The WholeNote’s seventh annual guide to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes a look at 17 films (in which music plays a notable role) out of the 255 features from 74 countries that comprise the festival’s 43rd edition. This year’s guide is anchored by my conversation with Ron Mann about his enchanting new documentary, Carmine Street Guitars. And there is considerable space devoted to two award-winning films I saw at the Cannes Film Festival, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War and Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Music is indispensable to all three and they are highly recommended. The rest (some of which I have yet to screen) represent a cross-section of films where music, in one way or another, plays a significant part.

Carmine Street GuitarsCarmine Street Guitars, Ron Mann’s tenth feature-length documentary, is the latest in a distinguished career that began impressively with the free jazz doc Imagine the Sound in 1981 – when Mann was barely into his 20s.

Carmine Street Guitars will have its world premiere September 3 at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, where it is the only Canadian film. Next stop is TIFF, September 9 and 13, followed by the New York Film Festival a few weeks later. Mann and I talked by phone in mid-August – his first interview since completing the movie. The Toronto-based filmmaker, who was winding up a vacation in Woodstock, NY, seemed genuinely surprised by the love his film has engendered in festival programmers. (Reykjavik and Warsaw film festivals will also be screening it this fall, with the likelihood of many more to come).

The conceit of the film is appealingly simple. Five days in the life of Rick Kelly, a luthier in a Greenwich Village guitar shop, his assistant Cindy Hulej, and his mother Dorothy (92 at the time) – with a supporting cast of visitors, a dozen or so musicians of varying fame and fortune, from Dallas and Travis Good of The Sadies to Lenny Kaye. It’s a minimalist concept that paints a rich portrait of the shop’s proprietor and produces an intimate, eclectic house concert of guitar music as a bonus.

“It’s a modest movie,” Mann says. “Not layered like most of my films. The only thing I can think of is – there’s so much noise in movies and this is quiet. There’s a guitar movie called It Might Get Loud; this is It Might Get Soft.”

In the 1960s, Carmine Street was the place you would go for guitars, Mann told me. John Sebastian lived across the street; Jimi Hendrix lived around the corner. It was the crossroads of music – Lenny Kaye actually worked at nearby Bleecker Bob’s record store. “I guess over time my perspective is that I see people and places and values disappear before my eyes,” he says. “The movie’s a look at Greenwich Village and an all-too-quickly vanishing way of life.”

To Mann the shop represents a safe place where a lot of musicians feel at home. Marc Ribot, who’s played with everyone from the Lounge Lizards to John Zorn, drops by and tells Kelly about all the people and places he’s seen vanish over the years: “I’m glad you’re still here,” he says.

During the film shoot, the building next door went up for sale for $6.5 million. And in a jarring, awkward minute, the real estate agent walked into the store. “You couldn’t write this stuff,” Mann said. “That’s what can happen when you do these kinds of movies.”

“Rick reminds me a lot of Robert Crumb, by the way,” Mann mused. “Who I interviewed for Comic Book Confidential. Robert is someone who’s out of time. Rick is more comfortable in the 1940s. In the case of Robert Crumb, Haight-Ashbury in the 60s. Rick is like Crumb’s character Mr. Natural. Rick doesn’t have a cellphone; he doesn’t know how to work a computer. It’s so great, so fantastic.”

Thinking about what attracted him to Kelly, Mann says: “Rick has made guitars for Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and Lou Reed. You know, Rick has this Zen-like philosophy. At three o’clock he usually breaks out a bottle of Irish whiskey and musicians would just come and shoot the breeze. I love that barbershop quality of Carmine Street. When you walk in there, it’s like going back into time. Rick’s an artisan in the great tradition of guitar makers, in the Bohemian culture of Greenwich Village.

“It’s something that I needed to capture. I’m a guitar player – you can’t pull me out of a guitar store (or a bookstore) – they’re works of art. I just love sharing the experience of spending a week in that shop and hanging out with Rick. And I love that there’s this tradition that’s being carried on with his 25-year-old assistant, Cindy, who represents a new generation. Those machines they work on, you can’t even get parts for them anymore; there’s one guy in NYC they call who still knows how to fix those machines. It’s an old school way of making those guitars.”

I asked how Mann and Kelly met and Mann’s answer explained filmmaker-musician Jim Jarmusch’s mysterious “Instigator” credit in Carmine Street Guitars. Mann was at the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, TN in March 2015, to hear Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL play a live soundtrack to four short 1930s silent films by Man Ray. After the performance, Mann, Jarmusch and Jarmusch’s producer (and SQÜRL drummer) Carter Logan moved on to Nashville where Jarmusch was doing a live recording for Jack White’s Third Man Records. “When we were all out to dinner,” Mann said. “Jim told me about Carmine Street Guitars.” How ten years earlier, when his Bowery Street loft was being renovated, Jarmusch asked Kelly to make him a guitar using a piece of old lumber from the loft. It was the first time Kelly used the old New York City wood that he is now famous for. Over the years, as the old wood had dried up, the pores in the wood opened, creating the opportunity for a more resonant sound.

After Nashville, Mann went to Carmine Street and met Kelly, his mother and his assistant and realized what a special place it is. Filming took two and a half weeks during the rainy summer of 2017. Mann turned to Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean for guidance in filming in such a small space. (Mann’s doc Altman also premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Full Disclosure: my son Simon Ennis has a cinematography credit on Altman and an editing credit on Know Your Mushrooms; and Mann was the executive producer of Simon’s doc, Lunarcy!)

There are many moments to relish in the film. Lou Reed’s friend and guitar tech Stewart Hurwood drops by and demonstrates how Reed used to tune all of his guitar strings to the same note to produce a drone, and how Reed once told Hurwood that he “felt healed in the drones.”

Nels Cline, of Wilco, buying a guitar for Jeff Tweedy’s 50th birthday, came as a complete surprise to Mann. Christine Bougie, of Bahamas, whose mellow lapsteel guitar playing was a highlight for me, was on tour in NYC, so she dropped by.

One of my favourites was Bill Frisell playing Surfer Girl as he reminisced about his first relationship with the Fender Telecaster, listening to a surfing band in Denver where he grew up.

“Bill is so sweet,” Mann said. “He just played it, magically played it. And we just let it go; we didn’t edit it.”

Kelly fell in love with the Fender Telecaster at an early age and he’s been making his version of it for years. He understood that the wood made a difference in electric guitars. During the shoot Kelly got a call from McSorley’s, one of the oldest bars in New York, offering old floorboards. “We were fortunate that happened,” Mann said.

“I had a blueprint of what I wanted, vignettes with musicians,” Mann said. “Rick is shy and one of the things Carter suggested at that Nashville dinner was, ‘What if you had musicians come in and talk to him and that will get him going?’ That device was something that worked in [Jarmusch’s] Coffee and Cigarettes – which was dramatically scripted of course.”

The concept evolved into a rare behind-the-scenes look at who these musicians really are. “I keep going back to Marc Ribot talking about how the film is an invisible history of music that includes the rarely seen relationship of the musician to the instrument maker. It’s like Thirty Feet from Stardom. These are the guys – Charlie Sexton played with David Bowie and tours with Bob Dylan,” Mann said, his voice trailing off.

At the end of the film, Sexton plays a wistful, light-fingered, country blues tune on the McSorley’s Old Ale House instrument that Kelly had crafted out of wood from the legendary Greenwich Village bar. “I love this guitar, Rick; it’s got a great vibe,” he says. It’s an apt description for the documentary itself.

THE CANNES CONNECTION

Of all the films I viewed at this year’s Cannes film festival that were intrinsically bound up in their musical subjects or subtexts, Pawel Pawlikowski’s epochal love story Cold War, which won Best Director, stood out for its cinematic artistry and fervour. Cold War begins and ends in Poland, with stops in Paris, East Berlin and Split, Yugoslavia as it journeys from 1949 to 1964. Wiktor and Zula’s love is deep and true but subject to the political vagaries of the era it inhabits. Both are musicians who meet through music (of which there is a wide variety, from traditional Polish folk to 1950s jazz). Pawlikowski depicts it with rigorous attention to detail. Filmed in stylish, enhanced black and white, with compelling performances by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, Cold War succeeds at every level.

Zula joins the fictional Mazurek folk ensemble to escape her impoverished background; her talent, charm and drive make her a star. Wiktor, the conductor of the ensemble, is grounded in high culture, a classically trained pianist whose passion is jazz. Once the Stalinist regime uses the ensemble for political ends, Wiktor realizes his only option is to defect to Paris and follow his musical passion.

Pawlikowski based the Mazurek troupe on the famed Mazowsze ensemble, which was founded in 1949 to collect folk songs which were re-worked and performed by singers and dancers dressed in costumes inspired by traditional peasant outfits. And just as the Mazurek ensemble was co-opted by the Polish regime, so too was the Mazowsze, which the authorities saw as a useful weapon against jazz and atonal music.

Pawlikowski cleverly re-fashioned some of the music to give the film a subtle through line. The Mazowsze standard Two Hearts is first heard as a simple country tune sung by a young peasant girl; later it morphs into a jazz number sung in French by Zula in 1950s Paris. The bebop tune Wiktor’s jazz quintet plays in a Paris nightclub is based on a traditional dance melody (oberek) first played by a woman on an accordion and then by the Mazurek company. Later in Paris at the piano, Wiktor reworks the oberek and turns it back into Two Hearts. (All the jazz numbers were arranged – and the piano parts performed – by Marcin Masecki.)

The music credits for Cold War are a treasure trove of traditional Polish folk music with almost two dozen excerpts; the jazz side features Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Kulig and Kot doing Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy. What wraps up this musical odyssey? A few moments of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s all a not-to-be-missed cinematic experience, due in large part to its crucial musical component.

ClimaxGaspar Noé’s exhilarating new film set in 1996, Climax, won top prize in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. Filmed in 15 days with a troupe of dancers, it’s 45 minutes of exuberance and technical brilliance, shot in long takes, followed by a descent into hell at a party, once the sangria spiked with LSD kicks in. Noé has admitted to always having been fascinated by situations where chaos and anarchy suddenly spread. “My greatest pleasures lie in having written and prepared nothing in advance,” he said. “And as much as possible allowing situations to happen in front of me, as in a documentary. And whenever chaos sets in, I’m even happier, knowing that it will generate images of real power, closer to reality than to theatre.”

Since you can’t have dance without music, choosing it was pivotal. Noé chose music from no later than the mid-1990s, concentrating on tracks that would speak to the widest audience. From Gary Numan’s bent take on Satie’s Gymnopedies to music by Chris Carter, Cerrone, Patrick Hernandez, Lil Louis, Dopplereffekt, Neon, Suburban Knights, Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, Soft Cell, Giorgio Moroder, The Rolling Stones, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Coh, among others, Climax is an elemental shot of joyous filmmaking.

CapernaumNadine Labaki’s emotionally potent film, Capernaum, about a 12-year-old Lebanese boy who sues his parents for giving him life, won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Her husband Khaled Mouzanar produced the film and composed the score. To fit what Mouzanar called “the poverty and rawness of the subject,” he wrote a “less melodic score than usual using dissonant choral melodies that seem to disappear before they can be grasped, as well as synth-based electronic sonorities.” Crucially, he chose not to “underline or highlight emotions that were already sufficiently intense.”

Birds of Passage, by the filmmaking team behind the remarkable Embrace of the Serpent, is a compulsively watchable saga inspired by true events in the Guajira region of Colombia during the rise of the marijuana export industry (1960-1980). It’s a carefully constructed epic where chapters are presented as song titles and stunning music – a combination of traditional instrumentals and contemporaneous pop – contributes in kind.

Ali Abbasi’s Border, a Swedish film which deservedly won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, benefits from an atmospheric score by Martin Dirkov that moves discreetly from dreamy electronica to joyful swells. Strikingly original, Border follows a female customs officer who can smell what people are feeling, making it easy for her to spot deception of any kind. Her life broadens when she meets a man with similar characteristics who shares her uncanny ability. Then this film about societal outsiders takes a page from Norse mythology and leaps into unseen territory.

In Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson’s genre-bending dramatic comedy, Woman at War, a middle-aged female choirmaster (with a twin sister) whose adoption request for a Ukrainian four-year-old has just been accepted, is also an eco-terrorist who shoots down power lines with a bow and arrow. And because it’s an upbeat movie, she’s followed around by a kind of musical Greek chorus consisting of sousaphone, accordion, drums and three Ukrainian singers in traditional costumes.

FILMS WITH A PEDIGREE

Maria by CallasTom Volf’s documentary, Maria by Callas, narrated by Joyce DiDonato, promises fresh insights into La Divina through recently rediscovered writings and interviews with the legendary Greek-American soprano.

Quincy follows 85-year-old legend Quincy Jones as he puts together a star-studded concert for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, giving him ample time to reflect on his life and work with such icons as Count Basie, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Michael Jackson.

For Damien Chazelle’s First Man, about Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, Chazelle’s longtime composer Justin Hurwitz has revealed he’s getting away from jazz and old-fashioned orchestral sounds and experimenting with electronic music.

NOT YET VIEWED BUT INTRIGUING CANADIAN FILMS

Falls Around HerIn Darlene Naponse’s Falls Around Her, a renowned Anishinaabe musician (the always watchable Tantoo Cardinal) comes home to Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation in Northern Ontario to restore herself after many exhausting years on the road. But it can be tricky to hide from the demands of the outside world. Said to be inspired by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown’s debut feature, Edge of the Knife, the first feature made entirely in the two dialects of the Haida language, uses traditional music to add a note of authenticity to its story. In 19th-century Haida Gwaii, an accident prompts a tormented man to retreat deep into the forest where he becomes Gaagiixiid/Gaagiid (“the wildman”).

Igor Drljaca, fondly remembered for his cinematic eye and musical ear in Krivina, has made his first documentary, The Stone Speakers, that looks at the intersection of tourism and ideology in four post-war towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina and features traditional music on the soundtrack.

A tiny section of Part 2 of his Symphony No. 8, that Mahler wrote in relation to the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, adds to the fascination of Andrea Bussmann’s first feature, Fausto, which she calls “quite experimental.” On the Oaxacan coast, tales of shapeshifting, telepathy and dealings with the devil are embedded within the colonization and enslavement of the Americas. Through literature, myth, and local entanglements, the veil between reality and fiction, and the seen and unseen, is lifted, according the film’s press kit.

THREE LOTTERY PICKS

Fresh from the Venice Film Festival and featuring a soundtrack full of new music by Australian pop star Sia, Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is an original musical that follows a pop star (Natalie Portman), from her rise to fame after surviving a major school shooting in 1999, to her scandal-plagued, present-day, all-too-public private life.

Vasan Bala’s Bollywood genre mashup, The Man Who Feels No Pain, screening in the Midnight Madness section, has a kinetic trailer filled with action and humour set to a rollicking riff on Superfly that demands attention.

DiamantinoThese words by Guy Lodge in Variety about Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino are quite a recommendation: “Part loopily queer sci-fi thriller, part faux-naive political rallying cry, glued together with candyfloss clouds of romantic reverie, it’s a film best seen with as little forewarning as possible. ... Only in the up-is-down world of Diamantino could Donna Lewis’ cream-cheese slab of mid-90s dreampop I Love You Always Forever briefly seem a soaring anthem of the heart. ‘Love has reasons that even reason can’t understand,’ muses Diamantino in voiceover at one point; so does this lovably ludicrous film.”

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6 to 16. Check tiff.net for further information.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

banner webI received a memorable phone call early this past June – one that surprised and delighted me. It was from the Chancellery of Honours, informing me of my appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada.

The citation that came with the appointment spoke to the decades of commissioning, producing and broadcasting the work of Canada’s composers during my 40 years as a member of CBC Radio Music. Regular readers of The WholeNote will know that I have recounted various important episodes of this history in these pages over the past two years. But the honour of being formally recognized for this work now has me looking back through a slightly different lens, focusing
on the circumstances that made possible a mission as seemingly rarefied as supporting composition in Canada.

The answer? Public broadcasting.

At rock bottom, the difference between public radio and commercial radio is that commercial radio delivers audiences to advertisers, while public radio, on the contrary, enriches the audience with content of value. This basic difference remains today, even with the encroachment of the internet and social media. This difference was already clear in my mind when I arrived at the CBC Radio Music department in 1973, ready and eager to produce original musical content for the network. John Peter Lee Roberts, the man who hired me after I finished my Master of Music degree in composition and electronic music at the University of Toronto, had already laid the groundwork. He had been the head of the national radio music department of the CBC since 1965 and had built a strong music department that was content-driven, always focused on delivering an enriched, high-quality music service to Canadian listeners. He believed that commissioning original Canadian works was at the core of the CBC’s mission: in his ten years as Head of Music at CBC Radio, he commissioned about 150 works, many now recognized as Canadian classics, such as Harry Somers’ famous Gloria. Such creative leadership could only be undertaken under the mandate of public broadcasting.

1973, the year of my arrival, was also the year Roberts, together with the Canada Council, created the National Radio Competition for Young Composers – a scheme to identify emerging Canadian composers and to highlight their work in broadcasts for Canadian listeners. It was also a way of encouraging and eventually developing young composers into mature artists, whose works would form the content of future contemporary music programming. Roberts turned the administration of the competition over to me in 1975, as he was leaving the Radio Music department. The CBC/Radio-Canada National Competition for Young Composers ran every second year until 2003, and introduced some 165 winning composers to Canadian audiences.

The responsibility of organizing this national competition was the first of three opportunities in the period from 1975 to 1978 that enabled me to begin my work developing Canadian composers at CBC Radio. The second was when I was named CBC Radio’s delegate to the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC) in 1977. The IRC is a new music meet-up that takes place every year, organized by the International Music Council, with the participating public radio services of some 35 countries. Serving as CBC’s delegate gave me an outlet to present the works of Canadian composers we had produced at CBC, as well as providing access to new works from around the world for broadcast in Canada. And the third key opportunity was the creation of a new CBC network program that would serve as the platform for the original content we were about to begin producing in earnest. This program was Two New Hours, which launched on New Year’s Day, 1978.

January 1978 was a new beginning: for the next nearly 30 years, we had a national network program that brought Canadians a window on new music creation by Canadian and international composers. The IRC, together with another international exchange mechanism, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), gave us the means to exchange high quality productions of the most fascinating new works being created around the world, and a means of telling the rest of the world about Canadian music. And the National Radio Competition for Young Composers provided a means to invest in the development of emerging young Canadian composers, creating the newest of new music for current and future broadcasts.

Chris Paul Harman, 1998The clearest example for me of how all these initiatives worked together successfully is the case of composer Chris Paul Harman. In 1990, the 19-year-old Harman became the only teenaged Grand Prize winner of the CBC/Radio-Canada young composers competition. Our recording of his winning composition, Iridescence for string orchestra, was submitted to the IRC the following year. The international delegates of the IRC voted Harman’s Iridescence the best work by a composer under the age of 30. The work was broadcast in 35 countries as a result. Iridescence was subsequently performed the following year by the CBC Radio Orchestra, the Esprit Orchestra and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and broadcast on Two New Hours as well as other CBC Radio music programs. By 1992, Harman was already an internationally recognized composer, not to mention a celebrity within the Canadian music community.

As his career grew, CBC Radio continued to follow and assist Harman’s development with commissions and broadcasts. Most of the major musical institutions in Canada have now performed his works; he has taken his place among the most respected composers in Canada. Along the way, he won the Jules Léger Prize twice: once (2001) for his work Amerika, which was also shortlisted for the Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco Prize; and a second time (2007) for his work Postludio a rovescio, commissioned by the Nieuw Ensemble of Amsterdam. Harman is currently Associate Professor of composition at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University; more about that a little further on.)

Chris Paul Harman. © Marco Giugliarelli for Civitella Ranieri Foundation, 2018The list of emerging Canadian composers who also benefited in a similar way from the coupling and coordination of these three initiatives is considerable: it includes Brian Current, Paul Frehner, Analia Llugdar, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Ana Sokolović, Andrew Staniland and many, many others. The opportunities provided through CBC Radio to encourage these composers over several decades helped Canadian composition to flourish; it was certainly a key factor in my recent Order of Canada citation.

That being said, my focus over 40 years at CBC Radio Music was not exclusively on the development of emerging composers. Established composers played an enormous role in the creation of original content for our broadcasts. Norma Beecroft, Brian Cherney, Murray Schafer and John Weinzweig were among the first composers commissioned for Two New Hours. And I presented Cherney and Schafer at the IRC during my earliest years as CBC’s delegate. Harry Freedman, Harry Somers and Ann Southam also figured prominently in our program mix. Some of these composers’ most well-known, perhaps even iconic works, were commissions produced for our broadcasts. These include Beecroft’s Piece for Bob, Freedman’s Borealis, Schafer’s Third String Quartet and Dance of the Blind by Marjan Mozetich. Speaking about the commission of his String Trio, Cherney says: “I knew the piece had to be damn good and interesting but it sort of developed more sophistication and complexity as it went along in the creative process. I think that one could say that the commission itself made me feel that I had to be as creative and imaginative as possible, so I tried to be just that.” He then went one step further: “I should say that all of my CBC commissions inspired me to write what I consider to be my best pieces – the String Trio, the Third String Quartet, Illuminations, La Princesse lointaine.”

Over the course of nearly 30 years of producing Two New Hours broadcasts, I commissioned about 250 new Canadian compositions. Several of these works served as vehicles for emerging young performers, like Alexina Louie’s Refuge, written for the young percussionist Beverley Johnston, or Ann Southam’s Qualities of Consonance for the emerging young piano soloist, Eve Egoyan. Mozetich’s Dance of the Blind was commissioned as a showcase for the emerging accordion virtuoso Joseph Petric. The last of these was seminal for Mozetich: with it came his decision to write in an accessible, tonal style, counter to the modernist trend at the time. This stylistic pivot made Mozetich one of the most successful of Canadian composers. Best of all, these sorts of radio commissions initiated collaborations between Canada’s best composing talent and the best performers. In the context of our nationwide network broadcasts, these collaborations helped to shape the musical community and the sound of Canada’s new music.

1991 saw the birth of another significant creative collaboration. Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey, composer-in-residence Glenn Buhr and the late executive director Max Tapper contacted me to ask whether Two New Hours would broadcast music from the contemporary music festival they were planning. I saw this as an exciting opportunity and immediately promised that, not only would we broadcast as many concerts from their festival as the Two New Hours budget could afford, but would also contribute an event which we would create, produce and broadcast live, to show our support for the WSO’s innovative programming approach.

As a result, on Sunday night, January 19, 1992, Two New Hours presented a contemporary piano recital by Christina Petrowska Quilico, live on CBC Radio Two, from the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg. The recital included music by Canadians Omar Daniel, Steven Gellman, Peter Paul Koprowski, Sid Robinovitch and Ann Southam, plus acclaimed international composers Frederic Rzewski and Toru Takemitsu. The WSO’s production team, not sure how best to market a recitalist in their 2,500-seat hall, decided to put up risers on the stage, as the main seating area, in case the attendance was small. Those 700 riser seats filled quickly, and the WSO’s management team watched in amazement as another 1,000 people then took “overflow” seats in the main section of the hall. It was clear from that moment that the New Music Festival would be a great success. By the next year, the WSO’s New Music Festival could already call itself an international festival, thanks to the worldwide distribution of our CBC Radio broadcasts over the program exchange protocol managed by the European Broadcasting Union. The WSO’s New Music Festival was copied soon after by orchestras in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and other communities, many of which were also heard on Two New Hours broadcasts.

The success of these various new music festivals in turn helped to swell the audience numbers for Two New Hours. By the time the program was cancelled, in March of 2007, the show had grown to an audience share of four percent as measured by the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM), an unthinkable figure for this sort of contemporary music show. To put the number in context, in 1980, when Two New Hours reached a one percent share, network senior managers had crowed about the achievement when defending the CBC Radio broadcast licence.

The CBC/Radio-Canada National Competition for Young Composers ended in 2003, but was revived, briefly, as the Evolution Young Composers Competition in 2006. After that CBC/Radio-Canada withdrew from this sort of activity, despite its proven effectiveness to develop emerging Canadian composers.

It was not the only area in which the CBC’s public radio mandate was drastically redefined. But that was, and remains, little consolation.

Before his death in 2016, the late Graham Sommer, a distinguished Canadian radiologist and medical researcher who believed in the transformative power of music, chose to endow the Schulich School of Music at McGill University to create a national competition for young Canadian composers. I was asked to consult on the project, based on my experience with the CBC/Radio-Canada competition. The finals of the Inaugural Graham Sommer Competition for Young Composers will be held at Pollack Hall in the Schulich School of Music on Saturday, September 29, 2018. The performances of the works of five young Canadian composers will be heard in concert and webcast. The webcast will be available on the Schulich school’s YouTube page: youtube.com/user/schulichmusic.

The five young Canadian composers who have written piano quintets for the Graham Sommer competition are: Ashkan Behzadi, Taylor Brook, Christopher Goddard, Alison Yun-Fei Jiang and Thierry Tidrow. Prizes totalling $45,000 will be determined by an international jury.

Canada is as rich in composing talent, as it was in January 1978. Continuing to develop these young composers is an ongoing investment in the nation’s musical future. The question is, what exists today to fill the role CBC Radio played in supplying a context for this to happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

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

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

Philip Chiu

PHILIP CHIU, pianist

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda Smith - Photo by Dahlia Katz

AMANDA SMITH, stage director

What are we interrupting?

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

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

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

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

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

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

What are you already preparing for musically beyond the summer?

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

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

Elisha Denburg

ELISHA DENBURG, composer/arts administrator

What are we interrupting?

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

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

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

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

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

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

What are you already preparing for musically beyond the summer?

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

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

Donna Bennett - Photo by Melanie Elliott

DONNA BENNETT, director of marketing, Westben

What are we interrupting?

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

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

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

How about as a music maker/arts worker?

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

What are you already preparing for musically beyond the summer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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