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 publisher@thewholenote.com.

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 musicschildren@thewholenote.com.

Rachel Mahon. Photo: CBC MUSICThis year’s third annual Toronto Bach Festival, curated by Tafelmusik oboist John Abberger, includes three concerts that present not only Bach’s own music, but also works written by predecessors who influenced him. The middle concert this year is an organ recital by Rachel Mahon, assistant organist at Chester Cathedral in the UK and former organ scholar at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the first female organist in its 1,400-year history.

Born and raised in Toronto, Mahon won numerous awards and competitions in Canada and is half of the Organized Crime organ duo, founded in 2012 with fellow organist Sarah Svendsen. Although now based in the UK, she frequently returns to Canada as a recitalist; a list of her upcoming performances, including this year’s Bach Festival, can be found on her website, rachelmahon.ca.

In advance of her May 12 “Bach’s Inspiration” concert, Mahon shared her thoughts on Bach’s music, his inspiration, and what it means to return home to Toronto.

WN: Your upcoming recital at the 2018 Toronto Bach Festival shows “how Bach admired and was inspired by other composers.” What can we expect to hear? How did you put this program together?

RM: J.S. Bach’s achievements as a composer are astonishing, especially when considering he never lived or visited anywhere outside Thuringia or Saxony. This didn’t stop him from absorbing all he could at the ducal court of Weimar, where travelling musicians brought Italian and French music and where Bach was organist and Konzertmeister. We know for a fact that he copied Nicolas de Grigny’s Premier livre d’orgue and arranged Antonio Vivaldi’s music. He also took a trip to Lübeck in 1705 to learn from the great Danish organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude.

With these things in mind, I’ve included some pieces by Buxtehude which I will directly contrast with those of Bach, Bach’s arrangement for organ of an Italian concerto and a piece from Grigny’s organ book, alongside some of Bach’s great organ works. I hope that this program will give an impression of the immense impact other composers had on Bach’s writing.

Sarah Svendsen and Rachel Mahon as Organ Duo, "Organized Crime"As a Toronto-trained organist now working across the pond, this Toronto Bach Festival performance represents a homecoming of sorts. What does it mean to you to return to your hometown and perform? Do you approach a recital in Toronto differently
than one in the UK?

The phrase “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone” really rings true with me. It wasn’t until I left Toronto and had been gone a year that I realized just how much I love the city, so I particularly enjoy coming home, especially to play. Toronto has so much going on and this is true in the local organ scene too: there are several fine instruments in the city of all different styles.

I will be playing at Holy Family for the Bach Festival and this is particularly a homecoming for me because I was born and raised in Parkdale. When I started organ lessons at 15, the Oratorians let me practise at Holy Family twice a week and for many years I sang in the Oratory Children’s Choir (which my mother founded and directed) before I became the choir’s organist at age 18.

I would say I approach each concert I play differently, no matter where it is. Of course I take into consideration my audience and perhaps the time of year, as so much organ repertoire is based on the liturgical year, but also, and most importantly, the instrument. Organists have the unique problem of not being able to travel with their own instruments, so we must adjust to each organ and each organ is completely unique. Certain pieces just won’t work on certain organs.

I suppose there might also be an extra layer of nerves for Toronto as well. The organ world is relatively small and in Toronto I have many friends in the field. I studied with John Tuttle at the University of Toronto and wouldn’t want to horrify him with any bad habits I might’ve picked up across the pond!

Bach is one of the most-performed composers across the globe. What does Bach’s music mean to you? Do you think there’s still something new to say in the interpretation of these works?

Bach is my favourite composer of all time. I love Tallis, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Elgar and Howells, to name a few, but Bach remains the supreme composer for me. As an organist, a singer, a conductor and a listener, Bach’s music never disappoints me. I am always fulfilled by it and yet want more – I went to Tafelmusik’s St. Matthew Passion three times in one week a few years ago... There is so much to bring out in the music that no two performers’ interpretations will be the same.

I believe a performer is able to put his or her own character into a piece, to draw the ear to what he or she wants the listener to hear in the music. This is an exciting privilege and is why there can always be something new to say with these works.

Rachel Mahon’s organ recital, May 12 at 2pm at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, is the middle concert of the third annual Toronto Bach Festival, which takes place May 11 to 13.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist, and The WholeNote’s regular Early Music columnist.

bannerJenny Crober and I are chatting over the phone. She’s in New York City with several of the choristers from VOCA Chorus of Toronto and the Achill Choral Society from Orangeville. They’ve spent the last few days rehearsing with James Meaders, the associate artistic director of Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) and composer-superstar Ola Gjeilo. Crober and crew are in NYC with DCINY to perform a concert of Gjeilo’s work onstage at Carnegie Hall with choirs from across the world. “There were 250 singers,” shares Crober. “It was a bit of a crush to fit us all onstage. And it was hot, but lovely.”

Jenny Crober. Photo by Lorraine DillardIt is moments like these that are hard to put into words: why do conductors do this kind of work? Why sing under intensely hot lights and packed like sardines? Why drive two hours each way to lead rehearsal? Why spend hours studying scores and making notes in private? Why conduct at all? Last year in May, we explored with a range of choristers the reasons they give up so much of their time and energy to choral music-making. This year, I’m chatting with choral conductors to get perspective on the power of choral music in their lives, and why they do what they do.

When she’s in Toronto, Crober raises her hands to lead VOCA Chorus; Cheryll Chung, an accomplished pianist, founded the Cantabile Chamber Singers in 2006; powerhouse Karen Burke leads the Toronto Mass Choir; and you’ve probably seen Shawn Grenke in action as associate conductor of the Amadeus Choir. Here they all share their ideas on the hard work of conducting and choral music.

Crober started working with VOCA (when it was still the East York Choir) in 1991 as an accompanist and took over the reins as conductor in 2004. Over her tenure she has seen VOCA (the name-change was in 2011) double in size. The choir is a whole different beast now, she says. “We have professional singers, doubled the size and have choristers from across the city and beyond. This gives me impetus to keep on as the choir continues to grow into what we’re becoming.”

Conductors are uniquely able to pull on the threads that pull community together. And community is the common theme that all these conductors bring forward. “The community outlets need to be present for people to fall in love with choir – to fall in love with conducting and community music,” says Burke. Cheryll Chung says, “It is really important as a conductor to connect with your ensemble and build a sense of community and trust, so that it can enable you to get the music across.” And Grenke tells me: “I love bringing people together. I find that when I get into the rehearsal, and the rehearsal process, it’s transformative. I get an energy from the singers and we create something great.”

Choral conducting success stories often feature conductors who have been successful in reaching out and building community, sometimes from scratch. “Those people who are thinking outside of the box about what choir can be. It doesn’t have to be just Bach chorales or Mozart’s Requiem or school choir. I think it’s up to us, who are teaching students, to remind them there is more to the world of community music-making than being a music teacher at a school board or a tenured professor at a university,” Burke says. “There’s such a broad array of positions, and a lot of time people just create their own space. They move into a neighbourhood that doesn’t have a community choir or organization and make it happen. If you have a passion and find the void, take your passion and fill the void.”

That passion, when conveyed by a conductor, is what brings people back over and over again. And in a city like Toronto, the breadth and depth of choral music is astounding. (Take a look at the Canary Page listings just to get a small taste of the diversity of the Toronto choral scene.)

“A good conductor is a teacher at heart,” says Burke. “If you don’t like people, you’ll be a terrible conductor. What I see, the people who are doing so well, the people who have built organizations – that comes from a love of people.” There are many people who can read music, can speak the language of music, but don’t know how to speak the language of people and relationship-building. Shawn Grenke gets this as well: “As a music educator, I [conduct] to keep music alive, and more importantly to keep people singing so the music stays alive.” It is about people, it’s about “enjoying the experience of giving, together,” says Burke. “If people are in that space, then great.”

Success as a conductor requires success in all the people who make up a choir; Burke, as a conductor and as a teacher, looks for something more than just musicianship in potential conductors and musical colleagues alike. She’s looking for a spark, someone who can communicate beyond the page of the music. “There isn’t an ABC to being a choral conductor; you have to seek it out,” she says. There is no clear path to conducting and much trial and error involved.

Cheryll Chung was the only choral candidate during her time completing a Masters degree at U of T. After she graduated, she had to figure out the path for herself. “What do you do?” she shares. “A lot of graduate students start their own ensemble or choir. At first, [with Cantabile], I thought I’d just do two benefit concerts a year. I did that for a while for organizations like the Regent Park School of Music, the Canadian Cancer Society and Literature for Life, for example. This was the premise: let’s do concerts for the causes. But then, it gives you the energy to keep doing what you’re doing, to make the connection with audiences and members and connect with different people.” Chung started Cantabile as a pilot in 2006 and she continues to lead the ensemble. The key part for her has always been community: “Community building is a hard thing, and you really need to want that, and have it inside of you.”

Clockwise from top left: Jenna and Karen Burke of the Toronto Mass Choir; Cheryll Chung of the Cantabile Chamber Singers (photo: Richard Jonathan Chung); Shawn Grenke of the Amadeus Choir with Mary Lou FallisThe financial strain of the work can be challenging too. Music is expensive, rental of rehearsal space, paying guest musicians, and all the administrative and marketing costs are not insignificant; there isn’t always a lot left over to pay the conductor. “A lot of my musician friends, I think they feel financial stress and take the gigs as they come, no matter the scenario,” says Grenke. “It’s hard as a musician, as a freelance singer or conductor. It’s hard to find enough work to live.” I appreciate his candour, I tell him: I have some knowledge of that life first-hand.

As audiences, we show up in the seats of a performance and criticize or enjoy the music. What we don’t see is the music teacher awake since 5:30am, teaching all day, then driving 90 minutes one way to rehearse for two and a half hours two or three times a week. Or the conductor that works seven or eight gigs a week to make ends meet. As Chung says: “The performance is just the icing on the cake.” Weeks before a performance, a choir gets the music and begins the process of rehearsing and refining. This is the hard work. This is where the relationships and community are built. This is where conductors shine. And only if it all goes well do you get a chance to taste the icing. “There are moments,” says Crober, “when standing on the stage with 250 other people all responding to the music, and one person on the podium, you think – how lucky is that? To be able to do that – to sing in a group of people and make this exquisite music… and it is a moment of ‘Yeah, this is why you work so hard.’ For this.”

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

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