estonianmw bannerTeretulemast (welcome) to the releases of three Estonian acts performing at Estonian Music Week here in Toronto this month. My disclaimer – I am a Canadian musician born to Estonian parents performing at the event. I am looking forward to meeting/hearing them all!

01 Vox Clamatis sacred

In their 2012 release Filia Sion (ECM New Series ECM 2244, Estonian choir Vox Clamantis, under the artistic direction of Jaan-Eik Tulve, performs 15 selections based on the Daughter of Zion from a cross-section of medieval Gregorian chants and works by Perotinus, de Grudencz, von Bingen and a Jewish chant from Cochin. The plainsongs never become monotonous as the different vocal groupings, from solo to tight ensemble, feature clear diction, amazing phrasing and subtle variety of colour. Gregorian antiphon Ecce venit/Psalm 94 opens with attention-grabbing clear solo singing, followed by hypnotic clean phrases, intonation and the addition of low tone pitches at the chant’s climax. A subtle joyous ensemble feel shines in the Gregorian chant Gloria. Nice musical contrast in von Bingen’s O ignis spiritus as the expressive higher voices contrast the held lower notes, with a few overtones sneaking in. Bravo for these breathtaking performances.

02 Vox Clamatis PartHere are my additions to the earlier Vanessa Wells WholeNote review of the Vox Clamantis release, Arvo Pärt – The Deer’s Cry (ECM 2466 The choir’s plainsong strengths and close work with Pärt himself are reflected in their respectful performances. A rhythmic alleluia vocal backdrop drives the short minimalist Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fatima. Veni Creator features a lulling rolling organ that matches the mixed choir in phrasing and nuance. Sei gelobt, du Baum is a more atonal work with sound conversations between male choir, violin, lute and double bass leading to a climactic high-pitched violin. This release incorporates everything I love about both Pärt’s compositions and Estonian choral music.

03 Maarja NuutMaarja Nuut ( performs her in-the-moment folksy vocals, violin and fiddle music based on Estonian folk music genres with modern day minimalism, techno sound effects and looping in her 2016 release, Une Meeles – In the Hold of a Dream. The atmospheric, mesmerizing all-Estonian tracks developed from her self-described exploration of the boundary between reality and dreaming. Love the opening Kargus with its energetic charging repeated violin patterns later supporting her clear vocals, like two sides to a personality. The violin sliding-pitches-opening leads to a horse galloping riff and virtuosic rapid traditional vocals reminiscent of regilaul chant in Hobusemäng (The Horse Game). Kiik tahab kindaid (Swing Wants Gloves) features recorded electro-squeaking swing rocking effects with a repetitive eerie short vocal melody. There’s a pop flavoured Valss (Waltz), and a toe-tapping upbeat Esto fiddle polka, Kuradipolka (Devil’s Polka).The closing Vaga linnuken (A Silent Little Bird) features Nuut’s trademark repetitive chant vocals, as string plucking and violin fade to silence.

04 Kadri VoorandKadri Voorand’s 2016 Armupurjus (Love Intoxication) (Avarus Records AR0004 has the Kadri Voorand Quartet in great playing and improvising form. Her jazz-infused piano/vocal/composition stylings (with kalimba, wot and electronics) are supported by Taavo Remmel (double bass), Virgo Sillamaa (guitars/composition) and Ahto Abner (drums/percussion). Voorand sings in English and Estonian. The title track Armupurjus has a stadium hard-rock feel with wailing vocals and wall-of-sound instruments. The jazzy Papagoid (Parrots) has lyrical yet rhythmical band instruments supporting Voorand’s personal unique scat-singing style. Love how she makes held-note swells out of the Estonian vowels in words. She sings “mul ei meeldi papagoid” (I don’t like parrots) but it sure seems like she does in her subsequent closing vocalizations. Short contrasting Improludes are fun outtakes from end-of-studio-day improvisations. The closing traditional Estonian Ää mine uhkele mehela (Don’t Marry the Lofty) arrangement features sound washes and willful vocals.

Aitäh (thanks) for all this world-class Estonian music.

Concert notes: Reviewer (and accordionist) Tiina Kiik will perform with singer Roosi Lindau at Estonian Music Week’s opening reception on Thursday May 24, at Sassafraz restaurant and bar at 5pm. On Saturday, May 26 at 8pm at Koerner Hall, Vox Clamantis, the Grammy Award-winning choral ensemble led by Jaan-Eik Tulve, is co-presented with The Royal Conservatory as part of the 21C Music Festival. The choir shares the evening with singer violinist Maarja Nuut, who reinvents ancient traditional melodies from the Estonian countryside as hypnotic songs with electroacoustic loops. On Sunday, May 27 at 7pm at Hugh’s Room, singer Kadri Voorand, 2017 winner of Best Female Artist and Best Jazz Album at the Estonian Music Awards, will be accompanied by her renowned quartet. On Monday, May 28 at 12:30pm at Tartu College, a jazz-singing workshop with Kadri Voorand focuses on creating original ideas, the voice as a physical movement, and lyrics used as a tool to work with original sound (by registration only).

PAUL CRAM bannerPaul Cram in his Toronto studio, 1985. PHOTO: MARK MILLERBy the time saxophonist-composer Paul Cram passed away on March 20, he had redrawn the possibilities of jazz across this country.

In 2001, Mark Miller described Cram’s unique reach on the national jazz map: “[He] has been that rare musician around whom ‘scenes’ seem to coalesce – first in Vancouver, then in Toronto and latterly in Halifax” (The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada, Mercury Press). It was a remarkable achievement: he contributed to the creation of enduring production organizations while building bands large and small and making some of the most durable recordings in the history of Canadian jazz.

For the Toronto-based singer Tena Palmer, who performed as a featured soloist in Cram’s orchestra and worked in the free improvisational Aperture Trio with Cram and guitarist Arthur Bull, “Paul was like an exponential version of a Johnny Appleseed of the arts. Alliances, collaborations, friendships and new combinations of ideas and approaches sprung up around him and in his wake, enlivening creative work and enriching lives far beyond his own awareness.” Trombonist Tom Walsh, an associate for 30 years who’s now based in Montreal, remarks, “Paul had a genius knack for blending talents of widely differing perspectives into a cohesive statement.”

Born in Victoria in 1952, Cram began his musical adventure with clarinet lessons, switching to tenor saxophone under the influence of John Coltrane. By the 1970s he was immersed in the music of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, developing allegiances to precision, open structures and spontaneity that would mark his music throughout his career. While studying composition at the University of British Columbia in the mid-70s, he also entered the ferment of Vancouver free jazz, bonding quickly with the distinguished drummer (and painter) Gregg Simpson. Together they launched the New Orchestra Workshop (NOW), a band that saw itself in the tradition of Mingus’ Jazz Workshop, a forum to work on compositions, most notably Cram’s own.

Cram’s first LP under his own name, Blue Tales in Time (1981), was a breakthrough recording for BC free jazz, introducing bassist Lisle Ellis and pianist Paul Plimley as well as Cram’s substantial skills as composer and saxophonist. When he settled in Toronto in 1982, he left behind the structure of NOW, since then a significant part of creative musical life that has spawned orchestral projects with both international and national figures, among them George Lewis, Marilyn Crispell, Barry Guy and René Lussier.

Cram was soon a key figure in Toronto, bridging styles and scenes, composing, playing and always building. In 1987, the nine-piece Paul Cram Orchestra recorded Beyond Benghazi, with Cram matching his own saxophone with guest soloist Julius Hemphill. Cram also helped launch, and served briefly as co-director of, Hemispheres – an orchestra that specialized in both improvised and composed music.

Cram’s longest sojourn was in Halifax, where he was able to expand on all fronts. In 1990 he co-founded the Upstream Music Association, an organization that includes the Upstream Orchestra and which has regularly mounted the Open Waters Festival and a host of other events. Beginning as a co-director in 1990, he eventually became sole artistic director in 2000, remaining in the position until 2015 when he left to take care of his health. Composer and clarinetist Jeff Reilly remarks: “I think you could say he was the organization for many years.” Cram also became actively involved in writing music for film and theatre, including the award-winning soundtrack for the film One Heart Broken into Song.

While Paul Cram the saxophonist generated free jazz passion, Paul Cram the composer practised the post-modern eclectic. The Paul Cram Orchestra was almost an autobiography, containing musicians he had first connected with in his Toronto years, like Tom Walsh and guitarist John Gzowski who had appeared on Beyond Benghazi, as well as Nova Scotia associates like saxophonist Don Palmer and Jeff Reilly. Their 2000 concert at the Victoriaville festival (FIMAV) became the CD Campin Out. In 2004, they provided the finale for probably the greatest international showcase ever afforded to adventurous Canadian jazz – a week of the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Jazz em Agosto festival in Lisbon. The concert has been released as Live in Lisbon.

For a sense of what the music felt like at the time, here’s something I wrote for the Campin Out liner notes: “The two streams in Cram’s music, the improvised and the composed, come together in a very special way. The composition is less about giving the improvisation structure than the improvisation is about giving the orchestration fluidity and vice versa. Part of Cram’s ambition is to have the composed portions move with the energy and spontaneity of collective improvisation, and it’s something he achieves frequently here. The music is rooted in modern jazz. Mingus and Gil Evans come handily to mind, and more particularly the writing of Carla Bley, both for the wit and the exchange of melody and texture; but Cram takes that principle of restless movement further afield. This is a tour that takes in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and dances the tango and the waltz, all the time expanding the image pool with in-flight films of other locales and times, some of them pointed out by a guide plucked from a 50s TV detective series.”

In 2012 Cram led a 21-member Upstream Orchestra at FIMAV. Jeff Reilly describes his magical way with an orchestra: “That orchestra was a natural extension of Paul’s ‘Ellingtonian approach’ (as he called it) or getting as many people as he could onstage to delve into the deep experience of releasing the subconscious (what he called ‘the bottom 90 percent’) through improvised sound. He loved the collective roar of an orchestra in full cry, and I was always delighted when he asked me to conduct. Paul’s ability to coalesce a group of musicians into a collective sound was the result of the sheer force of his creative imagination – he loved and lived this stuff and it just seemed to happen around him wherever he went. I learned a great deal from Paul, about music, about sound, about people and about love. Music is a bigger, better thing because of him, and we all benefited from what he brought to us.”

Tom Walsh, present from Beyond Benghazi to that 2012 concert, and one of Canada’s finest improvisers, had a special empathy with Cram, sharing a view of band-building with him that can seem like mad science and private language: “We had many, many conversations and shared many inside jokes about the ‘tricks of this trade.’ Maybe a certain player’s real talents are covered up. How do you ‘game’ it out of him or her? How do you expand a jazz player’s linearity into ‘cosmolody’? How do you ‘gift’ permission to a classical player to hear and feel outside his or her role?”

It was that kind of thinking that brought a special vitality, a sense of risk and promise, to Paul Cram’s large ensembles – rare qualities in any music.

Archival Note: Gregg Simpson has recently uploaded recordings and much more archival material, downloadable at There’s an intense set of early music, Live at l’Opale, Montreal, 1983, by the Paul Cram Trio with Simpson and bassist Lisle Ellis; and the orchestra set, Live in Lisbon.

Stuart Broomer writes frequently on music (mostly improvised) and is the author of Time and Anthony Braxton. His column “Ezz-thetics” appears regularly at

Thompson Egbo-Egbo - Photo by Jeremy ElliottIt is a Sunday morning, March 18, 2018, and jazz pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo and I have made time for a fairly leisurely chat in The WholeNote offices at 720 Bathurst Street. Sunday is a lot quieter in the office than the rest of the week these days, as assorted heavy machinery takes a sabbatical from the nearly completed sacred task, right under our windows, of levelling all the buildings on the city block that was Honest Ed’s empire.

Egbo-Egbo will be at Koerner Hall twice this coming April (once onstage and once backstage). The onstage Koerner appearance is April 11 at 7:30pm, the 14th Annual Jazz Lives gala/fundraiser for Jazz.FM91. Billed as a celebration of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s centenary, Egbo-Egbo will be keeping company with Jackie Richardson, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Robi Botos, Tom Wilson, Heavyweights Brass Band, Lori Cullen, Bill McBirnie, Danny B, Drew Jurecka and the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. “I’d better start practising,” he says.

Ten days later, April 21, is the eagerly anticipated Koerner appearance of Cape Town titan, jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim with Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and Ibrahim’s band Ekaya, in an evening featuring new arrangements of late 50s Jazz Epistles original compositions woven in with Ibrahim’s classic catalogue.

“I am looking forward to that show,” Egbo-Egbo says. “If you can get a ticket,” I reply. (It has been sold out for months.) “Secret is, I will be watching from backstage,” he says. “They will be doing a little VIP reception after, they always do a little VIP thing, and my trio will be playing that reception. I had a choice of which to play and that was the one I chose. I have never seen him live and it will be great for the guys to get the chance to just watch and enjoy. I remember back in the day when IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) was in town, I got to watch Ed Thigpen play with Russ Malone and Benny Green, with Oscar Peterson onstage and I was volunteering, opening the doors for those guys. So it’s going to be exciting.”

Meanwhile, the Thompson Egbo-Egbo Trio (Jeff Halischuk on drums and Randall Hall on bass are the other two) will have put in a fair bit of practice – four March Tuesdays at The Rex, in the 6:30pm-8:30pm slot. Repertoire for the gigs revolves around their trio’s first album – A New Standard, it’s called. It was recorded as an indie project a year or so ago and is now being re-released by Entertainment One Music – a first step of another leg of Egbo-Egbo’s musical journey.

One of the great things about the residency at The Rex, he says, is settling in. “Settling into the music, settling in with the same players. Similar to the time we’ve spent at Poetry Jazz Cafe in Kensington Market, it’s like paid rehearsal time. You get to work through the music. For me there’s a freedom in knowing that in this setting I’m allowed to make a few mistakes in order to find stuff. And that will make what we do next, next record, next evolution or whatever, that much better. Ideally we are trying to shed our skin of stuff to find whatever the next butterfly is.”

“Why A New Standard?” I ask about the album name.

“Partly it’s about picking repertoire,” he says. “You know, you go to Humber, or whatever music institution, and they give you the standards and you’ve got to learn these tunes; and then you get out in the real world and realize there’s all these other tunes. I mean, you sit at the piano in a piano bar and you’d better be able to at least fake Piano Man so that after the first 30 seconds, when they usually stop listening, it still sounds like the same song. So part of it was that. Realizing that there are new ‘standards’ being set all the time that you have to know. The old guard has to meet the new guard, and out of that you have to create your own standards, so to speak.”

He carries on: “Another part of it is to do with the realities of life for a gigging musician, when you’re finding yourself in a different space musically all the time – a little bit of jazz and little bit of pop depending on where you are from moment to moment. It’s easy to buy in to a kind of disdain for music that’s three minutes, or 2:40, that sort of stuff. But I found myself thinking about the old jazz records – if you listen to some of the old records, that’s all they were. Size of the cylinder, one head, one solo head out. Which is not far from where the pop space is for music.”

“So is there a danger of finding yourself betwixt and between?” I ask. His response is a shrug.“Some people will call it jazz, some people won’t; most of the jazz people won’t call it jazz, and the people who aren’t jazz will call it jazz. Whatever … The way I see it, if someone turns the radio on for the music that’s there, can we be there? It may not be a pop tune but can I present it in a way where it’s not a 12-minute song? Can I get it compact to match the way it’s being absorbed? Six minutes or so, that was my thought process. Let’s just try and present the music a little differently, you know? We all listen to all kinds of music which does that.”

Egbo-Egbo, Halischuk and Hall all went through the Humber jazz program, at the college’s Lakeshore campus in the city’s west end. But the story of their working together has more twists and turns than that. Halischuk and Egbo-Egbo were exact contemporaries but did not intersect musically at the time. “Jeff was in the A Band,” Egbo-Egbo explains. “Which band you were in was quite competitive for some people. I have to say it wasn’t for me, not because it couldn’t have been, but just because it wasn’t on my radar at the time. I just thought, ‘Oh, some people got picked to play in that band.’”

His drummer at Humber was Sly Juhas but “he met the door lady at some venue we were playing and they hit it off, ended up moving to Germany.” After that he played with many drummers, then one day needed someone to sub on a particular gig. “Saw Jeff on Facebook and went ‘Hmm, I wonder if he would play with me.’ Reached out, he said ‘Yeah sure, I’d love to.’”

Something clicked, he says. “For me, Jeff really played the way I heard the music, the way I envisioned drums being played on everything I do, so at that point it became ‘How often can I get him to play with me?’ And I was fortunate because it stuck. He really elevated what we were doing. I think it’s interesting that ten years before we hadn’t really played together. But there’s always relationships along the way in music that never happened before; that’s the way things go sometimes.”

Bassist Randall Hall had been at Humber a full decade before Egbo-Egbo. “Randall was one of those guys who had done Humber and never finished it. Music was great at the time, there was a lot of playing to be had. Then, as luck has it, he came back to finish his studies right at the end of my time. We ended up playing together and sticking around. He’s been there since very early on playing with me and it’s worked out really well.”

“Did you also gig all the way through Humber?” I ask. “Yes,” he says. “It’s interesting, the different philosophies people bring to it. I didn’t have the same supports some people had – that’s neither good nor bad, just a fact. It meant I didn’t interact as much with other students as I could have, or should have, maybe. All those gigs, four, five, sometimes six nights a week ... Also, to be honest, I mean I grew up downtown and didn’t want to be out at campus when I didn’t need to be. So I was jetting a lot. On the one hand I had a tough go financially figuring it out. On the other hand, I was very fortunate that I had private scholarships to pay for my time at Humber.”

When Egbo-Egbo talks about growing up downtown, he’s talking specifically about Regent Park, on Toronto’s inner-city east side, the child of parents who immigrated here from Nigeria when he was four years old. The inner city east side is still his home base. He sits on the board of Dixon Hall Music School, where he got his own musical start – that’s how he met entertainment lawyer Chris Taylor, who now heads up Entertainment One Music. It’s also how he met Mitchell Cohen of Daniels Corporation, who has followed Egbo-Egbo’s progress for years and helped finance the production of the new album.

“Somewhere, I can’t remember exactly where,” I say, “you’re quoted as saying something like ‘Before you can talk about making best choices, you have to have choices to make.”

“There’s an easy version of that,” he says. “You grow up, you see bad things happening around you. You choose to join in or you choose something else, if there’s something else to choose. But I don’t go with painting me as some kind of a hero. I’d love to say I was smart enough to recognize the opportunities afforded to me. People look at you and say ‘Wow, look at you, you did so well.’ But truthfully, why shouldn’t I have? Lots of people from Regent Park did well. You just mostly hear about the ones who don’t. I was surrounded by a lot of opportunities, so much opportunity. I was not a rich kid but from an early age, because of music, I grew up like a rich kid. Looking back, it seems almost impossible that I would miss the road I took. Take the time to unpack it, there was a whole community of people who invested in me like a thoroughbred.

“I have always had support and help for what I am doing; even now I remind myself that I have always had a community. If you don’t have one, you’d better figure it out, for music or anything else.”

For Egbo-Egbo, “anything else” now includes a recent decision to add a career in commercial real estate to his toolkit. “It was an interesting choice” he says. “I had no background or knowledge in real estate. But I asked myself ‘Do I go back and do an MBA or go into law?’ I’d done eight years of school, didn’t want to remove myself from the workforce. I’d met people in that sector through my music so at the minimum I would have people who care about what I do to answer questions for me.”

“What’s ironic and beautiful over the last year and a half since I started out,” he tells me, “is that the music has been subsidizing my real estate career. The income I used to look down on has actually helped me survive the transition. My first deals have come directly from my music network. I tell myself I am going into real estate to help me take care of music and monetarily it’s been the other way around. It’s so interesting how it all connects. No matter what I have done so far, music always takes care of me. Financially, emotionally, mentally. One way or another.”

“So how do you think you can find a balance?” I ask.

“Not so much a question of balance as alternating binges,” he says. “When I first started I was so busy I was not really practising. So I worried about making sure the music was continuing. I look at it this way. If you’re doing things musically that you don’t want to be doing, in order to do the things that you do want to be doing musically, then do something else with the time you spent on the musical part you don’t like. I am a performer, not into teaching, and it’s getting to where I don’t have to worry only about taking care of myself. My parents are getting older; as immigrants they don’t have the work history, pensions, and whatnot; at some point you have the responsibility to help out. They made the sacrifices for you. Roles switch as life changes.

“It’s like starting a new conversation with myself,” he says. “I still want to do music, still want to write, never have done anything other than music. Maybe real estate will help inform the musical choices I get to make in ways I can’t imagine. Maybe it will give me the resources to make music a ‘best choice’ for other people the way it has been for me.”

We look out the window at the heavy machinery sitting silent on the Honest Ed’s site, a small oasis of possibility in an impossibly overheated downtown real estate market.

“Life in the inner city can be isolating, but it’s not actually isolated,” he says, as if in conversation with himself. “Downtown there is always somewhere close by you can go. Where you can be with people. We have to find ways to build that closeness in parts of our city where isolation is the fact.”

David Perlman can be reached at

Eve EgoyanOver 20 years ago, the Toronto-based pianist and extraordinary interpreter of contemporary music Eve Egoyan was introduced to the music of the Spanish-German composer Maria de Alvear through a recording given to her by composer Martin Arnold, the current artistic director of Array Music. After talking recently with Egoyan about her upcoming performance of de Alvear’s monumental diptych De Puro Amor and En Amor Duro, I think it’s fair to say that that moment in time was a meeting with destiny for Egoyan.

After listening to the recording, she contacted the composer and in return received two scores in the mail. Those scores were De Puro Amor and Amor Duro, composed in 1991, which Egoyan proceeded to learn and subsequently perform at the Music Gallery in 1996, while the Music Gallery was still located at 179 Richmond St. W.

Events will have come full circle with the upcoming performance of these two pieces on April 14, also with the Music Gallery, but this time at the St. George-the-Martyr location that was the Music Gallery’s home performing base for the past 16 years. The current performance is also the launch of Egoyan’s CD recordings of these works, adding to her extensive list of album releases. Earlier in the evening, writer Mary Dickie will be interviewing former Music Gallery artistic director Jim Montgomery about the years (1991-2000) at the 179 Richmond St. W. venue, during which time Egoyan initially performed these works.

That initial performance of de Alvear’s music was “a seminal moment,” Egoyan told me in our interview. The unique feature of both these works is their long duration: De Puro Amor being one hour in length and Amor Duro 50 minutes. “This was early in my performing career, and I had never performed anything before of that duration. I jumped into the performance with a lot of trepidation as I thought everyone would leave after the first half.”

What surprised her was not only did people stay, but she had an experience of feeling the presence of the audience in a totally new way. “I found it extremely moving to be with my audience for that long in that sound language. I felt people listening, and was very excited by that – that feeling of shared listening. Of course the experience of shared listening is always happening when you are performing, but because of the level of comfort everyone was feeling within the language over that period of time, I was aware of their presence in a new way. I felt so transported by that and honoured that they were with me. It felt really unique, expansive, and quite extraordinary. We were all being transported at the same time.”

She went on to explain how works with a long duration create a welcoming space for such listening. “When you are playing standard repertoire, people have a sense of history with that work. They are already prepared to hear a certain language. But when you’re playing a piece by a contemporary composer whose language is unknown, there is a certain adjustment period for the listener. The longer duration pieces allow time for that adjustment period. The listener can then be more present and go deeper into the sound language. It’s also a more profound experience for me as a performer, to feel people experiencing the art in a totally different way rather than having a more surface experience.”

Both of de Alvear’s pieces on the program are composed using a type of loose proportional notation. The pitches are pre-determined by the composer, but the durations are approximate and time is determined by the distance between the notes on the printed page. There are very few markings of dynamics or phrasing. This approach allows the performer to be very present in real time. “It gives me space to listen and make decisions based on how the piano sounds in the space and I can adjust the dynamics and pedalling in real time based on what I’m hearing,” said Egoyan. “The rules are more open and generous, so everyone can create. It’s not improvisation though, because the inherent structure and form is already there, but the composer is trusting her interpreter to draw the audience into real time. Both harmony and register are of the utmost importance, and through that window everyone is guided into an experience of the piece.”

María de AlvearAfter such a profound experience performing de Alvear’s pieces, Egoyan had a desire to perform more such works, and thus began a long association between the two artists. De Alvear wrote specific works for Egoyan, including two piano concertos Clear Energy (2006) and Sky Music (2009), as well as the solo piano work Asking (2001). The friendship and collaboration is so strong that de Alvear invited her to attend the presentation of the Spanish National Award for Music in composition presented by the King and Queen of Spain in June 2016.

Long works, long term relationships: Another outcome of her connection with de Alvear was to seek out and perform long duration works by other composers. A week after the Toronto performance, Egoyan will travel to Victoria and offer a unique listening experience of four concerts comprised of long duration works by de Alvear, Ann Southam, Rudolf Komorous and Linda Catlin Smith presented over the course of two days, on April 21 and 22. Over her career, Egoyan has developed intimate and long-lasting creative associations with each of these composers, and each of these collaborations has resulted in CD recordings as well as multiple performances.

In the course of our conversation, Egoyan told me more about these long term relationships. “When people write for me, it’s like having them dress me, they are creating clothing for me. There is a feeling of intimacy – I know them and they know me. I slip into that world and there is a sense of trust and openness when I play music by people I really know. Interpreting is a strange thing for me – I’m giving myself, opening myself fully into somebody’s creativity. I really need to trust that meeting place for me to feel that it’s most effective.” One such long term relationship has been with composer Ann Southam. After de Alvear’s visit to Toronto for the premiere of her work Asking, Southam was so struck by it, that she wrote a long duration work for Egoyan entitled Simple Lines of Enquiry in 2008 in response. That particular visit was also inspiring in a unique way for several women composers who attended. Egoyan describes it this way: “We were impacted by the fact that de Alvear didn’t hold back from taking up space. Maria only writes long pieces, she only takes up time. We were struck by the fact that a woman would actually say ‘I’m here, I’m allowed to be here for this long, without any apology.’ That’s what inspired Ann to write that long work for me.” In describing de Alvear’s character, Egoyan stated: “She herself is a force, an unbelievable presence that blew us out of the water. You could say that her music aggressively asserts itself by its duration, but it’s not aggressive music.”

Solo for Duet to get Luminato debut

Egoyan’s latest project, Solo for Duet: works for augmented piano and images, will receive its premiere at this season’s Luminato Festival on June 19 and 20. The project takes her love of creating intimacy between piano and audience to a whole new level. It combines six piano works by six different composers and presents them as a theatrical production, combining choreographed movements, speaking, singing, images and unspoken narrative. In choosing the repertoire, Egoyan has intentionally created a gender-balanced program with works by distinguished artists David Rokeby, Michael Snow, John Oswald, Nicole Lizée, Linda Catlin Smith, and Duet, a new piece for disklavier she has composed for herself. The disklavier is capable of producing both acoustic piano sounds as well as sampled and digitally altered sounds. “Duet explores the space between what a piano can do and what I wish a piano could do. It’s a conversation between the piano and its dream self. The virtual piano can do infinite sustain, tremolo, change pitch and reveal harmonic overtones.” By performing on a disklavier, Egoyan and her collaborators transform the piano into a visual instrument, combining sampled sound, film and interactive images, and drawing inspiration from the films of David Lynch, a Shakespearean sonnet, technical glitches and more.

Egoyan acknowledges that creating and preparing to perform this program has been very challenging for her. “I’m going from being extremely intimate in my performances to more extroverted than I’ve ever been before. I’m also revealing my own creative voice, which I’ve never done publicly except for some improvisation.” By combining theatrical, musical and visual elements, she seeks to create “a unique hybrid, alternating sections of multi-sensory intensity with periods of delicacy and stillness. This will draw the audience in close to listen and then expand outwards with the addition of visuals and theatrical elements.”

Directed by Joanna McIntyre, following its Luminato debut the piece is scheduled to tour throughout Canada in the fall of 2018 and Australia the following May.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

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.

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