Elmer Iseler, Jessie Iseler and Lydia Adams before a performance at Choral Kathaumixw, Powell River BC in July 1996. Photo by Maura McGroartyKnown as the dean of Canadian choral conductors and called a Canadian choral visionary, Elmer Iseler (1927–1998) will be celebrated in a concert titled “Joyful Sounds, a Tribute to Elmer Iseler, 1927–1998 – Twenty Years Later” on April 14 at 7:30pm at Eglinton St. George’s United Church. Lydia Adams will lead the Elmer Iseler Singers in a program of Canadian choral classics, plus the world premiere of a major new work, commissioned to honour the 20th anniversary of his passing. And I will be part of it too.

Iseler helped to found the Festival Singers of Toronto in 1954, and conducted them until 1978. In 1968 they became the Festival Singers of Canada, and also the professional core of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which Iseler had conducted since 1964. The high standard of performance that Iseler achieved drew notice from no less a celebrity than composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), who recorded a number of his works with the Festival Singers of Canada in the early 1960s.

Iseler was a champion of Canadian music, and throughout his career he commissioned and performed numerous works by Canadian composers. By the time he founded the Elmer Iseler Singers in 1979, the commissioning of original Canadian works had become a cornerstone of Iseler’s artistic mindset. The Elmer Iseler Singers Choral Series of published choral works contained hundreds of works, 90 per cent of them by Canadian composers. Iseler’s spirit of embracing Canadian choral music inspired Lydia Adams, the current artistic director of the choir, and Jessie Iseler, Elmer’s widow and the choir’s general manager, to shape the April 14 tribute program with Canadian music to celebrate Iseler’s legacy. For all those reasons, when they invited me to host the event I did not hesitate to accept.

The premiere of a major new work by British Columbia composer Imant Raminsh (b. 1943) headlines the tribute concert. Raminsh told me that a number of years ago Lydia Adams had approached him to discuss the creation of a major new work to celebrate both the legacy of Elmer Iseler, as well as the occasion of Canada’s 150th year. Thanks to a private donation from Elizabeth DeBoer and Ross Redfern, the Elmer Iseler Singers were able to commission the large-scale work, titled The Beauty of Dissonance, the Beauty of Strength, which runs over 40 minutes, in eight movements. Raminsh took two years to gather poetry from all the regions of Canada; he told me that he and Iseler shared a love for the Canadian landscape, and this shared passion informed the design of the new work. The two men had met in the 1960s at the University of Toronto. Iseler saw the score to Raminsh’s Ave verum corpus, liked it and took it into his repertoire, the first of several Raminsh works he championed.

Imant Ranish in his studio at the Vernon Community Music School - photo: Parker Crook/Vernon Morning StarThe title of the new work comes from its central movement, which uses a poem by Montreal poet Arthur James Marshall Smith (1902–1980) called The Lonely Land, a depiction of the Canadian Shield inspired by a 1926 Group of Seven exhibition. Raminsh shared with me that he grew up the son of a forester, whom he described as, “an amateur painter of some accomplishment.” His father was fond of the approach of the Group of Seven landscape painters, and Raminsh recalls that the many paintings by his father adorning his family’s home showed a strong affinity with this style.

This early exposure to landscape painting left a deep impression on Raminsh. His concept for this new work was to reflect the many regions of Canada, which led him to poets such as Newfoundland’s Agnes Walsh (b. 1950); Milton Acorn (1923–1986) of P.E.I.; Quebecer Anne Hébert (1916–2000); Barbara Klar (b. 1966) from Saskatoon; Frederick George Scott (1861–1944), known as the Poet of the Laurentians; English-born Vancouverite, Marjorie Pickthall (1883–1922); and Mohawk-English writer and stage performer, Pauline Johnson (1861–1913). The work’s eight movements are highly contrasting in mood and temperament, appropriate to the range of the poetry. The choir is accompanied by an instrumental ensemble that includes flutist Robert Aitken and clarinetist James Campbell.

So what was it about Elmer Iseler that made him unique among choral conductors? In preparation for the upcoming concert, I asked a number of current and past members of his choirs for their insights and memories.

Current artistic director Lydia Adams remembers how after returning from England, studying at the Royal College of Music and the National Opera Studio, and having learned so much from Sir David Willcocks (1919–2015), “it was more than interesting to find myself working with Elmer and his marvellous choir. As the pianist for the Elmer Iseler Singers, I was able to watch, listen and discover how he was able to make magic with sound, and I watched as he crafted the sound to reflect the music. Everything was always connected to the text and the music reflecting that text. Nothing was ever sung in an ordinary manner. Every musical moment had a purpose and a musical and emotional intent. Elmer lived in a rarified space of creating magic with sound, and he inspired so many of us to do the same. How fortunate we were!”

Robert Missen, who sang in all of Iseler’s professional choirs and who serves as the Elmer Iseler Singers’ artist representative, also commented on Iseler’s craftsmanship. “His rehearsal techniques were second to none, his ear unerring,” he writes. “On the road he would nimbly make adjustments to turn unfamiliar venues into as congenial a choral acoustic as possible. A consummate showman, he created programs that appealed to a broad range of audiences. He would always include a huge proportion of Canadian works, including popular folksong arrangements such as Song for the Mira.” By the time of his death in 1998, writes Missen, Iseler had garnered high praise from some of the world’s most distinguished choral eminences, including Britain’s Sir David Willcocks, Estonia’s Tõnu Kaljuste and America’s Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis. “Canada is a major force on the contemporary international choral scene thanks in no small part to Elmer Iseler.”

Maggie McCoy, a student of Iseler and now the director of marketing for the Ottawa Choral Society, remembers Iseler’s talent as a teacher. “Elmer Iseler was possibly the most important influence on, not just my musical education, but on my entire way of seeing the world,” she says. “He was a kindly but challenging teacher who taught his students to seek beauty... in music, in literature, in art, in the heavens, and most importantly, in the small miracles of the natural world. I don’t really know who I would have become if I had not met him as a young person. He opened my eyes and my mind.”

Stephen Powell, a tenor in the Elmer Iseler Singers from 1991 to 2005, says this: “Interpretively, Elmer was a man of the big phrase, and by phrase I don’t mean notes simply linked together, but rather an overarching musical concept encompassing the entire musical content. ‘No two notes,’ he said, ‘should ever sound the same.’ Powell recalls how in the spring of 1997, shortly after his return from brain surgery, “Elmer was rehearsing with us Healey Willan’s short motet Who is she that ascendeth? which begins with three 4/4 bars scored for double soprano and alto. As he worked on this section repeating it several times, I realized that every beat in every bar was laden with purpose and meaning. The master was back.

“For me, Elmer was one of the greats and I’m glad to have worked with him so closely. Beneath his musical proficiency there was passion, warmth, commitment and meaning, all providing a musical outlook which I could relate to strongly and which influences me to this day.”

Jean Stilwell sang in the Festival Singers under Iseler, along with her mother, Margaret Stilwell. Jean was 18 years old at the time. “I’d had approximately ten voice lessons. I sang for Elmer with a mind to sing in the Mendelssohn Choir. Instead he invited me to sing with the Festival Singers, which was the professional nucleus of the Mendelssohn Choir,” Jean says. “It was a great honour for me. The greatest joy was sitting beside my mother making beautiful music together for seven years. We made up the second alto section. She taught me so much. I expect Elmer knew she would make sure I was well prepared for rehearsals and concerts. The first piece we worked on was Bach’s cantata Lobet den Herrn. Elmer did a fabulous job preparing us to perform it. His attention to detail and musical expression was such a joy of which to be a part.”

Conductor David Christiani was artistic director and choirmaster of the St.-Lambert Choral Society in Quebec for 35 years and remembers [Iseler] talking a bit about airplane travel. “[It] surprised me, knowing how nervous it made him to travel that way,” Christiani recalls. “He told us that when the planes are thundering down the runway for takeoff, at one point the pilot tells the control tower, ‘We are committed’ when the wheels are about to leave the ground and the plane enters into full flight. He said that was the kind of singing he wanted to hear in the music we performed. It is that kind of commitment that has always marked our performances, be it by the Festival Singers or the Iseler Singers and it is that committed singing that …o, Lydia [Adams] and Jessie [Iseler], are keeping alive today.

“I remember all too clearly that, when he passed into heaven far too soon 20 years ago, that great man’s spirit renewed that flame in me as a conductor. Suddenly everything that I did in music became that much more in earnest and that much more committed. Long may it inflame the singers and conductors of tomorrow to remember and preserve his legacy.”

And finally, Carol and Brad Ratzlaff both sang for Iseler, and both also became choral conductors. Carol Ratzlaff remembers: “Brad and I spent the first years of our marriage in EIS with Elmer conducting, 1985 to 1988. These years were a gift which we still treasure. They were busy touring years and offered rich musical experiences which were diverse and challenging. Elmer has had a profound effect on our music-making at every level. His steadfast commitment to and belief in the choral art as an essential part of life has unceasingly inspired my work. I would say that my own sense of calling and unswerving commitment is, in part, due to my musical roots as a very young singer and conductor with Elmer. He had a singularity of purpose, was passionate and stubborn beyond anyone I had met. That awakened something in me, perhaps a sense of calling. I know that Elmer would be proud of our work in VIVA! Youth Singers. He was so supportive of my teaching career, and always interested in what Brad and I were creating. We miss him.”

In addition to the new Raminsh work, “Joyful Sounds, a Tribute to Elmer Iseler, 1927–1998” also includes music by Canadian composers Srul Irving Glick, Ruth Watson Henderson and Healey Willan, and Elmer Iseler’s own adaptation of the plainchant, King of Glory. The J.S. Bach motet, Lobet den Herrn completes the program, which also features a video presentation of highlights from Elmer Iseler’s career, assembled by Edward Mock.

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

Aline Homzy bannerAline HomzyIn the United States in the 1970s, the concept of the musical bitch was big. There was the Rolling Stones’ recording Bitch from 1971; David Bowie’s Queen Bitch from later that year; and Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back in 1974. And, perhaps most importantly, there was the precursor to them all: Miles Davis’ 1970 release Bitches Brew, a jazz-rock album that would eventually garner seminal status in the world of improvised music.

According to musicologist Gary Tomlinson, Davis’ album title referred to the skill of the musicians themselves – best-of-the-best improvisers, brought together for the recording. And though 1970 was coincidentally the same year that Jo Freeman published her feminist BITCH Manifesto (seminal itself, in other circles), the album’s connection to “bitch” as a gendered term was supposedly just that – coincidental.

These words have weight, though – and as they go in and out of vogue, the connotations they carry change in the process. So when violinist Aline Homzy submitted an application to this year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival Discovery Series for a project called “The Smith Sessions presents: Bitches Brew,” she had a lot of musical and linguistic history to reckon with. And when her application was selected, with a concert of the same name slotted for this April 28 at the Canadian Music Centre’s Chalmers House in Toronto, she knew it would be a starting point for something new.

“Bitches Brew” is a quadruple-bill show, featuring four different women-led ensembles. With groups fronted by Homzy, flutist Anh Phung, bassist Emma Smith and drummer/percussionist Magdelys Savigne, the concert is Homzy’s 21st-century take on what it means to equate “bitch” with musical talent, and on how our community thinks about musical artistry today. Same name, new vibe – in a very good way.

“Toronto needs this”

The project comes to Toronto via Edinburgh, from a concert series of the same name run by bassist Emma Smith. On her website, Smith writes that her Bitches Brew sessions are a response “to the eternal assumption that the only woman in the band must be the singer” – a way of highlighting local Edinburgh talent while confronting stereotypes that women often face in improvised music. After playing on one of Smith’s sessions in August 2017, Homzy started to talk with Smith about bringing the series to Canada. When the applications opened for the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival Discovery Series – a concert series that gives Jazz Fest branding and support to innovative local projects – the timing felt right.

On April 28, Homzy and Smith will play a violin/bass duo, featuring some of Smith’s compositions; flutist Anh Phung will improvise with bassist Alan Mackie, in their duo project HaiRbraIN; Magdelys Savigne will lead a trio project, singing and playing percussion alongside Elizabeth Rodriguez (violin and vocals) and Danae Olano (piano); and Homzy will bring her own band, Aline Homzy’s étoile magique, where she’ll be joined by Chris Pruden (piano), Daniel Fortin (bass) and Thom Gill (guitar).

At her Toronto apartment last week, Homzy spoke about how for her, this project came out of a feeling of something lacking in the local jazz ecosystem – and about wanting to bring it to light.

“I told Emma, ‘We have to do this in Toronto. Toronto needs this,’” she says. “Normalizing the roles of women in bandleader positions. As a student, I felt like that was not at all present in school. I don’t think there’s a single full-time woman professor at U of T [in Jazz Studies]; I think there are only a couple at Humber. It’s important for the community for students – women students – to see that it’s possible. And also to provide role models for younger people as well, however they identify… it’s important for them to have a diverse roster of people who are successfully doing what they do, and who are really good at it.”

Having gender-diverse leadership is important for any industry, but it can be particularly crucial in fields like the performing arts, where so much of what happens onstage is guided by performers’ offstage social relationships. In a 2013 article for NewMusicBox, Ellen McSweeney talks about how women performers often pay a hidden “likability tax” when they come off as too self-promoting, assertive, or success-oriented. And in an ensemble situation, where performers rely on having both a supportive fan base and a network of collaborators to survive, being seen as unlikable can carry a high cost.

“I’m doing ‘bitch’ in quotations right now, because I understand it’s a swear word as well,” says Homzy when she explains the project. “But for us, it’s reclaiming that word – especially as a woman leader, when women often get called that name for being too bossy.”

It’s a mentality that impacts how women musicians operate within jazz culture – and one that extends to the way that they perform. In his book Swingin’ the Dream, Lewis Erenberg writes about how during the 1940s, women musicians were often seen as temporary, annoying replacements for the men who went to war – and that the prevailing opinion was that they should either act like “good girls” or “play like men.” Seventy-five years later, Homzy still encounters that attitude in the field.

“I think one reason why a lot of women don’t show up to jam sessions is because you feel like you really have to prove yourself,” she says. “Everyone feels intimidated by that situation, but as a woman, it’s like – doubly that. And some people – some guys – will see a woman come in and on purpose count in the hardest tune, really fast, because they want to see you fail. It’s really discouraging to witness.

“It becomes about [whether] you’re able to, we say, ‘Hang with the guys,’” she continues. “If you can ‘keep up’ then it’s like you’re considered ‘ok’ in the guys’ books. I think that some women take that position: ‘I’m like one of the guys.’ And I think it’s really dangerous. I’ve been in that situation too, where I’ve been like ‘I feel like the guys are accepting me.’ You soon realize that there are sometimes ulterior motives for that, which are quite disturbing.”

Homzy says that it’s a particularly big problem for younger women artists who are early-career or still in school, because it can make it difficult for them to realize their worth. “It took a lot of work for me to realize that wanting to be in the ‘boys club’ was a really toxic way to think about myself,” she says. “I feel like it’s hard to know how good you are, when you first come out of school. As a female instrumentalist, you’re always told, ‘Play more like this,’ or relating to my instrument, ‘Play more like a saxophone, play more like a horn.’ [I had to] come out of school and realize, no – that’s not what I’m doing. I’m a violinist, this is my sound and this is my style.

“You [begin to] realize that sometimes you’re maybe even better than some of your male colleagues – which is interesting, because a lot of male colleagues tend to think that they’re better than you,” she adds. “And it can be really uncomfortable, because [those colleagues] really want to take over – in conversations, and in music.”

Being heard

For Homzy, that gendered feeling of being unheard has particular amplifications within the jazz world as a whole. It’s a big part of why she chose the Canadian Music Centre – a space not often seen as a jazz venue, and a first for the TD Toronto Jazz Festival – for this show.

“Part of the reason that I applied for this project was that I wanted it to be at a venue that wasn’t just a bar or a club,” she explains. “I wanted it to be in a ‘listening room,’ where people listen and don’t talk – where we’re all there to listen to the music. All four of us write original music and we all consider ourselves artists. I wanted to provide a place to play where people are going to listen, as opposed to talking over you.”

I ask if there are many spaces in Toronto like that for jazz; she says there aren’t.

She mentions that she came to the violin from a classical background, and that the feeling of being undervalued as an artist is a chronic issue in the non-classical world. From her perspective, the difference is night and day.

“We’re just not taken as seriously,” she says. “You see it with the way we get paid. You see it with how people think it’s ok to talk over what you’re doing [at any point]. I want to bridge that gap, and show people that improvised music can be – and is – really awesome.”

Clockwise from top left: Aline Homzy (violin), Emma Smith (bass), Anh Phung (flute), and Magdelys Savigne (drums/percussion)‘Women’s music’

In December, The New York Times published an article claiming that 2017 was a “year of reckoning” for women in jazz – a time when we saw a number of standout women instrumentalists presenting projects that were bold, musically inventive, and squarely their own. It’s an idea that shouldn’t be that shocking – but Homzy talks about how even today, people seem to have a hard time coming around to the idea of women authorship in music.

“The info about this project is all there. But so many people have seen it and asked me, ‘Wow, so are you playing the whole Bitches Brew Miles Davis album?’” she laughs. “It’s funny, but also kind of disappointing in some way. Because they completely missed the point.”

Still, Homzy is dedicated to lifting up the work of women creators. Not because there’s anything inherently distinctive about their music – far from it – but because there’s a lot of valid experience and perspective there. And when our music doesn’t represent the demographics of our communities, that perspective, and the power and beauty that go along with it, is something we miss out on.

“I realized, after so many years: I’d been doing these things, playing or writing-wise – not specifically because I wanted to please other musicians, but because I’d been influenced by that [oppression],” she says. “And now, I’m writing music in a way that is influenced by those experiences. We’ve experienced different challenges; I think that makes a lot of women’s music sound unique and different.”

That 2017 New York Times article references the same thing. “There’s nothing to suggest that these...musicians expressed themselves in any particular way because of their gender,” it reads, “but what we know is that until recently they might not have been in a position to stand up onstage alone, addressing the audience with generosity and informality, empowering the room.” As Homzy seems to attest, that’s its own rare and powerful thing – and an experience that, without question, is worth seeking.

“The Smith Sessions presents: Bitches Brew,” featuring Aline Homzy, Emma Smith, Anh Phung and Magdelys Sevigne, will be presented on April 28 at the Canadian Music Centre’s Chalmers House in Toronto, as part of the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival Discovery Series. The event will also be livestreamed by the Canadian Music Centre, at https://livestream.com/accounts/13330169/events/8050734.

Sara Constant is a flutist and music writer based in Toronto, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be reached at editorial@thewholenote.com.

St. Michaels CathedralIt happens every time after the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah. There are always audience members in tears – profoundly affected by the art and majesty of the music. There are not many other major works that have this effect, and probably none that are so beloved in Toronto. St. Michael’s Choir School performs Parts II and III of Messiah for Easter 2018, 

having performed Part I during Christmastime 2017.

There’s a long European choral history of all-male choirs, commonly known as boy’s and men’s choirs. They’re a common feature in many churches and boys’ schools in Europe, for example in the Anglican tradition in the UK. They are not common in Canada, but a handful of Canadian boys’ and men’s choirs still exist. Few, anywhere, have such a storied history as St. Michael’s Choir School in downtown Toronto. Adjacent to the head of the Archdiocese of Toronto – St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica – St. Mike’s Choir School has been generating high-quality musicians since 1937.

Peter Mahon, interim choir head at St. Mike’s, sat down with me over the March break to talk through their upcoming Messiah performance. I’m no stranger to Messiah myself, as a singer with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir whose annual performances in Roy Thomson Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra draw well over 8000 patrons over a week-long run. Mahon is also no stranger to the work as a singer: a veteran countertenor, he sings in the alto section of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, whose own annual Messiah run reaches about 5000 patrons and includes the incomparable “Sing-Along Messiah” at Massey Hall.

Messiah is a big work, both technically challenging and requiring a high level of artistry. So, perhaps not surprisingly, as far as Mahon knows, the work has never been performed by the school. “It’s very easy in a place like St. Michael’s Choir School to only focus on what you do well,” says Mahon. “These guys have to basically do a performance every week, preparing for a mass; four or five pieces of music, and the older boys, at least two pieces of chant. You can focus on that mass preparation, and there’s loads of work to do.” Mahon relishes the challenge of introducing this beloved Toronto tradition to the choristers of St. Mike’s. “It’s nice to have a change of pace. I think they’re finding it very refreshing.”

The first half of Messiah, performed by the school this past Christmas, has six chorales that are conventionally performed. Parts II and III have about double that amount depending on cuts or additions. Unlike the Christmas performance, which numbered over 160 choristers, this time Mahon has assembled a smaller set of students, around 60, to present the work. The boys had to audition to perform in this concert. Any wrangling of children aged 10 to 17 is inherently challenging and Mahon appreciates that for this concert the boys want to be there, rather than have to be there.

Andrew Walker, an alumnus of the St. Michael’s Choir school program, returns as one of the two tenor leads at the core of the tenor section. Other Tafelmusik professionals joining in are Richard Whittall and Simon Honeyman on countertenor/alto; Paul Jeffrey, joining Walker on tenor; and Joel Allison and Keith Lam on bass. All of them are joined by the all-boy treble line on soprano. Whittall and Honeyman share the alto solos and Michael Colvin joins as tenor soloist. The only female-identified voice will be Meredith Hall as soprano soloist.

“I had never done Messiah before I did it with St. James Cathedral,” says Walker, joining me at a café before a Toronto Mendelssohn Choir rehearsal. He was introduced to the piece after leaving St. Mike’s. “We never did a major work or oratorio while I was there. It was always about providing music for the Cathedral. Even when we did our major concerts for Christmas or the spring or fall, it was pretty much always motets.”

Walker reflects on the power of being able to perform a work like Messiah: “I think it’s incredibly difficult to know what it really feels like until you have done it. In Grade 5, I was in intermediate choir. It’s the first year you start providing the music at the cathedral. But in Grade 5, to learn this music … Messiah is a great piece of repertoire to sink your teeth into, but it’s a big work to take on as one of the first pieces of music in just the first ten years of your life. It’s exceptional. It’s a good challenge and a testament to the teaching staff, Peter, Teri (Dunn), and Maria (Conkey).”

Mahon has added another challenge for the choir in this Messiah, by emphasizing Baroque interpretation and aspects of Baroque singing style: spacing between notes to give the music lightness and energy; more articulation on specific notes and less on others, to drive musical phrasing; and dynamic phrasing that tapers off at the end, appropriate to the fugal counterpoint common at the time.

“They aren’t doing badly on the Baroque interpretation – but it all takes some getting used to,” Mahon says. They are used to Palestrina and songs like that, he explains, but the great sweeping sounds of Renaissance music are dissimilar to the technical precision and nuanced phrasing of equal length notes that he is asking for here. After all, these choristers are being asked to acquire a cultural feeling for Baroque music that usually takes years to master.

Peter Mahon conducting the SMCS choristers in GermanyThe fact that these boys are singing with an orchestra is already in itself exciting,” says Walker. “That a 13-year-old boy is being introduced to Baroque and period music is really something, and part of the mandate of the school. I think if you’re educating a new generation of singers, knowing about Baroque pitch is important.”

As a guide to matters of interpretation, Mahon has referred the boys to the Tafelmusik recording of Messiah, a close match to what he’s looking for. “It takes a little longer to teach them the music,” he says. “Getting them to do the style and actually understanding how to sing a Baroque phrase rather than a Renaissance phrase is quite hard.” It helps that Mahon himself led the larger contingent of choristers in the Christmastime 2017 performance of Part I so they are not entirely new to the art he’s looking for.

The boys are talented and excited, ready to delve into the work. They have been rehearsing since January. “It’s quite something,” says Mahon. “They’re so motivated, they know the music. In the fall, they auditioned with For Unto Us a Child is Born. This time around they auditioned with All We Like Sheep.” Walker is impressed to hear that the boys auditioned on that chorale: many singers consider the vocal runs in All We Like Sheep amongst the hardest sections of music in the entire score.

Walker reminisces about his time being back at St. Mike’s and what he would have felt like getting a work like Messiah to perform and having to audition. “I switched from being a treble in about Grade 8,” he says. “You are still a red jacket at that point. You get your blue jacket when you enter high school. At age 13, that these boys are actively wanting to sing this piece, and on top of that, can, is an incredible idea. It bodes well for the future of the choral scene in Toronto. What an honour it is to sing with a group of musicians and create this art together. The music lends itself to excellence, and to a really good show, to creating something magical. There are some moments in the piece that are life changing, and I don’t use that term lightly. What an amazing moment; how magical and momentous it is.”

St. Michael’s Choir School presents Handel’s Messiah Parts II and III with conductor Peter Mahon; Meredith Hall (soprano); Richard Whittall and Simon Honeyman (alto); Michael Colvin and Andrew Walker (tenor); Joel Allison and Keith Lam (bass); and a Baroque orchestra, on Saturday, April 14 at 7:30pm at St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto.

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

Photo by Kevin KingThey were as opulent and upfront as the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel, which frequently hosted internationally famous stars such as Ella Fitzgerald; or they were as grotty and out-of-the way as the Subway Room of the Spadina Hotel on King Street, where CODA magazine’s Bill Smith presented avant-garde improvisers in the early 1980s. Some like George’s Spaghetti House on Dundas Street E. operated for 38 years until 1994; others like Queen Street’s Matt Muldoon’s lasted barely a year in 1978, But what these clubs and about 75 other music spots did over the years was provide a place for Toronto’s jazz musicians to play, where fans knew they could go to see their favourite music.

Notes in the Night: The History of Toronto Jazz Clubs Since 1946, on show at The Market Gallery until June 23, offers an audiovisual history of that phenomenon. To present a three-dimensional view of the scene, the exhibit includes more than 200 items on its walls, on stand-alone panels and in display cases. Not only are there rare photographs of the clubs and performers in their heydays, but also ephemera that take in club menus and table cards, match boxes, LP covers, tickets, advertisements and wall posters. Highlighting 19 major venues, one wall includes a poster of a kilt-wearing saxophonist Jim Galloway advertising an upcoming gig with pianist Doug Riley at the Montreal Bistro. In one display case is a vintage photo of Moe Koffman playing two saxophones at once during a performance at George’s; in another, pianist/singer Jay McShann leads Galloway’s Wee Big Band through its paces at the Montreal Bistro. A 1982 portrait shows drummer Art Blakey in front of Basin Street’s sparkling tinsel backdrop; and a 1960 photo from the House of Hambourg finds a band of young Toronto jazzers trying to impersonate New York junkies in a local version of the play The Connection. Another wall displays a 1969 Toronto Telegram photo shoot of the mock-picketing of the Savarin Tavern by local reed players demanding to be included in The Boss Brass. There’s also an evocative late-night photo of the Queen streetcar moving past the illuminated Town Tavern sign.

Photo by Kevin KingBesides a continuous slideshow projecting 80 images otherwise not seen in the exhibition, are two audiovisual presentations: one monitor shows Toronto Jazz, Don Owen’s 1963 film classic, featuring performances by guitarist Lenny Breau’s trio and saxophonist Don (D.T.) Thompson’s quintet; another monitor captures musicians Don Vickery, Molly Johnson and Archie Alleyne discussing aspects of their careers on the local jazz scene.

Toronto’s club explosion happened after 1946 when new Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario dining lounge rules allowed live music venues to sell liquor, explains Ralph Coram, guest curator for the Market Gallery show. “Pent-up demand after wartime austerity and later the building of the subway system facilitated the growth of burgeoning nightlife districts downtown.” All the clubs were in an area bordered by Bathurst and Sherbourne, Dupont to Front, often in rundown but historically important buildings. The majority of clubs allowed patrons and players of all backgrounds to mingle. So for almost every photo of well-dressed patrons drinking at tiny nightclub tables with a band in the background, there are shots of intense fans raptly gazing at the improvisation of among others, pianists Ray Bryant or Lennie Tristano. Most jazz clubs were set up and managed by hoteliers or restaurateurs who had an established operation that could be granted a liquor licence, notes Coram. “The pure music places tended to be the unlicensed after-hours clubs whose patrons were attuned to jazz and who appreciated a casual or bohemian atmosphere, as a reaction against the social and cultural mores of Toronto the Good,” he adds. Toronto’s original so-called music room was the House of Hambourg which operated from 1948 to 1963 in four locations near Bloor and Bay.

Photo by Kevin KingSome clubs specialized in Dixieland, others in modern jazz. But the ones which lasted the longest, such as George’s, Bourbon Street/Basin Street, the Colonial and the Town Tavern offered all sorts of fare. “Many of the owners were music fans and they became even more so if the place made money,” notes Coram. “Some even booked hard-core jazz bands as a prestige or loss-leader venture.” Still, in some cases the lowering of the drinking age to 18 in 1971 led some to start featuring rock music. One show sidelight also traces the activities of several jazz entrepreneurs active at the time, such as Dave Caplan. A tailor, not a club owner, during a career that lasted from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, he booked jazz at locations that included Club Norman, East 85th, St. Regis Hotel and Meyer’s Deli. One photo shows a snappily dressed Caplan greeting patrons at the St. Regis.

The exhibit was the result of four years of research which involved combing though voluminous paper and photographic files in university, library, government and private archives. Coram explains that “I’m old enough to have been to some of these places like the Colonial, and Bourbon Street. The experiences there always stuck with me and I wanted to bring them back to public consciousness through visual history.

“While this exhibition shows that jazz heritage is a large part of Toronto’s reputation as Music City, the debate in this city around the continuing demise of live music venues is something the jazz community has been dealing with for decades. There’s never been a shortage of local jazz musicians, just a shortage of places for them to play. The jazz community was also right at the centre of some of the social issues of the day, including the struggle to overcome racism, to include Canadian musical content in shows and to participate in urban revitalization.”

Notes in the Night continues until June 23. Located on the second floor of the St. Lawrence Market, 95 Front St. E., the gallery is open Tuesday to Thursday: 10am to 4pm; Friday: 10am to 6pm; Saturday: 9am to 4pm. Closed Sundays, Mondays. toronto.ca/marketgallery

overcoat bannerOn our cover

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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