Peter Oundjian conducting La Mer - Photo by Malcolm CookKnowing how busy his schedule was going to be over the course of the spring, I booked my final interview with Peter Oundjian good and early (Thursday, March 8, to be precise). He was in town for New Creations, one of the signature series he created in the course of his 14 years as the TSO’s conductor and music director. I’d had a chance to get a sneak-peek look over the first “post-Oundjian” 2018/19 season before going in to meet him and what struck me immediately was the fact that all the Oundjian signatures are conspicuous by their absence – New Creations, the Decades Project, and most noticeably, Mozart @, which he had launched as Mozart@249 the very first year he arrived – stealing a march on the looming Mozart at 250 hullabaloo, in that endearing blend of cheeky and canny that has characterized his stay here.

(As it turned out, he had not looked at the upcoming season at all and in fact had no hand in putting it together. So rather than, as in some previous years, the spring interview being with musical director Peter Oundjian with an enthusiastic agenda of “upcomings” to promote, this was a rather more leisurely and relaxed ramble through this and that, looking back as much as forward. Enjoy.)

WN: So 14 years with the Tokyo String Quartet and then 14 years of this? What’s with that?
Peter Oundjian (laughs): Yes, well it did rather play into my decision – because I knew the time was coming when everyone would need to reinvent themselves a little bit on both sides; so then I looked at that number, 14 years, and said, well, it seems about right. But, truth be told, we were hopeful we had found a successor so I thought, “Well, this is going to be smooth, because you always want to know that your organization is going to be in good hands when you leave.” Whenever I wake up at night it’s “What do they need, what could go wrong, what do they need going forward, what do I do about this particular personnel issue, conflict, this sound issue, what about fundraising, why are we not having more success in this area?” There are just a million things to think about… More than there were with the [Tokyo] Quartet, actually. I mean with the quartet it was like going to the moon. “Here’s your schedule for the next two years… Go!” 140 cities every year. Here are the programs. Practise. Rehearse!

If this is Houston it must be Opus 131 again… that kind of thing?
Exactly. Here it’s been different every week. I mean figuring out the guest conductors. Who the orchestra really enjoys? Who challenges the orchestra the most? Who simply makes the orchestra feel good. What’s the right balance? It’s an enormous task, and really challenging because it’s so multifaceted. There’s a tremendous emotional input that goes into it – and intellectual. So when you decide the time has come to move into a different place in your own life and the life of the organization, the one thing you worry about is – and this is maybe going to sound a bit self-centred – will people realize how much attention goes into this? And… You don’t want a vacuum, put it that way. That’s what you worry about, because when I arrived there was a serious vacuum. The first few times I conducted this orchestra there had been serious leadership vacuums on both sides. I mean certainly we had not had luck with CEOs staying very long, and the right kind of vision. Jukka-Pekka [Saraste] had left several years before.

Yes, there was an uneasiness at the time. I agree. But is there going to be less of a vacuum this time round?
Oh I think so. Very much. First of all, Sir Andrew Davis is a great friend and is somebody everybody trusts implicitly, and he has a very strong relationship with the city and with the orchestra. But also I have to say we are in a less tenuous situation. The morale of the orchestra is in a very different place from where it was in the 90s, and that’s by the way not to point fingers at Jukka-Pekka in any way. He came into a very difficult economic situation, where the Canadian government was backing away not just from support of the TSO but from the arts in general – and that’s what brought about the tax structure change, by the way, more of a feeling that the private sector should enable it, if we believe in it, then let the private sector, with the help of the government via new tax structures, show their vision and prove their worth.

So in those terms, Sir Andrew is coming in as the vacuum cleaner…
Well put! (laughs) Right. I mean, if the orchestra had come to a decision regarding a conductor in the last two years since I announced my departure it would have been different, but they didn’t… it was close but it didn’t happen.  

It was close?
It was. But the person took another position.

From an audience perspective these searches are pretty boring actually – certainly not a public blood sport. I mean, nobody wants to be known as the shortlisted candidate who didn’t get the job.
Exactly. It’s the opposite of politics, and so it should be. Nobody should know who’s on the shortlist, and at this point, by the way I don’t think there’s even a shortlist. There’s a lot of discovery going on.

Listening to you talking about capital gains and tax structures and the like, is that one of the hats you’ll be hoping to wear less moving on?
It’s a good question. I mean, I have been music director of two organizations for almost seven years now – I took on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) officially in 2012 but before that you’re [still] doing all the planning. I have been working in that kind of “administrative capacity” for two symphony orchestras for the past seven years or so. So definitely it was on my mind that now’s the time to focus more exclusively on musical discoveries, and musical adventures and musical thinking. Also I will be doing a tiny bit more work at Yale. Well, I shouldn’t say tiny, more work at Yale anyway. I have taken over the Yale Philharmonia – the Yale Music School is one of the postgraduate schools at Yale and it’s the only major research university in North America that has a dedicated performance music school and it’s tuition-free so the standard is very high. I’ve been a professor there since 1981 actually…

Tokyo String Quartet had a Yale residency, right?
Exactly. Part of my obligation as a member of the quartet was teaching chamber music at Yale.
So I have had a very close affiliation with Yale. It’s very close to my home in Connecticut and it’s meant a lot to me over the years. So I was asked if I would take over the program, which is an interesting ensemble in that they prepare in the same way as a professional orchestra – all the rehearsals are within one week – six rehearsals. So not only is it easier for me to be involved, but…

… Also a taste of the real world for the orchestra.
Exactly! And not only that, it means I can bring in international guest conductors who can give a week, but could never have given two or three weeks in the old way of preparing.

So tell me a bit more about the RSNO music directorship. I assume it has its own mix of rewards and challenges, but have there been transferable solutions from here to there?
The important thing is not to take anything for granted, because if you go with your expectations rather than with your observations you are in trouble. Similar and different problems and exciting rewards. It’s been a wonderful experience with RSNO: it’s an orchestra that plays with a great deal of expressivity. We’ve been able to tour them to China and Europe and the United States. And a lot of recordings. That’s been one of the best things with the RSNO because at the TSO, as you know, we don’t have a contract that really allows us to make recordings. The only recordings we have made here are live, with possibly a patch session. Two performances and you have to hope there isn’t a bar where things didn’t go well on both nights. But in the RSNO you actually really record. You go in and you do the thing and if something goes wrong you work it out. And that allows people to play with a lot of risk. When you are recording live you want it to be exciting but the risk element is a really tricky one. I have to say, though, the TSO has been amazing, really amazing in their live recordings. If you listen to them… I mean we did The Planets and Rite of Spring in one night! And I listen to those recordings sometimes and say “If we had done those in recording sessions, what would have been more, quote, perfect.” Some of the most exciting recordings are live; they are not the most perfect but…

But at least you can hear the hall breathe…
Right. So with the RSNO it’s a different kind of contract, where a service can mean a rehearsal or it can be a concert or a recording session. In the States and North America generally, that’s not the case. Recordings have to be in a separate contract.

With kids at Roy Thomson Hall - Photo by Cylla von TiedemannHas raising kids in this city helped shape your perspective on what needed to be done at the TSO to build bridges to that next-generation audience that everyone talks about as some kind of holy grail?
I’d say first that one’s own children are not a good gauge because they’ve grown up with music around them all the time and they play instruments and so on. But for me, reaching out is not just a generational thing. I have always tried to make the concert hall a friendly place, a non-elitist place. And sometimes that’s been quite trying, because when you are about to go out and really perform… I mean, when an actor’s about to go out and be Hamlet they really don’t want to go out before and spend five minutes explaining the play. How do you gain the credibility of then being Hamlet? Obviously it’s not quite the same when I step onto the podium. I am not becoming another person, but when I start to conduct I am becoming an interpreter, and hopefully some kind of transmitter of feeling and atmosphere and everything else.

So it’s a tough transition from “mine genial host”?
Exactly. You’re in two very different modes. And certainly, there are certain pieces before which I have not spoken. Or have tried to separate the speaking from the performance in some way. But people have been generally appreciative of my welcoming them, trying to give them some sense of what they are listening to and what to listen for.

To demystify the thing…
Right. So to get to your question, if I can help people who might otherwise not come back, and who might now say “I have friends who would actually enjoy this,” and even bring someone with them the next time, then that’s gratifying. And all in all, the size of our audiences is gratifying.

I remember a performance of the Tchaikovsky Sixth where you spoke from the front of the stage. The second mezzanine was filled with first-timers. You were explaining the structure of the piece how the Third and Fourth Movements are a reversal from the norm.
In terms of character you mean?

Yes, exactly. And you said “So don’t be surprised if you want to applaud at the end of the third movement.”
Ah yes, I remember.

And then you actually went further – you said “In fact, if you feel like applauding, go right ahead because this ‘rule’ we have about not applauding between movements of a symphony actually didn’t come into effect until a decade after this symphony was written and performed.”
That’s correct. Yes.

And what was so interesting about that for me was seeing what you earned from that as conductor later on.
How so?

Peter Oundjian and violinist Itzhak Perlman perform Bach's 'Concerto for Two Violins' with TSO - photo by Dale WWell, you got to hold the silence at the end of the final movement way, way longer – maybe eight, ten seconds of…
Of meaningful atmosphere. Right.

So I’m really interested to know where you stand on the whole etiquette thing, because what that particular intervention at the beginning did was to disentitle the purists in the audience from being your glare police. And from where I sit, the rewards of that kind of recalibration of what’s okay far outweigh the disadvantages.
Right. So, I’m not convinced that the house rules, developed by Mahler and Schoenberg really, have the same relevance now as they did then. And by that I mean that people behaved pretty badly in concerts then. People talked a lot in the 19th century. It was much less formal, from the reports we hear. And in opera, too. I mean, at La Scala there was cooking and eating going on in the boxes. So they were frustrated that people were not really listening during the movements, and they wanted to take control, to say “No! You’re going to be quiet, and even between the movements you’re going to be silent and not talk because otherwise we can’t get your attention back.” I may be exaggerating slightly, but I think that it was really a reaction to failed listening. Otherwise, how did movements get encored in Beethoven’s time? Because people applauded like crazy. They thought it was so amazing. “Play it again. Play it again. We want to hear that movement again!” Obviously there was a huge reaction to each movement. 

That’s a delightful thought.
Now obviously there are certain pieces, certain movements that, when they end – first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for example – it’s just plain awkward when it’s silent after that, it so calls for a response. Nobody has any problem with that at the opera. People applaud after the big arias; nobody looks at them and says “What are you doing?” That hasn’t changed. I don’t think applause necessarily interrupts the flow of a symphonic performance. But it depends on the symphony and it depends on the movement. Now I happen to like applause at the end of the third movement in Tchaik Six because I then get to completely destroy their good mood, by hearing when that applause is going to die and then bringing in that devastating chord. I think it’s incredibly dramatic. Much more dramatic than bringing it in out of silence. Personally. But then I come from a family of different kinds of performers too so… I mean you know who my cousin is?

You mean Eric [Idle]?
Exactly. Of all the Monty Python guys he’s the one they all trust with putting on the shows because he understands how people react and what order to do things in. Anyway, all this to say, understanding the theatre of things is very important.
Now, do I want applause after the Adagietto? Of course not. It’s not the end of anything. The silence is very, very powerful. So I think I know when applause is okay and when it’s not, and I hope what I have developed is a kind of trust from people.
And one last thing to say: people with a real love for the symphony, when other people react and clap after a first movement, they should be saying “Wonderful – there are new people in the audience tonight!”

Going way back, the first time I interviewed you, you were standing in the hallway of your house in Connecticut waiting for the movers – Tippett Richardson I’m guessing – to arrive....
(Laughs). You’re right, it was Tippett Richardson. In fact, it was John Novak’s son Dave, who was one of the movers. John has been a fantastic supporter of the TSO.

So on the subject of houses – this is a bit roundabout, but bear with me – when people are selling a house they have lived in, realtors will advise that, yes, it needs to be furnished, but it really shouldn’t be too personal.

Yes, exactly. And looking at the upcoming 2018/19 season, that’s what it feels like. Functionally furnished for whoever the new occupants are going to be.
Right, and that’s possibly exactly what it is. As I say I haven’t seen the brochure (not for any intentional reason, I just haven’t got round to it), but that may well be the thinking behind it, because the new person wants to come with a vision.

The Oundjian branding is gone. New Creations is gone. The Decades Project is gone. The Mozart@ series is gone.
Yes, Well the Decades Project, I never really got to complete. I actually loved that project. I have to say I wish it had intrigued people more. It intrigued the people who came, for sure, but I thought it was just so fascinating. It was a good example of the things I like to do. Bartok/Strauss is another example. You know, programming unlikely contemporaries. Or Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists. Or Stravinsky/Brahms. Stravinsky/Brahms was especially indulgent on my part, because Stravinsky was 16 when Brahms died, and I was 16 when Stravinsky died, so I thought “Wow, was Brahms to Stravinsky in his head that great contemporary, living composer?” And yes, he was! As Stravinsky was to me when I was a young man hearing Stravinsky premieres. So I was fascinated by that. It’s all about ways of framing programs. Of storytelling.

So to get back to my point, this coming season doesn’t have that curated, storytelling feel to it. I’m assuming that in a transitional year, with 20 different conductors coming in – I listed them all if you’d like to look – some of whom one might infer are under consideration for the new appointment, one way to truly evaluate the chemistry between candidates and the orchestra is to say “Let’s see what the new people do with the old stuff.”
Very much so. Part of the thinking is you need to see these conductors under the same observational umbrella. It’s sensible. And it’s exciting in a different way. Clearly a lot of the conductors on this list have never been here before. Some of course are old friends. So it’s clear what the concept is. There are some people coming simply because we like to hear them make music with the orchestra – Gunther [Herbig], Pinky [Pinchas Zuckerman], Sir Andrew of course. Others may be under the microscope in some sense. But it’s not a shortlist or anything like that.

And you are completely gone from the picture for the entire season, I see, although I gather you’ll be part of the picture for the 2019/20 again.
That’s right, yes.

So is that part of the “getting the previous occupant out of the way” blank-slate thing we were talking about?
Yes. I think a lot of conductors don’t really step aside properly, it seems to me. I mean, you can look at all kinds of examples. You know, huge farewell and then a couple of weeks later they’re back on the podium again and you’re wondering, well, what was that farewell about then? So it made sense to me to have the announcement of the new season, which I had no hand in, while I’m still in farewell mode, or whatever you want to call it; and to include me in the announcement as music director would not have seemed right. And as for the season, obviously they’re going to be looking at a lot of people over time, and also inviting back well-loved, trusted friends of the orchestra who’ve been here quite a bit and whom they really know. And the following season, all going well, I’ll be back as one of those!

David Perlman can be reached at

Sky bannerWhat does the summer mean for musicians? For some, it means a break from a busy concert season. For others, it means the busiest time of the year – either touring the summer festival circuit or running a festival themselves. In either case, for many arts workers the end of the “official” concert season marks a break from routine, and an opportunity to pursue new things.

In this annual series, we interview music-makers from across our local community to ask them about their summer plans. This year, we got in touch with pianist Philip Chiu, who will be busy touring the country as a chamber musician and recitalist; stage director Amanda Smith, who is preparing for an upcoming season of operatic endeavours; composer Elisha Denburg, who has new compositions in the works, in addition to helping organize this year’s Ashkenaz Festival; and soprano and arts administrator Donna Bennett, who will be helping to manage the upcoming season at Westben, as the organization makes the transition from summer festival to year-round music centre. With all of these artists, their plans for summer vacation, or lack thereof, provide a hint of exciting musical projects to come – and a glimpse into the ever-evolving nature of what it means to build a career, and a life, in the arts.

Philip Chiu

PHILIP CHIU, pianist

What are we interrupting (i.e. what music-related activity are we taking you away from to write this)?

When I received your email earlier this week, I was in the middle of a tour dedicated to performing in small communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, as Trio Corventano (Thomas Beard, cello and Dakota Martin, flute). We had a blast playing an incredibly diverse program of Gaubert’s Trois Aquarelles, Haydn’s Trio in G Major, Hummel’s Adagio, Variations and Rondo on “Beautiful Minka, and Nikolai Kapustin’s absolutely fiendish Trio.

What, if anything, are you most looking forward to as an audience member between now and September 7?

I’m spending a fair amount of time teaching and performing at two major music festivals this year, Domaine Forget and Toronto Summer Music (TSM), so I’ll definitely be taking in concerts at both locations.

During my stay at Domaine Forget, there is no doubt that Orchestre Métropolitain’s concert with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and flutist Emmanuel Pahud playing Ibert’s Concerto is going to be outstanding ... I’m already on my feet.

As for TSM, I am looking forward to hearing Angela Cheng and Alvin Chow in their concert of solo and duo rep, which includes some of my favourite pieces (Debussy’s Petite Suite and Ravel’s La Valse). It is sure to be a home-run.

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

I’ll refer to both festivals again: June 29 is my birthday and it turns out I’ll be in concert at Domaine Forget with a number of wind greats, including the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal bassoon Daniel Matsukawa and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Mr. Needs-no-introduction Emmanuel Pahud. I have a hard time imagining a better birthday gift.

As for TSM, I’m scattered throughout concerts from July 30 to August 3, but if I had to choose... it would be my recital with pal Jonathan Crow in his “Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin.” I have enormous respect for Jonathan’s talent and discipline, and we also share a passion for never wanting to rehearse too much, so it promises to be fun.

What are you already preparing for musically beyond the summer? And (how) do your summer plans tie in with these longer term plans?

Projects starting this summer and continuing into the fall include a big Québec tour with my other woodwind trio, Trio Canoë (Marina Thibeault, viola and Jean-Francois Normand, clarinet), as well as a big solo project focused on the piano music of Ravel and Debussy.

Finally, there’s a super-secret project with my friend and chef Sean Murray Smith and co-proprietor Nada Abou Younes of Restaurant Île Flottante in Montréal. I can’t say too much at the moment, but we’re looking forward to continuing our collaboration of combining food and music in unexpected ways.

Pianist Philip Chiu concertizes extensively as one of Canada’s most sought-after chamber musicians. He performs regularly in recital with principal members of Canada’s leading orchestras and ensembles, including Toronto Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Jonathan Crow, l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal concertmaster Andrew Wan and Pascale Giguere of Les Violons du Roy.

Amanda Smith - Photo by Dahlia Katz

AMANDA SMITH, stage director

What are we interrupting?

I always have a few projects in various planning stages. For the past few months, I’ve been working with the Iranian-Canadian Composers of Toronto on the early development stages of a one-woman opera called Notes of Hope, which will premiere in the fall. I love creating new work, so I feel very fortunate to have been invited to join the project by this incredible group at the pre-libretto stage. It has really allowed me to get to know them and their vision for the project, so I can confidently ensure their message is heard as I direct the piece.

Most immediately, I’ve been working with the rest of the FAWN Chamber Creative team to get ready for a week-long workshop for Pandora in June. This is an opera-ballet triple bill with librettos by David James Brock and music by David Storen, Joseph Glaser and Kit Soden (and is the direct result of a workshop FAWN hosted last year). It’s a really exciting project for me because I have a strong interest in alternative methods of creating opera and we’re doing exactly that.

What are you most looking forward to as an audience member between now and September 7?

I’m so often taken away in the summer and always regret not getting to see what’s on at Luminato. I’m fortunately only away for two weeks this year to direct the scenes for Cowtown Summer Opera Academy, so I’m looking forward to taking in as much as I can during the festival.

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

I view them as the same. Even when I go to an electronic music show, I’m there as both an audience member and an artist ready to learn.

What are you already preparing for musically beyond the summer?

I’m actually getting married early September, so I expect that will be taking up a lot of my summertime. Alongside that, I will be planning for Notes of Hope, creating concepts for Pandora with my creative team and working on my plans for the production of Massenet’s Cendrillon that I am directing at Wilfrid Laurier University in the winter of 2019. It’s looking to be a really exciting summer.

Amanda Smith is a Toronto-based stage director and founding artistic director of FAWN Chamber Creative. With FAWN, she commissions, produces and directs new Canadian operas and interdisciplinary works that correlate new classical music with other contemporary art forms.

Elisha Denburg

ELISHA DENBURG, composer/arts administrator

What are we interrupting?

Right now I’m taking a coffee break from my duties as community relations manager at the Ashkenaz Foundation. This year we are launching the 12th biennial edition of the Ashkenaz Festival, a huge gathering of Jewish-global music, arts and culture! It takes place this year from August 28 to September 3 in Toronto.

My job involves a lot of different tasks, from coordinating volunteers, to booking vendors, ads, and writing grants for the foundation. If you’ve never been, do check it out! Visit to find out more (and hey, maybe you wanna volunteer?).

What are you most looking forward to as an audience member between now and September 7?

I’m really looking forward to attending what I can of the Open Ears Festival in Waterloo Region – in particular, Katerina Gimon’s outdoor installation and Jason Doell’s CD release party [on June 2]. As well, the Toronto Creative Music Lab always produces some very interesting collaborations and fosters interaction between some very talented new artists. I’m always excited to hear what they come up with.

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

Definitely the Ashkenaz Festival! This will be the culmination of months of hard work and I am so excited to see it come to fruition, which for me will be the first time. Others who have been working at the festival for a long time expect this to be the biggest and best Ashkenaz yet! Most of the events are free, so if you’re around before and on Labour Day weekend, come join us!

What are you already preparing for musically beyond the summer?

In the new year, I’m looking forward to starting a piece commissioned by the Orchid Ensemble in Vancouver, in celebration of the 70th birthday of my uncle Moshe Denburg, who is likewise a composer steeped in the traditions of Jewish music. So, I plan to keep my ears open at the Ashkenaz Festival to help fuel the inspiration and ideas for this upcoming work.

Elisha Denburg’s music has been played across Canada and the US. His catalogue focuses on vocal/chamber works, and is often informed by Jewish liturgical and folk traditions. He currently works at the Ashkenaz Foundation.

Donna Bennett - Photo by Melanie Elliott

DONNA BENNETT, director of marketing, Westben

What are we interrupting?

Well, I was just having a meeting with the head of our volunteers, sorting out what volunteers are going to be used for our season. We have a new series on Saturdays this year called Dare to Pair, where, before concerts, patrons can come and have wine tastings, with lunch by a local chef and conversations with musicians. We’re doing that for six Saturdays – so, I was going to the volunteers and talking about how many tables we need, and tablecloths, and wine glasses – all of that stuff.

What are you most looking forward to as an audience member between now and September 7?

I’ll be pretty busy with Westben – we have 30 concerts over two months this summer. But I’m looking forward to our production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We have a 100-member cast, and it features two of the choirs that I run throughout the year. So I’m looking forward to seeing them get up onstage.

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

I’m a soprano and I’ll be singing on July 21 at Westben in a Scottish program, with tenor Colin Ainsworth and my husband Brian Finley, Westben’s artistic director, on piano. I’m really looking forward to preparing for, and performing in, that concert.

What are you already preparing for musically beyond the summer?

Now that we’re a year-round centre, we have concerts coming up in September as well. [That transition] has been really exciting: just calling ourselves a “centre for connections and creativity through music” opens the door to so many possibilities. We’ve added more programming like house concerts, we’ve started some residency programs – such as a performer-composer residency this July that our son Ben Finley is organizing.

We’re coming up to our 20th anniversary in 2019, and it seemed that we needed to develop; we couldn’t just stay the same. We’d already naturally been doing more events year-round, and we realized that what Westben does is bring people together through music. So we thought that becoming [year-round officially] this year would open up possibilities to develop that. We want to get Westben more out in the community – all year, both digitally and physically.

Soprano Donna Bennett has performed in operas, musical theatre and recitals across Canada, the USA and Europe. Her favourite stage is at the Westben, near Campbellford, Ontario, the home of Westben Concerts at The Barn, which she and her husband Brian Finley co-founded in 1999. Donna directs five choirs, teaches privately and is the director of marketing at Westben.

James RolfeWorld premieres are a gift at any time during a concert season, and there are a few that I’m looking forward to as the summer season approaches. One that I’m most anticipating is Toronto composer James Rolfe’s (b. 1961) new song cycle, I Think We Are Angels. This is a major work: nineteen songs divided between a quartet of singers who play hand-held percussion, in addition to their vocal performance.

They are accompanied by a single musician, an accordionist. The Soundstreams original production features a dynamic group of singers under the musical direction of John Hess: soprano Vania Chan, mezzo Andrea Ludwig, tenor Colin Ainsworth, and baritone Stephen Hegedus. The accordionist is the remarkable Michael Bridge.

Rolfe based his song cycle on the poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler (1869–1945). Lasker-Schüler was Jewish-German, associated with the Blue Rider group of expressionist artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Franz Marc. Rolfe writes that “Lasker-Schüler created a body of poetry which dealt with romantic and sensual love, as well as spirituality and Judaism. Only weeks after being awarded Germany’s highest literary prize in 1933, she was accosted by Nazi thugs in the streets of Berlin. She immediately fled, first to Switzerland, and finally to Jerusalem, where she died in 1945.” The songs, Rolfe continues, describe a journey: “From the youthful celebration of physical, sensual love, we travel through loneliness and a yearning for God, finally arriving at an acceptance of suffering and death.” The vivid, compelling translations of the German poetry were made by the composer.

This 35-minute song cycle comes on the heels of the successful production of The Overcoat, the opera by Rolfe and playwright Morris Panych, which premiered in March. The Canadian Stage and Tapestry Opera co-production then toured to Vancouver for a run with Vancouver Opera. Rolfe has become a celebrated composer for the voice. His operas have been widely performed by several opera companies: the COC, Toronto Masque Theatre, Tapestry Opera, Vancouver Opera, Edmonton Opera and Pacific Opera Victoria. He has also worked with award-winning librettists: André Alexis, George Elliott Clarke, Anna Chatterton, Paul Bentley, Morris Panych, Steven Heighton.

I Think We Are Angels was co-commissioned for Soundstreams by Michael and Sonia Koerner and Stanley H. Witkin. The production takes place in two performances on June 6 and 7 at the new Crow’s Theatre in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood. The work is paired on the program with American composer David Lang’s the little match girl passion, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen. Lang’s composition won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2008. But Lang and Rolfe will have another role together while their respective works are in preparation in early June. The two composers are co-directing Soundstreams’ sixth annual Emerging Composers’ Workshop, as mentors to six young composers from Canada and the USA.

Soundstreams’ artistic director Lawrence Cherney and his team recognize the importance of investing in each next generation of creators. The ten-day program, supported by the Koerner Foundation and the RBC Emerging Artists Project, focuses on creating original compositions with innovative techniques, introduced during coaching sessions, collaborative discussions, seminars and rehearsals with a highly skilled resident performing ensemble. The public will have an opportunity to hear the resulting compositions in a late-night performance following the June 6 mainstage presentation of the little match girl passion and I Think We Are Angels. The six young composers participating this year are Alexandre David from Montreal; Toronto composers Christina Volpini, Lieke van der Voort and Tyler Versluis; New York composer Joshua Denenberg; and Pierce Gradone from Chicago.

James Rolfe was himself an emerging composer 28 years ago when he won a prize in the CBC/Radio-Canada National Radio Competition for Young Composers. His prizewinning work was a much shorter song cycle, Four Songs on Poems by Walt Whitman, for bass voice and piano, and it was broadcast in live performance across Canada on both CBC Radio Two and La Chaîne culturelle de Radio-Canada. Rolfe considers this award the highest profile he had received to that point in his career. The encouragement was timely. The following year he met the poet, George Elliott Clarke (b. 1960), whom he would eventually collaborate with on what would become a career highlight for both of them, the 1998 opera Beatrice Chancy. Eleven operas later, it’s fair to say that Rolfe has become a recognized Canadian operatic master, even at mid-career.

The support that young composers receive as they emerge into professional status can be very telling. For example, in August of 1949, the 23-year-old composer and pianist Harry Somers (1925–1999) was awarded the amount of $2,000 to enable him to travel to Paris to study. The award was one of two donated by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association for advanced training in the arts – applications in music, dance and theatre were all eligible. Such awards were altruistic, and only had the objective of the betterment of Canadian youth in mind. Composer Brian Cherney, Somers’ biographer, told me that “the scholarship was handled through an organization called the Canada Foundation in Ottawa. One of the letters from the Canada Foundation indicated that Somers was the unanimous choice for the scholarship he received.”

Harry SomersSomers had previously won scholarships for study at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, but this new travel grant was of significantly greater impact. Cherney says, “I think that the most important result of the scholarship was that it gave Harry about nine or ten months to write music in an interesting and stimulating milieu.” While in Paris he composed his String Quartet No.2, two piano sonatas and a trio. Following his year in Paris, Somers’ works took on a noticeably greater depth of expression. In 1956 he composed his Five Songs for Dark Voice, with poetry by Michael Fram. Commissioned by the Stratford Festival, it was written for contralto Maureen Forrester and is now considered an early masterpiece. That same year, he composed his Second Piano Concerto, and he completed the full orchestration of his North Country Suite.

Somers returned to Paris in 1960 on a Canada Council fellowship, seemingly a fully formed, mature composer. He began supporting himself on his commissions, writing major orchestral compositions, such as his Lyric (1960) for the Koussevitzky Foundation in New York and Stereophony (1963) for the Toronto Symphony (TSO). The point of this is that the support he received as an emerging composer set him up to make that transition to maturity.

Andrew StanilandA comparable path can be traced for Alberta-born Andrew Staniland (b. 1977), who at age 23 moved east to pursue his graduate degrees in composition at the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto. Staniland began winning composition prizes immediately and steadily. Following two SOCAN prizes in 2002, he then won the second Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music ever awarded in 2003, as well as the Toronto Emerging Composer Award in 2004. Staniland went on to win the Pierre Mercure Award in 2005 and the Hugh Le Caine Award in Electroacoustic Music in 2006. He received appointments as associate composer to both the National Arts Centre Orchestra (2002-2004) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (2006-2009) and earned a residency at the Centre du Creation Musicale Iannis Xenakis in Paris in 2005. In 2007, CBC Radio presented his TSO-commissioned orchestral work Gaia at the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC) in Paris, resulting in numerous international broadcasts. At the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s (WSO) New Music Festival, Staniland won the Prairie Emerging Composer Award in 2008, and in 2009 he was not only Grand Prize winner of the CBC/Radio-Canada Evolution Composers competition, but also received the Prix de l’Orchestre de la Francophonie in the same competition.

In 2010, Staniland joined the faculty of the School of Music at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, where he teaches composition and directs the group he created, the Memorial ElectroAcoustic Research Lab (MERL) and its cross-disciplinary research team. By the time Staniland was 35 years of age, in 2012, he had composed 50 works, including his JUNO-nominated Dark Star Requiem (with poet Jill Battson), nine orchestral compositions, the large song cycle Peter Quince at the Clavier on poetry by Wallace Stevens (1879–1955), commissioned by American Opera Projects, and The River is Within Us, winner of this year’s Classical Composition of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards. In the six years since then, his creative output has kept pace. Certainly, if ever there was a Canadian composer since Harry Somers for whom there was evident cause for support from an early point, it would be Andrew Staniland.

On Canada Day in St. John’s, NL, Staniland’s major new work for five choirs from across Canada, On the Surface of Water, will receive its world premiere. The piece uses the writings of Leonardo da Vinci and was commissioned by Podium, the national choral conference and festival that has been held by Choral Canada every second year since 1982. Podium 2018 will be the first time this national conference and festival has been held in Newfoundland and Labrador, with daily concerts from June 29 to July 3. The choirs featured in Staniland’s On the Surface of Water are the Oakville Choir for Children and Youth, the Elektra Women’s Choir, Ullugiagâtsuk Choir (a student choir from Nunatsiavut, Labrador), the Choeur de chambre du Québec, and the Newman Sound Men’s Choir.

Abigail Richardson-SchulteSeveral weeks later on July 28, the Toronto Summer Music Festival will offer the world premiere of a new string quartet with a historical program: The Corner House, by Abigail Richardson-Schulte. Whereas Andrew Staniland was the second winner of U of T’s Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music, Richardson-Schulte was the first, in 2002. Her winning work, a trio, titled dissolve, was broadcast on CBC Radio Two, and then submitted by CBC Radio Music to the IRC in Paris, where it was selected as the best work by a composer under 30 years of age. This resulted in broadcasts in 35 countries around the world. In addition, her selection won her a commission from Radio France: her second string quartet, titled Scintilla. Richardson-Schulte is currently composer-in-residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO), serves as artistic director of the HPO’s What Next Festival, hosts community events, and teaches composition for the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.

Richardson-Schulte thinks of her new work as a sort of tone poem for string quartet. It’s a programmatic piece, based on the experiences of Ernest MacMillan during his internment in the Ruhleben prison camp during WWI. MacMillan had been in Bayreuth, Bavaria, when Canada declared war on Germany in 1914, and he spent five years interned, along with over 4,000 men of English, American, Australian and Canadian descent who just happened to be in Germany when war broke out. The title of the piece, The Corner House, is taken from the name of the arts club MacMillan was a member of at the camp. The three movements depict the contrasting moods and atmospheres representing the many formative experiences he had while he was there. When I spoke with Richardson-Schulte, she revealed that, though details have not yet been made public by TSM, the concert will be a part of this year’s TSM Academy, where TSM artistic director Jonathan Crow will be featured as first violin in the work alongside three Academy Fellows. The Corner House was commissioned by TSM, with the financial assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. The performance will take place at Walter Hall, University of Toronto at 7:30pm on July 28.

Investment in support for these composers during their formative years has made it possible to have these new works this summer. Richardson-Schulte, Rolfe and Staniland didn’t just wake up one morning as seasoned composers, ready to give us the new works that will contribute to our contemporary point of view. One cannot look past the innate talents and creative work that brought them forward in their careers, but their emergence needed support, as with all creative endeavours.

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

L-R: Terry Lim, Katherine Watson, Amelia Lyon, Laura Chambers, Tristan Durie.For flutist Terry Lim, the path towards founding a professional chamber ensemble started with the realities of life as an orchestral musician. “The other members and I knew each other from doing the rounds of orchestral auditions, bumping into each other all the time,” he says. “And then we all ended up here in Toronto.”

Those other members were four other flutists – Kaili Maimets, Laura Chambers, Sarah Yunji Moon and Amelia Lyon – and the group that they formed was a flute quintet called Charm of Finches, that, with a perfect blend of playfulness and professionalism (flutes are often compared to birds, and a group of finches is called a “charm”), has since established itself firmly in the Toronto chamber music scene.

Sitting down with me at The WholeNote office, Lim talked about the first impromptu Finches performance, and how right from the outset, he knew they had found something special. “In 2015, there was a Canadian Flute Association convention here in Toronto, and we wanted to play something together for it, just for fun. We didn’t think it would go any further than that. In the first rehearsal, we played an arrangement of Daphnis and Chloe for five flutes and, right away, I thought – oh. This could go somewhere.”

And it did, with concerts and festival appearances over the next three years in Toronto and across southern Ontario. Since that first rehearsal they’ve switched out two members, with Tristan Durie and Katherine Watson replacing Moon and Maimets in the ensemble’s current iteration. “They both won full-time jobs with orchestras,” Lim explains. For him, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. “Each year, we’ve had to find a new person because of everyone’s job situations, that sort of thing,” he says. “And each year, it sounds different depending on who’s playing with us. It just brings in different musical qualities all the time – which for me is fascinating.”

The reason for getting together to chat at this particular moment is the Finches’ upcoming concert, “Circle of Sound,” on June 17 in the Hart House East Common Room in the University of Toronto. True to form, that program promises to bridge the orchestral and chamber worlds, with an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a premiere of a new flute quintet by local composer Bekah Simms, and a popular classic of the (admittedly limited) bona fide flute quintet repertoire, Derek Charke’s Raga Terah. The show will also feature David Heath’s flute septet Return to Avalon, where the Finches will be joined by soloists Kelly Zimba and Camille Watts, from the flute section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

I ask if there’s much repertoire available for five flutes. He laughs.

“When we started, we started with almost nothing,” he says. “But I’m pretty involved in the flute community, so I asked friends. And then there were a whole bunch of arrangers and composers who decided they would arrange things for us without charging anything, which was really helpful in the beginning when we had no money. That’s how we started building up our repertoire. And each year we try to commission a new piece. Bekah’s piece on June 17 is our second commission.”

“Which was the chicken and which was the egg?” I inquire, in connection with Avalon [Heath’s flute septet]. “Did you find the piece and say oh good, let’s ask Kelly and Camille to play it with us, or did you say it would be great to play with Camille and Kelly, and then start looking for a piece to play?”

“Actually I found this piece last year,” he says. “in fact it’s originally written for two flutes and piano, which Heath arranged for two flute soloists plus five flutes. I found the piece on YouTube and listened to it and thought, ok, this piece could work. And that was around the same time that Kelly won the principal flute position at the TSO. She lives a couple blocks away from me, so we go out for lunch and stuff like that. So I asked her if she was interested and then I thought, Camille would be perfect. Because this piece actually requires the soloists to play both regular flute and either piccolo or alto flute as well. So Kelly is going to play the part with alto flute and Camille is going to do the one with piccolo. So it worked out perfectly. Even better, they both play Burkart flutes, so Burkart will be sponsoring the event.”

For this upcoming concert, as with all their others, programming and the rehearsal process are intense and thoughtful.

“There would be no point if we didn’t take it seriously. All of us have really different schedules. So sometimes it’s almost impossible to find time. Normally we rehearse every week, once a week. We book it about a month or two in advance. And for me, even doing once a week is not enough. To get all of the details in and everything, I find that it’s almost impossible. But all the musicians are great. A lot of experience with solo, contemporary music, orchestra. So it just brings many different ideas all the time. And we do fight. In rehearsal we argue all the time! That’s a kind of fun part of chamber music.”

Seven flutes sounds like an abundance of riches, I comment.

“People think, oh, seven flutes, that’s weird” he replies. “But I grew up in Vancouver where I was used to doing ten-flute contemporary work, every year in different groups out there. And with top-notch players from the Vancouver Symphony, all pro, and a couple professors from UBC, so very, very high level playing. That’s what I’m used to seeing, whereas it’s not quite as common out here. So five or seven flutes is not that unusual for me.”

And large ensemble doesn’t necessarily mean less challenging repertoire either: “I think with flute ensemble, people automatically think of lighter music. But we wanted to make sure that people think of us as a serious chamber ensemble. Chamber music is a different kind of playing - much more difficult.”

In the final analysis, this is a group that exists in some ways because of the high level of orchestral profiency and involvement of its members, but also as a foil to the particular rigours and constraints of orchestral playing. It’s an outlet for all kinds of things - chamber music, commissioning, community projects and, yes, good old-fashioned arguing back and forth on the path to collective creative discovery - that an orchestra-size ensemble typically cannot manage. So it’s a story about flutes and flute players - but it’s also about more than that: it’s about the small ensembles that grow within the musical community of our city, in each fertile nook and cranny.

“We keep trying new things,” Lim says. “Finding what works.”

Concert note: for the June 17 concert Amelia Lyon will be replaced by Anh Phung, who has worked with the group previously. There will be a masterclass by Kelly Zimba as part of the event prior to the performance.

David Perlman can be reached at

Photo by Carl MilnerSharp-eyed readers may already have spotted John Miller’s Hitchcockian cameo appearance as a satyr, silhouetted against the moon, on the cover of this year’s Stratford Summer Music program book. It’s a distinctive profile, almost as distinctive as his artistic fingerprint on the festival itself – one that he’s curated for 18 years – and this year for the last time.

The moon is a fitting backdrop for Miller’s final appearance as SSM artistic director, heralding as it does the upcoming appearance at Stratford of Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon. It will be the third Jerram creation to be part of Stratford Summer Music; the relationship cultivated with Jerram over the years is quintessential Miller. He finds talented people, notices that essential something in them that works for him, and then having forged the relationship he maintains it. Artists and performers come back, and so do audiences.

In a recent visit to The WholeNote Miller talked about Jerram’s first SSM visit in 2007, describing Jerram as “an inventor … a futurist … a guy who has experiences and then leads them in directions that most of us would never think of going.” That first visit was with a project called Sky Orchestra, Miller explains. “It was inspired by a trip to the Middle East and Jerram’s first experience of hearing, from several imams simultaneously, the call to prayer; suddenly the sound of compelling music was everywhere.” Back in the UK Jerram collaborated with composer Dan Jones to create eight hot air balloons, each with two speakers attached, which take off at dawn or dusk and fly across a city of sleeping or waking people. Each balloon plays two different tracks of a 16-track orchestral score, creating a huge audio landscape. In the case of Stratford Summer Music the music of Sky Orchestra flooded the early morning sky as it took off from Stratford and flew towards St Mary’s.

Jerram’s popular Play Me I’m Yours project – artist-decorated street pianos, for anyone to play – came to Stratford for the first time in 2012, and returns in 2018 for a fourth time. So this summer’s Museum of the Moon is Jerram’s third project at Stratford and its premiere Ontario appearance. Jerram’s 23-foot balloon, illuminated from within, is a reproduction of the exact surface of the moon: an assembly of actual photographs taken by NASA cameras from lunar space craft. As part of its world travels it will float over Stratford’s Tom Patterson Island for ten August days and nights.

“Since the moon shines everywhere all over the world we will have heritage world music every night under the moon, including First Nations artists Jeremy Dutcher, Laura Grizzlypaws and Tanya Tagaq,” says Miller. “It somehow feels fitting to characterize a festival that embraces music, dance, literature, movies, family celebrations, photographic and astrological ideas as being ‘everything under the moon.’”

Jerram’s presence at SSM reflects aspects of how the festival’s own identity has evolved during the Miller years in two ways particularly important to Miller. One is about putting music and performance art in public spaces – like the Jerram projects or Murray Schafer on Tom Patterson island or the BargeMusic series. The other is the cultivation of SSM’s own loyal audience, drawn by SSM’s earned reputation for attracting the finest Canadian and international artists, not just once but on an ongoing basis. Artists come back because they feel part of a community: not just as part of a festival circuit. Sometimes it’s their only Canadian appearance or else one of very few. And their Stratford experience is not typical of the daily grind of a tour: they walk and rest, go to the theatre or other performances, enjoy the restaurants and café brunches and the generally relaxed atmosphere.

Miller has always believed that it was better for music in Stratford to be its own festival, with its own board, personality, experience and sense of accomplishment in spite of the original vision of a consolidated theatre and music festival. He credits his friend, Stratford Festival’s Richard Monette, for believing in and encouraging variety. Today SSM both has its own faithful audience and manages to put itself in the path of the tens of thousands of people who come to Stratford for “that other festival.”

John Miller - photo by Scott WishartMiller reflected that during these formative 18 years it was good that he is not, himself, a musician, because he was able to bring an open appetite to the task. “It might not have been like that if I’d had a particular instrument or history that I was bringing along. With music if you only program what you enjoy then you shut the door to all sorts of other people. Variety is what a real festival is about.”

Visitors this year can look forward to re-encountering, or meeting, some returning SSM favourites: the Blind Boys of Alabama, Orchestre de la Francophonie, John MacLeod’s Rex Hotel Orchestra, the Langley Ukuleles, the Mzansi Youth Choir of South Africa, to name a few. And while this year, more than any, Miller is going back to the well in terms of inviting or re-inviting the artists who have helped make SSM what it has been over the last 18 years, there will also be artists he’s finally “landed” after hoping to present them for years.

Four important Canadian pianists who will be featured are a striking example of this range. Marc André Hamelin makes a long-anticipated SSM debut. Angela Hewitt, featured last summer, returns to perform JS Bach’s entire Well Tempered Clavier in two concerts over one weekend. Jan Lisiecki takes time out of a now very international career to make his ninth consecutive appearance, and Jean-Michel Blais will be featured for a second consecutive year.

Musicologist, music writer/broadcaster Robert Harris returns for the fifth year of illustrated lectures “Music That Changed the World”; this July SSM will release their newly published book The Stratford Lectures: Ten Perspectives about Music by Robert Harris which includes ten of the Harris lectures in an expanded form. The book initiative is another example of the kind of artistic relationship building, and audience building, that is a Millerian hallmark.

Equally a tribute to Miller is the fact that SSM won’t be going out in a blaze of glory with its founder. There has been nothing last minute or ad hoc about the process of going about finding a successor. The orderly process is already complete with the announcement earlier this year that violinist Mark Fewer will succeed Miller in the post. Miller will continue in an advisory capacity for a couple of years only: Fewer will take the helm as artistic director in October.

Stepping down, Miller said, is a little bit like how he imagines walking one’s daughter down the aisle. “But it feels as though I’m giving her away under the best possible circumstances” he says.

If Miller’s face on the satyr in front of the moon is this year’s opening salvo, then perhaps the BargeMusic finale, with the Border Cities Caledonia Pipe Band, is another whimsical Miller autobiographical touch. Learning to play the bagpipes has always been on his bucket list, he explains.

Fittingly, SSM’s final evening festivities – the “J.A.M.boree” – will be a picnic on Tom Patterson Island with another Miller favourite – the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, under the August 26 full Sturgeon Moon, and the Jerram moon. And with J.A.M. (Miller’s initials) as one last sly signature touch.

mJ Buell, a regular contributor to The WholeNote, can be reached at

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