Stage Fright BannerSix years ago, famed soprano Ambur Braid was lying on her back on the dressing room floor at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. She was already made up and attired in her regal black costume for her Canadian Opera Company public debut as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. She was trying to ground herself on the hard surface, but was failing miserably. Her stomach was queasy, her heart was racing, and her mouth was bone dry. Worse than the physical symptoms was the terrifying thought that she’d forget her lines. “I can’t do this,” she told herself. “I’d rather get hit by a bus.”

Braid has no memory of how she survived that performance. But she knows it went well. “Thank goodness it always works out in the end,” she says.

Ambur Braid - photo by Jennifer TooleStage fright is nothing new for the Canadian singing sensation. She’s grappled with performance anxiety all her life. It’s worse prior to opening nights, and when her mentors are in the audience. “I get anxious because I don’t want to disappoint anyone – meeting their expectations matters a lot to me.” And even though her performances have earned rave reviews from critics, her fears have exacted a steep price. At times they’ve caused insomnia, weight loss, and even infections like bronchitis. “I get into a tizzy and that morphs into illness,” she says.

I spoke with three experts on stage fright about the subject: Toronto psychologist Kate Hays, who specializes in performance anxiety; Lisa Chisholm, preparation and performance coach at Master Performing; and Chase McMurren, MD, medical director and psychotherapist at the Al and Malka Green Artists’ Health Centre at the Toronto Western Hospital. If there’s one thing they all agree on, it’s that Braid is not alone.

Estimates of stage fright prevalence vary, says Hays, from 16% to 75%. Part of the difficulty of narrowing down these numbers comes from the fact that not everyone with stage fright chooses to speak up about it. According to Chisholm, artists are expected to be tough – which means that many people afflicted with stage fright suffer silently. “If you feel nervous you think you either haven’t practised enough or your character is weak,” says Hays.

The wide range could also stem from differences in definition. It’s normal for a musician to fear an audience’s judgment. The body’s fight-or-flight system gets ramped up in response to the anxiety, causing hearts to thump, irregular breathing, sweaty palms, and trembling. But while a bit of excitement can give an edge to a performance, an exaggerated response can be debilitating.

“It’s hard to play the cello with sweaty fingers or sing when you’re so tense you can’t breathe properly,” says Chisholm.

While anyone can get stage fright, perfectionists (people with unrealistically high standards) are especially prone to the condition, says McMurren. Many artists believe that self-criticism is beneficial. “They think they’ll get lazy if they’re kind to themselves.”

Braid herself identifies as a perfectionist. “I dwell on mistakes that last an eighth of a second,” she says. She feels this self-castigation is necessary to improve. “You need to never be satisfied – there’s always something more you have to know.”

But far from being helpful, this negative self-talk can be harmful, says McMurren. Many artists are so hard on themselves that they procrastinate, putting off practising indefinitely. Even if the piece is near-flawless, perfectionists berate themselves for a single error. In extreme cases, their unattainable expectations can lead to anxiety or depression.

Kira May - photo by Olga LipnitskyLuckily, there is help for those afflicted with stage fright. Pop vocalist Kira May, who sings in the project Kira May, has grappled with social anxiety (fearing judgments from others). Stage fright was one its manifestations. She began writing songs at age 12, but would only sing when she was alone in her bedroom. As she grew up, she continued singing on her own, turning to the technique of looping, (layering her own voice on top of itself) to avoid collaboration. Jamming with musicians would trigger her worst symptoms – a racing heart, restricted breathing, and shakiness. She worried about disappointing them. “What if I hit a wrong note and they never want to play with me again?” She was so afraid of failing that she put off getting gigs. But after meeting her partner, who thrived on playing publicly, she decided it was time to face her fears.

According to Chisholm, there are three broad areas underlying performance anxiety that can be targeted.  Some revved up performers need to reign in their runaway physiology so they can regain their focus. They also need to hone their craft to feel adequately prepared. Finally, mental preparation can help performers handle whatever happens.

For Chisholm’s clients, boosting self-confidence is an important aspect of combatting stage fright – for which techniques for things like efficient practice are crucial. Instead of playing an entire piece over and over for hours, drilling in the mistakes, Chisholm encourages musicians to try concentrating on the troublesome sections, figuring out where they mess up and why. “Am I sloppy? Are my two fingers going down at the same time at bar 3, making the A-sharp unclean?” Once you identify the problem, it’s easier to resolve it.

Varying the practice conditions also helps performers cope with the unknown, says McMurren. “The performance will likely be in a different context from the practice – if you don’t adapt you could be caught off guard,” he says. Rehearse on a new chair, perform standing up, or begin the score at a different place each time.

McMurren adds that it’s useful to rehearse performances mentally. “Imagine playing in front of an audience and them loving it,” he says. MRI scans have shown that practising positive guided imagery regularly boosts the growth of the hippocampus (an area associated with well-being). But musicians should visualize troubles as well as triumphs, says Hays. Imagine goofing up bar 156 and recovering from it at bar 157, she says. “It’s a way of handling the ‘what ifs’ that we all get into.”

First we have to dismantle the negative messages which weigh us down, McMurren explains. Cognitive behavior therapy, which debunks distorted thinking, can help replace punitive ideas with more compassionate ones. “Performers think if they’re not jerks to themselves they won’t make it,” he says. But in fact, a more accepting attitude towards oneself reduces anxiety. Recognizing that our worth extends beyond our art is also crucial, says McMurren. When artists find meaning in other areas of their lives, there’s less at stake during any given show.

Some musicians also take substances to cope with anxiety, McMurren continues. Alcohol can manage worry, while pot settles the nerves for some. But there are healthy alternatives. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation calm the body. Beta-blockers, which slow down the heart, can also help, he says, but sometimes cause decreased libido and fatigue.

May benefitted from many of these techniques. She joined a cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)-based group at CAMH for clients with social anxiety. One of her assignments was to sing a cappella in front of the group. “It was horrifying,” she recalls. “I thought I did a terrible job.” But she was wrong. The group loved it. From this exercise May learned that her misgivings weren’t always correct. After completing the course, May began performing, but realized she still needed to lower her stress level. She became McMurren’s client.

May continued to challenge her dismal predictions with CBT. She planned coping strategies for disastrous situations. “It was comforting just to have a plan,” she says. She imagined crying in front of a producer, and realized that it wouldn’t be the end of the world. “I would just take a moment and recover.”

While May found these techniques effective, she felt frustrated at her slow progress. McMurren suggested an antidepressant to supplement the talk therapy. It changed her life. “Before it felt like I was walking around in the rain and every droplet felt like a bullet – now I have a raincoat on so the water bounces off me.”

Feeling more resilient, May was able to find meaning in other areas of life besides singing. “I had put so much weight on music that it was impossible not to fear failing,” she says. But McMurren pointed out that ‘Kira May the musician’ was only part of her identity. “He helped me see myself as a well-rounded person – I’m way more than just an artist,” she says. That realization lessened her dread of failure. Becoming whole had benefits beyond performance. “I’ve replaced a fear of people with a strong desire to connect with them,” she says. “I feel much happier overall.”

So does Braid. Over the years she has figured out how to manage her stage fright. A naturopath helped her eat the right foods, maintain an exercise routine, and get enough sleep. She’s also become less dependent on the opinions of others. “I used to get wrapped up in what other people thought – that was exhausting,” she says. Now she’s less fazed when she slips up. “I can laugh at things and not do them again.”

Today, Braid knows how to cope on performance days. She works off nervous energy with squats and push-ups and by dancing to the overture. “It gets my breath moving and puts me into a positive headspace,” she says. Her pooch, Walter, comes to her performances now and distracts her from worry. “Having to focus on something else is nice.”

But while her Queen of the Night role will always be nerve-wracking, most of her work these days is enjoyable. “The show I’m in right now is a riot,” she says. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had onstage.”

Vivien Fellegi is a former family physician now working as a freelance medical journalist.

Mark Miller - Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz LegendMark Miller
Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend
Toronto, self-published 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-77302-559-9
Available at
e-book: $ 6.99; paperback: $20.96;
hardcover: $36.50

Mark Miller has a well-earned reputation as Canada’s foremost writer on jazz, whether as the Globe & Mail’s critic for a quarter century before his retirement from journalism or for the ten books he’s previously published on the music, many of them specifically devoted to its Canadian dimension. With his biography of drummer Claude Ranger, however, he’s done something quite new, a full-length biography of a Canadian musician that gives us a more intimate glimpse into jazz in this country than has previously been revealed.

Ranger might seem like an unlikely choice: he certainly never achieved celebrity like Diana Krall or Oscar Peterson, or international status as a significant innovator like Paul Bley or Kenny Wheeler. However, while he largely laboured in the trenches, Ranger responded singularly to the allure of jazz.

Miller’s familiarity with each of Canada’s distinctive jazz centres (and several generations of their musicians) gives rare immediacy and authenticity to the westward path of Ranger’s career. Born in Montreal in 1941, he followed a trail from beating on pots and pans to playing in Montreal showbars, then on to the city’s jazz scene, then Toronto, eventually ending up in Vancouver where, in 2000, he disappeared. And not in the sense of retired from the scene, preferring sunny days on the beach or playing with the grandkids: No, Ranger literally disappeared: an RCMP investigation launched in 2001 is still open.

Photo by Mark Miller - taken at Basin St., Toronto, in 1938.Ranger was a romantic figure, a man devoted — both selflessly and selfishly, it would seem — to jazz as art and necessary self-expression. From the mid-60s on he was devoted to the fresh possibilities of a changing music, fuelled by the examples of John Coltrane and Miles Davis and their respective drummers, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. Working whatever Montreal gigs that might come along, Ranger first cultivated associations with like-minded musicians, initially bassist Michel Donato and saxophonist Brian Barley, eventually becoming the mentor for some 25 years to younger musicians who felt the same irresistible pull toward jazz in its more liberating forms. Despite that, he stayed in the limiting world of Canadian jazz, held back by what Miller calls his “demons and dependencies,” as much his creative insecurity about being a white Canadian who finds himself in black American music as, say, alcohol. I only saw Ranger once when he was playing in the kind of company to which he might have aspired — with Sonny Rollins and Donato at a Toronto benefit in 1974 — and he was clearly a drummer of rare skill, energy, invention and intensity.

Part of the effectiveness of Miller’s chronicle comes out in his sense of the telling detail, whether it’s the semiotics of the perpetual smoking cigarette with hanging ash drooping from the left corner of Ranger’s mouth, or another kind of detail, the resume writer’s, recounting musicians’ memories of rigorous rehearsals and the scant and sparsely attended performances that followed. Those lists are lifeblood for many who play jazz in Canada: they make illuminating reading for anyone interested in the music, and a cautionary tale for anyone contemplating a career in it.

In Miller’s larger tale, Ranger hasn’t disappeared at all. He’s alive not just in the memories of the young musicians whose lives he touched, but in their music, whether it’s rooted in the rehearsals, the charts he laboured over, the lessons he gave for a pack of smokes and a sixpack, the exercises he wrote out, the drums he rebuilt, or, above all, that fierce, unbending loyalty to the music. As Miller notes, Ranger inspired and assisted Dylan van der Schyff and Nick Fraser, today the finest Canadian drummers of a generation that benefits from a far more internationalized scene.

2209 JaegerThe creation of original Canadian compositions, for use in its music programs, was at the core of the mandate of CBC Radio from its beginning. And while this content creation was intended for its CBC network broadcasts in Canada, it was also a way in which the CBC could share newly-created Canadian music with public broadcasters around the world.

In 1945, CBC’s International Service, The Voice of Canada, went on air via shortwave transmissions. Canadian music was included in the service, although the limitations the shortwave medium had for music transmission were well recognized. By 1947, though, the International Service began releasing Canadian music via a transcription service, on discs. These discs were made available to other public broadcasters, and those companies, the BBC in particular, returned the favour. A system of international program exchanges soon evolved. In a 1960 Dominion Day Voice of Canada broadcast, it was announced that over 500 Canadian compositions had been distributed in this way to broadcasters outside of the country. In 1970 the service was renamed Radio Canada International.

International program exchanges quickly became a regular means of acquiring low- or non-cost programming, with which public broadcasters could balance their offerings of domestic on-air content. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) was established in 1950 to facilitate this process, and the CBC immediately became an associate member. Associate members had access to EBU program exchanges, but were not involved in the operation of the organization itself. The European broadcasters who were full members created an EBU Concert Season, a full season of classical music concerts produced by the respective member broadcasters, and distributed this to all full and associate members.

In 1954, four European public networks, Radio France, Frankfurt Radio, Belgian Radio and Television and Swiss Radio, together with the International Music Council, initiated the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC). The IRC describes itself as “an international forum of representatives of broadcasting organizations who come together for the purpose of exchanging and broadcasting contemporary art music.” By 1970 the scheme had grown to include the public broadcasting systems of 33 countries, including CBC Radio and Radio-Canada. The IRC had become an international program exchange with a very specific focus and purpose.

In 1970, CBC Radio submitted a work by the 23-year-old Steven Gellman to the IRC. Gellman’s Mythos II for flute and string quartet had been commissioned by the Stratford Music Festival in 1968, and was recorded for broadcast by CBC Radio Music on the series Music of Today, with host Norma Beecroft. The international delegates to the 1970 IRC, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, were so impressed with Gellman’s composition that they voted the work the best composition by a composer under the age of 25. In fact, the IRC delegates felt obliged to create the “young composer” category, in order to vote for Gellman’s piece, as there was previously no such category. Gellman remembers it this way:

“It was 1970. I was travelling through Europe. When I arrived in Paris I was informed that I had won the award from the IRC. Unbeknownst to me, the CBC had submitted my piece Mythos II. This event positively helped to launch my career as a composer. When I got back to Canada I was warmly welcomed by John Roberts, the legendary head of CBC Radio Music. John, who was so instrumental in launching the careers of many of us composers at the time, commissioned me on the spot for an orchestral piece, Symphony in 2 Movements, and followed it up later with two more works, Symphony 2 and Chori, my first very large orchestral work. I am very grateful to John for giving me such great opportunities in my early career!”

Over the next three decades, the CBC would help Canada’s young and emerging composers make a significant mark at the IRC.

My own first visit to the IRC was in 1977, as the producer of Music of Today, but also as the person who was actively working on a proposal to CBC Radio Music for the creation of a new national network radio series devoted to contemporary music that would exceed the objectives of Music of Today. The CBC senior managers who had invited me to make the proposal for what would become Two New Hours the following year knew all too well that the new program would need plenty of fresh content. We would certainly produce Canadian repertoire with our modest production budget. But to keep the programming balanced, and to place Canadian composition in a worldwide context, we would also need international repertoire. The IRC was clearly the best source of high-quality productions of the latest contemporary works for the many participating countries. Fortunately, the exchange of these compositions was quid pro quo: we provided Canadian works and the other participating countries exchanged theirs for ours. All were available free of charge.

For that first visit as CBC Radio delegate to the IRC in May of 1977, I brought a work that I had commissioned the previous year through the Radio Music department’s commissioning program, the String Trio by the 35-year-old Brian Cherney. It remains one of the most remarkable works in Cherney’s canon, and it made a strong impression on the IRC delegates. However, 1977 was also the year that the delegates all returned home with a striking new Dutch submission, De Staat, by the 38-year-old Louis Andriessen, the work that was voted as the selected composition at that year’s IRC. This was the work that essentially proclaimed to the world that Louis Andriessen was to become the newest international star among living composers. It was history in the making, and with the national radio networks all sharing this work with their respective listeners, the news spread fast.

Two New Hours took to the airwaves as a regular weekly contemporary music series in January of 1978, on what was then called the CBC FM Network, and there was plenty of contemporary Canadian music. But there was also an appropriate amount of international repertoire, as well. Much of the international content that year came from the recordings I brought back with me from the IRC session in Paris. We made it a priority not to lose sight of where contemporary music was heading in as many parts of the world as possible.

I remained the CBC delegate to the IRC for 25 years, and in due course, Canadian submissions enjoyed great success. One of the most remarkable stories is that of Paul Steenhuisen, who recounts that his CBC commissioned composition, Wonder, for soprano, electronic sounds and orchestra, was “presented at the 1997 IRC, and was ranked third in the world amongst recommended works. It was subsequently broadcast in 23 countries. I lived for a year off the royalties. As a result of the IRC it was also performed by the ORF Austrian Radio Philharmonic, conducted by Arturo Tamayo, at the 1999 Musikprotokoll Festival in Graz, where I was a guest composer. They also commissioned a related piece, Bread, which was premiered by Klangforum Wien. Both pieces were also broadcast in a feature program they did about my music.”

Such was the potential impact of an appearance at the IRC, for a young composer.

Works by Canadians continued to win recognition at the IRC. Chris Paul Harman (1991), Brian Current (2002) and Abigail Richardson-Schulte (2004) were all selected as winners, much like Steven Gellman, years earlier, in the young composers’ category. Current’s work For the Time Being had a live performance at the Warsaw Autumn festival resulting from his selection, and Richardson-Schulte was offered a commission from Radio France after her trio ...dissolve... was selected.

Chris Paul Harman wrote that “in 1991 and 1994, I was fortunate to have had broadcasts of my works Iridescence and Concerto for Oboe and Strings in several European and Asian countries – my first international exposure – as a result of the CBC’s participation in the IRC. More pragmatically, at a time when I did not have a regular income, the royalties from these broadcasts largely defrayed the cost of living for several months.”

Naturally, these successful submissions made positive impressions with the IRC delegates, who began to see the CBC as a broadcaster committed to developing its country’s creative artists. In 2002, I was elected President of the Rostrum.

My colleague, Sandra Thacker, whose productions from the Winnipeg Symphony’s New Music Festival (NMF) had become a cornerstone of Two New Hours programming, became the CBC’s delegate. For her first session as delegate, Thacker presented one of her NMF productions, Inuit Games by T. Patrick Carrabré, a work that featured two katajjaq throat singers with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The IRC delegates were impressed, and voted to recommend Inuit Games to the top-ten list of works. Carrabré wrote, “When Inuit Games became a recommended work at the IRC, it opened up a whole new world of listeners, both for my music and for katajjaq singing.”

I served six years as IRC President. We held the 2008 session, my final, in Dublin, as guests of RTÉ, the public broadcasting service of the Irish Republic. It was the only time the Rostrum was held outside of Continental Europe. Sandra Thacker presented a CBC-commissioned work by Nicole Lizée, This Will Not Be Televised, another production from the NMF. Lizée’s work was voted to the top-ten list of works presented that year. “Being named to the 2008 IRC Top 10 List was definitely a pivotal moment in my career,” she told me. “Programmers from Europe and the U.S. were soon contacting me personally and recommending my work to other programmers and artistic directors, leading to major commissions and collaborations. I consider this event to have been instrumental in pushing my career forward.”

The IRC will celebrate its 65th anniversary next May in Budapest.

CBC Radio no longer participates.

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

cover banner“One of the advantages of playing a string instrument is getting the chance to perform with friends basically from day one. I can’t actually remember a time playing the violin where I wasn’t playing in ensembles of some sort. This is one of the things that kept me going in music - I didn’t want to lose out on hanging out with all my friends!”

- Jonathan Crow, We Are All Music’s Children, September 2012

2209 TheWholeNote Summer 2017 WithGreenPages Cover QuarterIs Toronto Summer Music (TSM) going to be an excuse for you to hang out with friends? It was a question that came up early in The WholeNote’s soon-to-be-posted podcast with TSO concertmaster, New Orford String Quartet violinist and U of T associate professor Jonathan Crow, who was in our studio to speak with us mostly about his new role as the third artistic director of TSM.

“Absolutely!” he said. “It’s all true. When I was a kid the social aspect of making music was what I loved.” It’s clearly still true today; whether playing orchestral or chamber music, Crow loves the interaction. “You can learn so much from other people.”

The fact that his first TSM season in charge turned out to be Canada’s sesquicentennial could have been a a bit of a headache curatorially for Crow, had the festival stood on its head to make Canadian music the primary focus. But the chamber-music friendship factor turned what might have been a headache into, in his words, “kind of a no-brainer.”

There were a lot of top Canadian performers he already wanted to get for the festival, he explains, and the “sesqui thing” gave him the chance: Andrew Wan (OSM concertmaster and New Orford String Quartet violinist); Nikki Chooi (newly named concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra - “one of the biggest violin jobs in the world”); Desmond Hoebig (the last cellist of the Orford String Quartet); and Joseph Johnson (TSO principal cellist), who has made Canada his home.

“The idea became to make this a big celebration, to bring back Canadian artists - somebody like Martin Beaver, who’s one of Canada’s greatest violinists. Ever. But who happens to live in the States for many years now…he should be a mainstay on every single concert stage in Canada.

“In an interesting way, Canada’s a very, very big country, but it’s a very small musical world. So Desmond is somebody that I knew of growing up - he always taught at Scotia Festival, and my wife is from Halifax…he was one of Canada’s great, great cellists of all time, and he was principal of the Cleveland Orchestra, and has had a huge career. But, because he’s very busy, is not back as much as he would like. We’re thrilled that he was able to have some time in the summer to come play with us.”

Hoebig and Johnson, he tells us, will play the cello parts in Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, the centrepiece of July 28’s “String Extravaganza” concert. Violinists Wan and Chooi along with violist Steven Dann complete the starry quintet. “It’s really the pinnacle of all chamber music,” Crow said. “It’s the scope. When people talk about Schubert’s heavenly length, somehow this piece doesn’t feel too long. It feels epic. And it feels at the end that you’ve really gone somewhere.”

Crow himself is playing with Hoebig two days earlier in Dvořák’s Piano Trio in F Minor Op.65. Crow will take the violin part with Angela Park on piano. “It’s a little bit selfish, but I just love that piece so much.” He elaborates when I ask what it is that he loves about it: “The tunes. I love Dvořák for sure but there’s something about piano trio tunes that you just feel that you have so much freedom…to be soloistic on the spur of the moment.”

It’s interesting to hear him describe the subtleties in what can be characterized as TSM’s string-centric program this year. (For example, the festival opens July 13 with the St. Lawrence String Quartet playing selections from their 1992 Banff International String Quartet Competition win; then the competition’s most recent winners, the Rolston String Quartet, echo them in the July 24 recital of selections from their winning Banff program.)

He talks about the effect the St. Lawrence’s playing had on him as a student hearing a Bartók string quartet [the Third] for the first time. “I had no idea you could do that on a violin,” he says. And on the topic of the repertoire for that opening concert: “I think for the audiences here to see Haydn [Op.20 No.2], who basically invented the quartet, Beethoven [Op.131], who perfected it, if you will, and then [R. Murray] Schafer [Quartet No.3], who followed in their footsteps…to have a chance to hear three of the great, great quartet writers of all time all together and see how that program connects, I think is wonderful.”

As it matures, TSM is evolving steadily into much more than just a series of mainstage concerts, and Crow is eager to talk about these developments. There is the new Kids Concerts program which will be offered for free at 10am on each Wednesday of the festival. “It’s not going to be different people playing the kids concerts: James Ehnes is going to play,” he says. “It’s interesting for kids to see where the people onstage got their inspiration.”

He’s also excited about the so-called reGENERATION concerts, in which fellows from across the world are put together with a guest mentor in a chamber-music setting; each piece is worked on for a week, and then it’s performed. “The idea that you can get to see someone who’s doing it for the first time and learning what it’s like doing it for the first time - for me, that’s amazing,” Crow says.

“I also love the open classes because you get to see the way people think about music,” Crow says about the Sunday Public Masterclasses that will be given by James Ehnes, Soile Isokoski and pianist Jane Coop. “We see him [Ehnes] on stage; we see what he has practised. But it’s always interesting to get inside the head of someone like Jimmy and then see what he is actually thinking,” Crow said. “You can see that when he teaches somebody else; you can see how he reacts to what they do.”

Other highlights (all talked about in the podcast): Anton Kuerti will be the subject of a tribute he helped curate with one of his best-known former students, Jane Coop. According to Crow, they created a program of what Kuerti liked and was known for, pieces that epitomize him as a person and a performer. For Crow, “Anton [is] a huge Canadian presence, kind of an iconic figure in the history of music in Canada;” and in a nod to TSM’s art-of-song origins, mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah has created a program of mini-operas (a lot of Carmen a little bit of Thaïs, and other gems), which she will host and perform in along with TSM alumna Danika Lorèn, tenor Roger Honeywell, bass Gary Relyea, pianist Robert Kortgaard and violinist Nikki Chooi (who will perform Franz Waxman’s crowd-pleasing Carmen Fantasy).

To hear the full conversation with Jonathan Crow, or any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to

Toronto Summer Music runs from July 13 to August 5 in Koerner Hall, Walter Hall and the Church of the Redeemer.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

2209 Curators 2This will be the 17th consecutive year that Tamara Bernstein has programmed Thursday and Sunday concerts right through the summer in the Music Garden at the west end of Harbourfront - 19 concerts a season “for many years now.” She was on a train when we tracked her down by email: “actually, the first of three trains, if I’ve grasped things correctly – from Dublin to Ennis, Ireland – a wee vacation.”

 What keeps her coming back to this particular summer project year after year is, first off, the love that audiences and performers have for these concerts.

“Our large audiences prove that there is nothing inherently ‘elitist’ about classical music – that everyone – not just connoisseurs; not just adults – can enjoy sophisticated genres like string quartets, early music, South Asian ragas, and so on.

“And, of course, I love the accessibility of the concerts – the fact that people of every age, economic and educational background, ethnicity, etc., can come together and enjoy wonderful music performed by outstanding artists. Things like this create quality of life beyond ‘getting and spending,’ and give a city a soul. This is becoming more and more urgent in Toronto as ever-rising housing prices stress the budgets of those who live here – whether it’s families, young people, or pensioners - all of whom are well-represented in our audiences.

“I love being able to work with such a large palette – 19 concerts gives me a lot to play with, and a chance to reflect some of Toronto’s cultural diversity. And the fact that the concerts are free means that I don’t have to worry about whether something a bit off the beaten track will sell. Audiences, meanwhile, can take a chance on musical genres or styles that may be new to them. It’s also enormously satisfying to present young artists, or artists whose regular audiences may be somewhat rarified, as our audiences are large, diverse and very appreciative.

And the least enjoyable part of it? Her reply is succinct. “Speaking personally, I remain disappointed by the increased traffic at the Toronto Island Airport in recent years – we’ve had to add a third set of speakers to deal with it.”

I point out to her two programs that stood out for me as examples of her curatorial style and methods: cellist Elinor Frey on June 29, and violinist Edwin Huizinga with guitarist William Coulter on August 24.

These two concerts indeed check a number of my curatorial ‘boxes’,” she replies and reels them off: Bach; period instruments; contemporary music; traditional music; and a very high performance standard. 

“J.S. Bach’s Suite No.1 for unaccompanied cello was the inspiration for the Toronto Music Garden: this is a great excuse (not that one needs one!) to include his music – and at least one of his cello suites – on every season. This year Elinor Frey opens the season with his Second and Fourth Suites for solo cello. I’m a big fan of ‘early music’ in general; in addition to Elinor Frey and Edwin Huizinga, this year’s lineup includes countertenor Michael Taylor, recorder player Vincent Lauzer, and other specialists in historically informed performance.

“Elinor Frey’s concert also demonstrates our commitment to new and recent music: along with the two Bach’s Suites, she’ll perform a 2015 piece for Baroque cello, written for her by Toronto composer Linda C[atlin] Smith. Later in the season, Vincent Lauzer will give the world premiere of a piece we’ve commissioned for him by Montreal composer Maxime McKinley.

“For his Music Garden concert, Edwin Huizinga is teaming up with Grammy-winning guitarist William Coulter, performing wonderful arrangements of works for violin by Bach and Vivaldi. They’ll also perform traditional music (in this case, Celtic), which is also an important part of Music Garden programming.”

Her audiences are a mix of long-time faithfuls, people drawn by a specific performer, and, always, many who just happen upon the event. But the distinction is not particularly important to her.

“I’ve always believed that classical music performed by outstanding performers will connect with all audiences. Happily, every season confirms that!”

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