Tatiana in Onegin ) overlap with images of swans from Swan Lake. At one point, the stage is suddenly filled by a swarm of mice seemingly escaped from The Nutcracker. At another, a table is surrounded by ferocious card players from The Queen of Spades, and Tchaikovsky’s unloved patroness Nadezhda von Meck appears as his nemesis in the guise of Carabosse, the evil fairy, from Sleeping Beauty.

In many ways this ballet could be viewed as the culmination of Eifman’s lifelong admiration for Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music, even though he has created six previous ballets using various music by the composer including The Idiot (1980), Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death (1993), Red Giselle (1997), Musagete (2004), Anna Karenina (2005), and Onegin (2009). “What is it about the composer’s music that you respond so strongly to?” I asked. “The emotional quality of the music is important” he says, “but most of all the music is very plastic (tangible), very theatrical; primarily it is the music’s strong dramatic energy that touches me the most and provokes me to create new works.” As for calling it a “culmination” he sounds a cautionary note, joking that he “has a lot of work to do as there is still a lot of music to be used.”

I ask if he has found that audiences in Canada or North America respond differently to his ballets than audiences at home in Russia. “The audience reaction is very, very similar,” he says. “I believe there are a lot of people here who know and understand ballet; and they give the company great feedback, so that we are always very happy to come and bring our new productions.”

Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA plays at Toronto’s Sony Centre for three performances only, May 9 to 11 at 8pm, with pre-show talks by dance writer Deirdre Kelly before each performance at 7pm.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

IshayShaer2 by Gilad Shabani Shoofan bannerIshay Shaer. Photo by Gilad Shabani ShoofanSyrinx Concerts Toronto hasn’t always been called that (it was Chrylark for its first two seasons, in 2002 and 2003) but it still does what it has done with remarkable consistency for the better part of a decade and a half – namely present four to five annual chamber concerts with an identifiably unique character, performed by a roster of top-flight musicians who ply their musical trade, regularly or occasionally, in Toronto. One of the two concerts Syrinx will present over the course of the coming four or five weeks, May 26 at Heliconian Hall, is  definitely typical of what Syrinx does; the second, June 6, is definitely not.

Observably, a longstanding concert series with an identifiably unique character doesn’t get to be that way without some stubborn and creative individual of strong character holding it all together. And in Syrinx’s case, Dorothy Sandler-Glick is that someone.

Dorothy Sandler-Glick. Photo by Julie GlickSandler-Glick, Syrinx’s founding artistic director, is both excited and a little bit anxious contemplating the month ahead, and it’s not the May 26 concert that is the source of her anxiety. After all, Heliconian Hall on Hazelton Ave. has been Syrinx’s home for every concert of their history; and the accomplished Moncton-born Quatuor Arthur-LeBlanc, Laval University quartet-in-residence since 2005, are Syrinx regulars who know and appreciate the deeply attentive listening that characterizes a Syrinx recital.  

They also know the time-honoured Syrinx concert formula: main works drawn from the standard classical chamber repertoire; always a piece by a Canadian composer; and, as often as not, an opportunity, in at least one work on the program, to collaborate with another musician from Sandler-Glick’s always renewing circle of musical associates. For their April 2014 visit it was Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet with one of Sandler Glick’s favourite Toronto-based collaborative pianists, Gregory Oh. This time it is Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op.44 with rising Israeli pianist, Ishay Shaer.

And it is with the introduction of Shaer to this story that an explanation of Sandler-Glick’s state of mind starts to become clear, because hard on the heels of Shaer’s May 26 guest appearance with the LeBlancs, his June 6 solo piano recital will take Syrinx, for the first time in their history, out of the cosy confines of their Heliconian Hall home into unfamiliar surroundings –  Mazzoleni Concert Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

It’s a short journey – just a few blocks – but it’s a major departure. It’s also, Sandler-Glick says, a risk worth taking. “We’ve promoted or presented Ishay a few times already,” she says, “and I’ve just seen his evolution. You could say I’ve become somewhat of a groupie. I’ve gone to Holland to hear him, this last time was a Brahms festival in the Hague. And I also went to Paris to hear him do a solo concert. Over the years I’ve kept track of him and been in touch, and have read reviews that have been just superb. Last year I heard him at Bristol and it was just top of the mark. So I thought ‘I have to do something more for him.’ And this is the best thing I can do. I can’t get him into Koerner Hall. I don’t have the wherewithal for that, either the money or, as important, the audience.”

Even Mazzoleni, at double the capacity of Heliconian, is no cinch, in terms of drawing an audience. Does double the capacity mean double the cost? I ask. “I wish!” she says, ruefully, and itemizes all the areas where the increases are exponential. So she will invite people, vigorously, beyond her faithful subscriber base and, with luck and good management, draw on the relationships she has started building with two other salon series, both home-based, one, with a following of 80 to 100, the other with 40 or 45. “I used to worry about the question of having our own audience cannibalized,” she says. “But not any more. The reward is in both directions. We are all happy about it.”

Ishay’s June 6 concert program is a hefty one: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 (his last); selected Debussy Etudes (which the composer warned pianists not to attempt “unless they have remarkable hands”); and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.3 in B Minor, Op.58, considered to be one of Chopin’s most difficult compositions, both technically and musically. And, yes, telltale Syrinx fingerprint, there will be a Canadian work on this program too – Image Astrale by pioneering composer Jean Coulthard, one of three Western Canadian women (the others were Violet Archer and Barbara Pentland) who left their formative mark on the 20th century Canadian musical landscape. “It was on his 2017 program for us too,” Sandler Glick says. “There is something about her music that I think he really gets.”

“So is the Canadian work on the program ever the starting point for building a program.” I ask. A quick shake of the head. “This is the part of it that makes me a dictator, and I love it. I have a lot of say. I get to suggest repertoire, and I suggest what I want to hear; and a lot of what I want to hear is the familiar, the music I love. It’s a lot of what the audience wants to hear too. So if there’s enough of what’s familiar on either side, at least they are not going to complain. And at best they are going to be receptive.”

Out of context, one could take the comment as dismissive of Syrinx’s bedrock commitment to Canadian work. But to do so would be to miss a fundamental point. Chrylark/Syrinx was founded in 2003, one year after the death of Sandler Glick’s former husband, composer Srul Irving Glick, with the express mission of creating an artistic context in which his music would be kept alive. Over time the mandate spread to include other composers, notably in the early years, Oskar Morawetz and Walter Buczynski who were part of Srul Irving Glick’s  own circle.

“At first we tried programming one composer for a whole season,” she says. “But life is not long enough for that! So it became one composer per concert, and we have heard some wonderful pieces over the years.” Srul Irving Glick’s own work has not been neglected over the passing years. But neither has it been thrust forward, although with the coming season being the 85th anniversary of his birth, there might be a case for doing so again in the near future. “It’s a balance you have to find,” she says.

April 23, 2017, 15 years after Srul Irving Glick’s death almost to the day, was one such beautifully balanced moment: both in terms of his legacy and, as important in terms of defining the complex skill set that Sandler-Glick brings to keeping Syrinx a significant part of Toronto’s musical life. The concert that night was a live CD recording of all six of Glick’s Suites Hébraïques, the first time that all six suites had been performed together. The roster of musicians assembled for the event reflects Sandler-Glick’s priorities: Susan Hoeppner, flute; James Campbell, clarinet; Wallace Halladay, saxophone; Elissa Lee, violin; Barry Shiffman, violin; Sharon Wei, viola; Cameron Crozman, cello; and Angela Park, piano – established, mid-career and emerging artists, a testament to her commitment, above all else to putting the interests of the musicians ahead of everything else.

Easy to lose sight of in talking about her curatorial role, is Sandler-Glick’s own lifelong passion for the piano, starting at age four, studying under Alberto Guerrero at the RCM, continuing in Paris where she gave recitals and taught while studying herself, then upon her return performing professionally with orchestras and in solo and chamber music recitals, live and for CBC radio, premiering many new works by Canadian composers along the way. And, from the latter half of the 1990s, maintaining a vigorous teaching career, both at the RCM and privately. “I had to get a real job after Srul and I separated,” she says. “Now I only teach my grandchildren, which is a bit of a mixed thing. I can’t make them practise. But they are all musical and all interesting people to know.”

You won’t ever find her name among the pianists in her own series though: “I was never a very happy performer” she says. “Not as a soloist nor even as a chamber player.” One could surmise that part of what she brings to her relationship with musicians, and to forwarding the musical aspirations of “top of the mark” performers like Ishay Shaer, stems from her own understanding of just what it takes to get, and stay there.

Schubert House in ViennaAs for her own musical and pianistic journey, it has taken a recent and happy turn. “It was after I turned 80, I told myself I wanted to do a concert again,” she says. And did, late last year. At the Schubert House in Vienna, no less, after a trial run at home salon in Toronto. I wasn’t there, but if the concert went as planned it included a Mozart sonata, three Schubert Impromptus a Brahms Capriccio and Ballade and Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano.

And, of course, a Canadian work: Sonata for flute and piano by, who else, Srul Irving Glick.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

Esme Allen-Creighton (left; photo by Christopher Descano) and Anyssa Neumann (right, photo by Corey Hayes)It was a simple invitation on the surface but highly unusual and intriguing at the same time:

Violist Esme Allen-Creighton and pianist Anyssa Neumann invite you to an evening of music and poetry featuring works by Robert Schumann, Dmitri Shostakovich and Paul Hindemith. Poetry will reflect on each musical selection, applying a natural lens to ask “If this song were a forest, what would it be like?” Tickets are $10. All proceeds will go to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The concert will take place in the Heliconian Hall (under their generous sponsorship) on April 25, three days after Earth Day. A series of emails with Allen-Creighton illuminated the commitment behind the unique endeavour and shed light on the duo’s unique views:

“Both Anyssa and I have focused much of our careers on the intersection between music and other art forms.  I’ve produced concerts combining music with poetry, theatre scripts, oral history recordings and original narrative. Anyssa, for her part, has taken a scholarly interest in music and film, and has presented this fall at TIFF on Ingmar Bergman’s use of classical music in film.”  

When the UN’s IPCC report on climate change was released last year, Allen-Creighton says, they began envisioning a collaboration “that would integrate music and poetry to illuminate the perils facing our planet.” Forest Bathing was born as a result.

Allen-Creighton has written poems to introduce each of the seven movements they will perform. The poems, she explains, illustrate the dramatic content of the music which follows: each poem is conceived as a different “forest” – framing the emotional content of the music that follows.

Three movements of Schumann’s Marchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) form the Romantic Forest, a forest of memory, of longing. “It verges on the unreal dreamscape. In the second piece [Schumann’s third movement], stormy, wild sections reflect the turbulence of nature and how it might react to pressure. The final movement explores the fragility of nature.”

The accompanying poem reads:

The forest shivers as I whistle through
Her lonesome chambers
Last grasp sticks harder
Sap and bark grit strong
Woodpecker heart
Throbbing faster

Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata, his final composition, inspires the Urban Forest, a dystopian possible future. “Here [Moderato] nature has been ravaged by industry and war. Ghosts and refugees roam bleak landscapes. The centre [Allegretto] satirizes the political system that allowed this catastrophe. A final piece [Adagio] forms a lament.”

Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, written in 1919, is, as Allen-Creighton describes it, “the Forest of Possibility, on the brink. It contrasts our most uplifting experiences in nature with grotesque deterioration. Emotionally it cycles through hope and fear, ultimately landing on resolve and generosity.” (The Hindemith is played with no break between its movements so there will only be one poem to introduce it.)

Raised in Sacramento and based in London UK, American pianist Anyssa Neumann has been praised for the “clarity, charm, and equipoise” of her performances, which span solo and collaborative repertoire from the Baroque to the 21st century. She has released two recordings, with a third scheduled for release in spring 2019. Her solo debut album of works by Bach, Beethoven, Messiaen and Prokofiev was featured on David Dubal’s radio program The Piano Matters.

Praised for her “unbridled lyricism, robust sound and free-flowing legato” violist Esme Allen-Creighton is passionately committed to reaching audiences through interdisciplinary productions. During her four years in Philadelphia with the Serafin Quartet she wrote numerous dramatic scripts interwoven with classical repertoire for series in non-traditional venues such as cafés, bars and comedy clubs. She has published and presented on how to engage audiences through these non-traditional means. Her doctoral thesis for the Université de Montréal explored the idea of interactive, non-traditional concert programming for string quartets.

How did the fledgling duo meet?

“Anyssa and I were introduced in 2014 by my partner at the time who had studied musicology with Anyssa at Oxford. We had both been accepted to the Prussia Cove music festival and thought it might be fun to perform together, however ended up attending at different times.  We struck up a musical/philosophical pen-pal relationship though, admiring each other’s musical work, but also each other’s writing. I used some of Anyssa’s research in my history classes while teaching at the University of Delaware. Anyssa was especially moved by my writing on Schumann in a Schmopera article about giving up a precious instrument on loan to me through a quartet position. Most importantly, we connected through shared political beliefs, advocacy and protest around women’s rights, the environment, poverty and education. We both believe music and art play a vital role in these discussions. We’ve been in touch ever since, but not until this past fall did we manage to organize a concert together. This will be our first duo performance.”

And a world premiere to boot!

Esme Allen-Creighton (viola) and Anyssa Neumann (piano) perform Forest Bathing on April 25 at 7:30pm in Heliconian Hall. All proceeds to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Community-orchestrasEvery year for almost two decades, the surest sign of spring at The WholeNote has been the steady stream of canaries, with early birds starting to arrive at our office just before March break, to latecomers, just under the wire, straggling in just before our mid-April deadline for the May issue. (Somewhere between 140 and 150 of them by the time it’s done.)

These “canaries,” as faithful WholeNote readers know, are not the avian kind, but rather the individual short profiles (120 words or so) submitted by Ontario choirs for inclusion in our annual Canary Pages – the name we give to our annual directory of Ontario choirs.

The directory, now in its 18th year, always appears in print in our May magazine and remains online as a resource, year round, on our website. It’s an extraordinarily eclectic read, because any choir active in our region can join, amateur or professional or a mix of both, auditioned or not, geared to the social or spiritual pleasures of regular meeting to sing, or to the focused pursuit of excellence in public performance. Its main purpose is to talk about the opportunities for singing that exist in our region, at all ages and levels of skill.

For me this directory affirms the way music making contributes to a sense of community and how it affirms the human need (stronger than all the digital isolationism society tempts us with), to come together for the purpose of participating in the making and sharing of live music.

Every spring, without fail, the canaries flock to The WholeNote, and every spring, without fail, as the canaries arrive, someone on our team (usually me) says “One of these years we should try to do the same thing for orchestras, because orchestras fulfil the same role as choirs do.”

And every spring, because by then it’s too late to get organized to do it properly, we say “Yes we should, so maybe next year.”

This year, at that moment, I decide instead to reach out to Katherine Carleton, executive director of Orchestras Canada. The last time we talked must have been even longer ago than I thought, because at that time their offices were on College Street, just west of Bathurst, ten minutes’ walk from The WholeNote office. This time, by contrast, we find ourselves chatting by phone, two area codes apart: Orchestras Canada, she tells me, relocated its headquarters to Peterborough in 2014!

“Was the 2014 move from downtown Toronto to Peterborough a case of Orchestras Canada following you there, or you following it?” I ask. “It followed me,” she says. “One of those cases of family members reaching a time of life where they needed one of us closer to home.”

Katherine Carleton. Photo by Esther VincentCarleton, who has been executive director of Orchestras Canada since 2005, grew up in Peterborough, and made her way to Orchestras Canada via, among other things, a stint as a granting officer in the music section of the Ontario Arts Council in the early 1990s, “a time when there was adequate funding and a strong feeling that the health of orchestras was vital to healthy cultural life. Large or small, they were all of interest to us,” she says.

“So, has the change in location from College and Bathurst to Peterborough also changed your perception of the role of the organization?” I ask. “I mean, is it possible for a national arts service organization to thrive outside of the 18 blocks of downtown Toronto that we all know the world pivots around?” (Her laugh, in response, has at least a couple of my co-workers turning their heads, wondering what I could have said, on the topic of arts service organizations, funny enough to elicit that response.)

“No, and for a couple of reasons,” she says. “First is that the organization, and this includes my predecessors, as well as in my time here, has always thought nationally, which means being equally available to all our members. OC has 130 member orchestras, none in the territories, but member orchestras in every Canadian province. These days we should be able to operate from anywhere where there’s high-speed internet. Is my life as a concertgoer more challenging now, from a mindset of ‘gosh it’s easy to get to Roy Thomson Hall or Jeanne Lamon, or Koerner because it’s on my way home’? Sure. But in terms of OC as an organization, no. As I said, the focus has always been on orchestras nationally, reinforced by a board of directors that is recruited from across the country. Especially for all the conversations we’re engaging in these days, everything we do is carefully curated so we have representation from orchestras of all sizes and types, and from all parts of the country.”

Of Orchestras Canada’s current 130 members, 65 are in Ontario, with 39 of those being outside of the GTA. And of those 39, two, the Peterborough Symphony and the Kawartha Youth Orchestra, are right in Carleton’s back yard. “Does being up close and personal with their particular challenges as smal-town orchestras put a different slant on things?” I ask.

“No, and I’ll tell you why,” she says. “But before I do, I need to out myself, as a performing member of the Peterborough Symphony (clarinet and bass clarinet). ‘When asked to serve, I do so.’ That kind of thing. And I also teach a number of the members of both the Kawartha Youth Orchestra and their Junior Youth Orchestra, privately. So my sense of them is definitely up close and personal. But as for how being here impacts on my slant on things, it really truly doesn’t. As I mentioned, my insights and attitudes go right back to my Arts Council days, at a time when there was a strong feeling that orchestras were vital to community health right across the province, whether small budget or major institutions. And Orchestras Canada has always cared and understood the same thing. These are things I have pursued right through my own life, so it’s hard to separate where the organization stands from where I do in regard to them – whether the organization is responding to me as executive director or where it’s simply that in taking this job I found exactly the right work for me. The Venn diagram in this case is truly a circle.”

“I did some digging into your website before calling you,” I say, “and a couple of things really jumped out at me. One was the information on the site the upcoming OC conference in Ottawa, June 12 to 14, which I’d like to come back to, because the title of the conference dovetails with my main reason for getting in touch. The other is the changes I noticed to the way the member orchestra directory on the OC site is organized.”

The directory in question has gone through some really interesting changes since I last looked at it as carefully as I did while preparing for this interview. It’s deceptively simple: a five-column spreadsheet: name of member; province; membership type; annual revenues; and, last, a column headed simply “Go to Website.”

“I remember, back in the day, that the column called ‘annual revenues’ used to be something way more complex” I say. “As I recall, you used to classify orchestras by type – regional, community, large, middle-sized, small – things like that. And I remember trying to persuade you that you should partner with us on a directory something like the ones we do, where the members submit short profiles about who they are and what they do.”

“Yes” she says, “I remember that, and thinking long and hard about it. But we went a different direction, putting the onus on members to keep their own information up to date on their websites.” As for the change from describing orchestras as ‘community’ or ‘regional’ to grouping them by annual revenues, she explains, the beginning of that shift goes back to project funding they got from the Ontario Arts Council. (“I’m not going to even try to put a year on it,” she says.) The money was given, in the terminology of the day, to study “the situation, interests and needs of smaller budget orchestras” in Ontario. “We started out, perhaps naively in retrospect, calling them community orchestras, and put together a research plan that involved travelling around to five or six parts of the province – and having regional meetings with folks from these orchestras.”

It was an extraordinarily rich series of conversations, she says: What became abundantly clear was that there were more differences among orchestras with “small budgets” (revenues from $0 to $600,000 a year), than there were among orchestras with “large budgets” (revenues from $650,000 to $33 million). “There was every shade of music making in that $0 to $600,000 range” she says, “from orchestras where only the conductor gets an honorarium through to fully professional ensembles with very short seasons, but all fitting within that so-called ‘small budget’ space we had preemptively defined as ‘community orchestras.’”

Orchestras Canada (home page)It became clear, from this exercise, that trying to define the concept of a “community orchestra” based on budget ran the risk of making the designation so amorphous as not to be useful, or else trying to refine it further, to those groups with very little professional participation, with the danger that “community orchestra” would become almost a pejorative term – “taken as symptomatic of volunteer bumbling rather than ‘we are darned proud of being called that’.”

The new way of designating orchestras in the directory, purely by annual revenue, removes a layer of artistic value judgment from the equation.

Viewed in this light, the Orchestras Canada member directory in its current form becomes a much more nuanced resource, amenable to searching and sorting in all kinds of ways; and with orchestras rising to the challenge of keeping their own websites up to date, (something that, from my perusal of the 65 Ontario orchestras in the directory, the vast majority are managing to do) it makes for fascinating reading.

Removal of “community orchestra” as a loaded label from the Orchestras Canada member directory is an improvement there, but the word community itself remains fundamental to what Orchestras Canada is about, as one digs through the resources and information on the website. The word may have ceased to be useful in describing what orchestras are, but that creates, if anything, an even greater responsibility for OC and the constituency it serves to dig even more deeply into what the term “community” is useful for in talking about the always uncertain future of our orchestras. And that’s where the upcoming June 12 to 14 Orchestras Canada conference at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, titled Designing the 21st Century Orchestra: Embedding Canadian Orchestras in Canadian Communities, promises to be rather useful.

The notion of “embedding orchestras in communities” is catchy, but not if it becomes a lazy catch-all. It is ultimately only useful as a starting point for minutely specific exploration of what the two-way chemistry that needs to exist between communities and their orchestras actually consists of. Carleton thrives on this kind of detailed delving, fascinated by what it can uncover.

“I’ll give you an example,” she says. “One of the fascinating conversations we have been involved with lately – quite amazing to me actually – led to becoming aware, among smaller groups with volunteer musicians, of the competition among these orchestras for the finest volunteer musicians. The clear sense from these players is that if the orchestra is not giving them the opportunity to play the repertoire that they want to in a setting that is congenial for their artistic goals and standards, musicians will go orchestra shopping; so when orchestras like that are asking the question What is our definition of the community we serve? the musicians themselves are going to be very high on that list, because if the entire trombone section walks, and we can’t attract trombones, then what do we do?”

“So what are some of the other good questions, like that one, then?” I ask.

“The question of where excellence fits in,” she says, “that’s a good one. Poor old Beethoven, you know. He often comes in for a bit of a beating in conversations like this. A bit ironic, really. We’ll be sitting around a table and someone will sometimes say, ‘Is our purpose to play Beethoven better every time that the group has the honour of engaging with that music?’ And sometimes it may simply be fine to say YES. That is our job, that is our role, that is our goal as an organization. But maybe there are times where it needs to be a ‘Yes, ... and’ as the improvisers say. Or maybe a ‘Yes … until’ as in ‘’Yes, until it becomes so highly prioritized, in some cases, that volunteer musicians are no longer welcome.’”

“And more?” I ask.

“Perhaps most important, because orchestras are complex contraptions, with lots of people with strong opinions, who are the people involved in these conversations about which way forward? What are the differing perspectives that are coming to the table? The musicians, highly trained and with very specific skills: how are they involved? Board and staff. Volunteers? Is there a living conversation at the place?”

A pause … and then, “This is not dull work,” she says.

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

From left to right: Dominic Teresi, bassoon (seated); Elisa Citterio, violin (seated); Thomas Georgi, violin (standing, dark tie); Allen Whear, cello (seated); Marco Cera, oboe (standing); John Abberger, oboe (seated); Julia Wedman, violin (seated); Patricia Ahearn, violin (seated); Cristina Zacharias, violin (standing); Brandon Chui, viola (standing, blue tie); Geneviève Gilardeau, violin (seated); Patrick Jordan, viola (standing, yellow tie); Chris Verrette, violin (seated); Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord (seated). Photo by Cylla von TiedemannIt’s not always a good idea, sitting down for only your second chat with someone, to start off by reminding them of exactly what they told you the first time round, especially if, as in this case, 18 hectic months have elapsed between conversations. But this time it worked out just fine.

“In May 2017, the last time we talked,” I reminded Elisa Citterio, Tafelmusik’s music director, “you told me that you were hoping for life here to be, perhaps more busy, but less crazy, than before, and I’d like to come back to that. But you also said something very interesting about repertoire, and this is where I’d like to start. You said ‘We can’t live and die by one hundred years of [Baroque] repertoire. We are strings, two oboes, bassoon and continuo, so there are limits to the core repertoire available, and so it’s important for an orchestra like Tafelmusik to touch different periods, to educate the ear. Period playing can lead to illuminating performances of a much wider range of music – Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Verdi. Period playing can strip away the denseness of the 19th-century sound. You get to listen for different things.”

In May 2017, we had squeezed in a hastily arranged interview in The WholeNote office three months before she officially took the Tafelmusik reins for a first season that was already significantly cut and dried in terms of repertoire. This time we were poring over the details of a 2019/20 season, about to be announced, that will, for better or for worse, be seen as well and truly hers.

“When I took on this role” she said, “I left La Scala Theatre where I had been playing for many, many years, all kinds of repertoire; at at the same time, I was playing a lot of Baroque music with other ensembles. So my whole life has been divided between different repertoire, and in my personal experience I can say absolutely that each piece of the picture connects to another one. I can’t say that playing Brahms and Wagner made coming back to Baroque music easier or more difficult. But I have to say I am curious to see how it would be, in the other direction, if musicians in conservatories were trained from early music forward, instead of the other way around.”

Her own training, she freely admits, was not the way she would like things to be. “Like most musicians,” she says, “I did things in reverse. I was trained to play caprices from the 18th and 19th century, and concertos of the 19th and 20th century, before going back in time to Mozart and eventually Bach. So it was a lot of jumping around and more focused on technical issues than on musical essentials.” It was only when she started Baroque violin, she says, that she started to connect things musically, because of the way Baroque violin practice was inextricably connected to imitation of the human voice – “to pronunciation, to consonants and vowels, to syntax. Musicians playing violins, cornettos, had to try to imitate the voice, so this changes fundamentally the way one approaches technique.”

Going back to these roots, as far back as madrigals, she says, began to influence her modern playing in profound ways, day after day and step by step. It wasn’t a magic formula or shortcut though. Finding her way back to classical and Romantic repertoire took a lot of study all over again. But the changes in her playing were fundamental. “Out of it all,” she says, “what I trusted, what I still trust, is that a Baroque orchestra has a sort of mission; it is unlike modern orchestras approaching Baroque repertoire, where the results might sound nice, but there is still something missing, because they simply don’t have the right instruments. Some things are fundamental to Baroque music that can only be achieved with gut strings and with historical wind instruments based on the voice.”

And just because there’s an argument to be made that a modern orchestra can’t travel back in time, it doesn’t mean that the reverse argument applies. After all, modern orchestras used gut strings right up to the time when, grisly fact, world wars saw the end to a reliable supply of gut strings, with the commodity commandeered for sutures.

“So, Wagner was writing for orchestras using gut strings,” she says. “And at La Scala we played operas at historically accurate pitch … I feel that if Tafelmusik does not take what we do to the limit, the edge of where we can go, not as a novelty, but consistently, with a process to arrive there, it would be a pity. I think we can really give something new for this music. We are not the first, I am not saying that. But we are one of the few. I have played with orchestras around the world and I can say that Tafelmusik can do great and huge work on this kind of music. But step by step.”

Just as finding her way back to classical and Romantic repertoire took a lot of study all over again for Citterio, the coming season’s excursion into the 19th century is not going to be a picnic for the orchestra. “It will be work,” she says, “and we will workshop for it. But Tafelmusik musicians are well informed, so that is a big start. We will concentrate only on the repertoire we are going to play in the coming season, but it is still a lot. For example, the way to shift among positions on the violin alters over the years. In Vivaldi a shift should leave a note as cleanly as possible. In the Romantic repertoire I am trying to connect the voice with a portamento going up and down; also rubato is quite different in the different periods; and the strokes are different; and we have many different kinds of accents that we have to know how to read, because earlier an accent had a different meaning. So this workshop will be really to understand how to work on these technical issues together. And also how to deal with these busy scores, because Tchaikovsky and Brahms wrote a lot on their scores! If you look at a Castello or Fontana score, then at Brahms, the world has changed totally, from nothing to everything.”

Small Steps and Giant Leaps

Citterio is describing methodically what she calls “small steps” the ensemble will be taking to prepare for the “mission” ahead but, from an audience point of view, 2019/20, styled “Old Meets New” in their brochure, looks like more of a giant leap. Old Meets New head on is more like it, starting from the very first concert of the season in which Tafelmusik tackles a string symphony by the teenaged Felix Mendelssohn, as well as the Scherzo from his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, arranged by Citterio’s composer brother, Carlo Citterio, en route to tackling the music of Tchaikovsky (his Serenade for string orchestra) for the very first time.   

Andrew Balfour. Photo credit Camerata-Nova

The program will also feature a world premiere by Canadian composer Andrew Balfour, as the brochure says, “in keeping with our season theme of the new informing the old, and the old informing the new.”

It’s a lot to unpack, starting with the notion of Tafelmusik commissioning no fewer than six new works over the course of a single season, four of them by Canadian composers. (In addition to Balfour, the season will also include premieres from James Rolfe, Guido Morini, Cecilia Livingston, Grégoire Jeay, and Vittorio Ghielmi.

Cecilia Livingston. Photo credit Self-Limited-Photography“It’s just a first example of trying to start the process of realizing my vision of what this orchestra can be,” Citterio says. “I want to support new composers, including strongly believing in including new commissions. We must remember that this ‘new thing’ is actually very old, because one thing about Baroque music is that, for the players and for the audience, it was almost all newly composed – all music was like a premiere. So how else do we get the same feeling today as players? Or as audiences? There are many composers who can write for our instruments with a style that is really compatible, or sometimes with some new influences. I played a lot of great music when I was in Italy, just written for our instruments, sometimes in Baroque style, sometimes in a later style, and the audience just loved it. There’s nothing wrong with someone who wants to write for gut strings because they love the sound! Or for harpsichord. I mean, piano is a wonderful instrument, but we still have the harpsichord as a living instrument, or the viola da gamba ... I played one time this concerto grosso written by an Italian composer, a premiere, and it was written for harpsichord, two violins, viola, gamba and two recorders, and it was amazing; there was an obvious influence from Corelli’s Concerto grosso, but there were other subtle nuances from Romantic or later repertoire. The harpsichord, gamba and recorders all had solos, and the mix was stunning and the audience loved it, because it was written for the voices of the instruments. That was 15 years ago and at that time I thought we must give space to composers.”

So they are trying to choose composers who already have a sense of Tafelmusik’s instruments, or really want to find out. And the process of outreach into the wider music for sources to assist them in finding composers has been a valuable exercise it its own right – Soundstreams, for example, led them to Cecilia Livingston. “Best of all, I am really looking forward it, because it will be a surprise for me too, as a player,” Citterio says. “And that is very Baroque.”

As important as the fact of there being new commissions, will be the contexts in which they will be presented. In the season’s ninth program, for example, Quebec flutist Grégoire Jeay’s new work will be designed to lead directly into Citterio’s own arrangement for orchestra (“I am still working on it!” she says) of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

“But you talked earlier about the power of period playing to cut through the complexity of someone like Tchaikovsky,” I say. So isn’t setting the Goldberg for orchestra the opposite of that – taking something pure and muddying it? I remember, last time we talked you called that kind of thick sound minestrone Wagneriana, and we decided the best English translation was ‘Wagnerian pea soup’?”

She laughs. “Yes I remember. But this is not the same thing. The rearrangement of music from many instruments to few and few to many is a very old idea, and common in Baroque. Bach, for example, arranged violin sonatas for lute and for harpsichord. Or another example, in our fifth program, for example, we are going to hear opera music arranged for eight winds. And all these arrangements, the Bach and the Harmonie, were done at the time, so the idea of the Goldberg orchestral arrangement is not so novel. On our tour out west, an all-Bach program, we included a couple of arrangements of variations and I have in the past already recorded a version of the Goldberg for string quartet and harpsichord. More than that, I would say with Bach the music is beyond the specific instruments. It is just so pure in its harmony and counterpoint.”

That fifth program Citterio is referring to, by the way, is titled “Gone with the Winds,” calling to life a popular form of ensemble in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s day. Hits from the latest operas were arranged for groups of wind musicians called Harmonie who performed in the homes of the rich, and in spas, pubs and pleasure gardens for the public, “the juke box of the 18th century.” Commissioned composer Cecilia Livingston, whose current major project is a full-length opera with TorQ Percussion Quartet and Toronto’s Opera 5 should fit right in!

But Will They Follow?

Baroque arrangement of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky and the interpolation of commissioned new works are about as far forward as Tafel will travel in time. In the 2019/20 season anyway. But the “Old Meets New” season moniker gets a vigorous workout in a host of other ways.

Suba and Trichy Sankaran. Photo by Greg LockeThere is yet another themed program, titled The Indigo Project, from the endlessly inventive and curious mind of Alison Mackay, this time in collaboration with father/daughter duo of Suba and Trichy Sankaran, tracing the significance of the introduction into 17th-century Europe of indigofera tinctoria, the indigo dye that provided both the royal blue of the Bourbon courts and the colour of the cotton fabric worn by the common folk, known as denim. Ancient history with profound contemporary implications.

Other programs dig into the centuries before Baroque in the same way the Mendelssohn/Tchaikovsky program pushes past it. Or introduce us to a composer (Antonio Lotti) whose direct influence on composers like Bach and Handel was evidently as profound as history’s silence where Lotti is concerned … the list goes on.

Engaging as it all promises to be, the jury is out on whether Tafelmusik’s audience will follow where the orchestra under Citterio clearly wants to go. And it’s clear that Tchaikovsky is not the end of the road. Citterio herself agrees that only time will tell. But she knows what she thinks about it: “I truly hope audiences will be happily surprised by it all. I think I am getting to know them better. I understand it will take time. And that some come to Tafelmusik only to hear Baroque music, I know it is only one story, but I like it: It was after we did Mozart’s Symphony No.40, which everyone does, and everyone knows. It’s everywhere. And where probably every audience member expects to hear it a certain way. So we tried to clear the score, to give it a transparency, taking advantage of our instruments, dynamic, articulation, pronunciation even (in German, of course). And one member of the audience who goes to the TSO all the time and likes that kind of style more for this kind of classical and Romantic repertoire came to me and said ‘today I discovered a new Mozart, and I don’t want to stop. I could hear each instrument and detail.’ I was so happy to have feedback like that.”

“So right at the beginning you said you were hoping for ‘busier perhaps, but less crazy,” I say, to bring it full circle. “Crazy busy!” she replies, with a smile. Not crazy the way Italy was, where there are great talents but not, shall we say, well organized as a team. Yes I am busier than I should be, I have a baby but everything is organized, and well organized, so busier is definitely easier.”

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

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