Richard Rose - Courtesy of Tarragon Theatre"Music Theatre” as we use the term in The WholeNote is a large tent, covering a wide range of productions and performances in which music pervades the drama rather than simply decorating it. It’s this interweaving that I will be hoping for in a new version of a Shakespearean classic opening at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto on January 2. Artistic director Richard Rose is making a foray into new and uncharted (pun intended) territory with a rock and roll Hamlet, with music and music direction by his longtime collaborator Thomas Ryder Payne.

As a longtime devotee of both Shakespeare and musicals, with a particular fascination for when the two become blended into one, I contacted Rose to find out more about the inspiration behind this idea and what we might expect.

The show isn’t even in rehearsal yet, so it is early for the director to speak about what we will see in January – but in some ways it was even more interesting to have that conversation now, as the concept and its development are currently still in flux. Here is some of what we spoke about (edited for length):

WN: What was the initial inspiration to turn Hamlet into a rock and roll musical?
RR: I’ve always wanted to do Hamlet, and you want to find a great time to do it. It’s not really a rock and roll musical. It’s part concert, part radio play, part performance. I’m not sure where it will eventually land. I had an idea that it would be interesting to do Hamlet accompanied by a rock and roll concert. I didn’t really know what that would lead to except that the play always seemed to be about a young person’s despair and rage against the system, about trying to find out who they are. Hamlet is struggling between being a hero who can take action and his conscience: how do you act in the world when the world is actually politically corrupt?

But why rock and roll particularly?
Because of the rage. Marshall McLuhan talks about how young people have turned to rock and roll to push out all this information of the electronic age that is coming at them, and they’re shrieking, trying to express their identity – and that’s why it is so loud – to somehow express their anger – and that’s Hamlet, isn’t it? He is asking “Am I man of action or conscience? Can I kill someone, can I commit an act of revenge knowing that the society and the world around me is filled with lies? I have to do absolutely the right thing, but I don’t know what the right thing is.”

If we have a world full of lies it is very hard to know who we are; here the music, the rock and roll, will be a fundamental way of showing the anger at the hypocrisy of the world and it goes further than that.

You and Thomas Ryder Payne are longtime collaborators. But every show is different. How did it work this time?
He was part of the project from the beginning and we both felt that Hamlet was the right fit for a rock and roll take, and rock and roll was the way to connect to young audiences today. In a preliminary workshop a rough concept emerged, of speaking the text against a musical background. Hamlet’s soliloquies, for example, got bashed against the progression of a rock and roll guitar accompaniment [capturing] a feeling of what Hamlet is going through as he speaks. Then we started to find and develop a sonic experience.

Sonic experience?
An environmental mood creating the overall time and space of the play, as well as for specific scenes and effects such as the appearance of the ghost – or the chaos of the Danish Court through a mashup of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with jazz and martial music. So, while this is not at all a traditional rock musical, music is essential and dictated the working method. We would jam like a rock band: someone comes up with a riff, someone starts to work with that riff, someone starts to sing a song to that riff or we speak to that riff.

Where do the actors fit into the process?
Call it ongoing experimentation – the company is not yet officially in rehearsal at this point. It’s things like the actors taking a different approach to the text, looking at the words as song lyrics from different genres such as punk, or from the points of view of singers as different as Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee, to see what effect this has on the speaking or thinking of the lines.

And actual songs?
There will be at least some songs as well as the underscoring and background music. Hamlet will have a song of his own, though most of the soliloquies are spoken. The Gravedigger has a song as he actually does in the play. Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship will be explored through music with Ophelia possibly singing snatches of her later “mad songs” as happy innocent pop songs early in the play, then distorted versions of those songs after the death of her father… And we’re seeing the play within the play, when Hamlet tries to prove Claudius’ guilt, as a kind of mini-operetta, a heightened moment of performance for the other characters to watch…. Most of it though will be spoken against music rather than sung – [and while] there will be some elements of staging the performers will mostly be acting the play at microphones like a radio play, but supported by the sound behind that evokes the world, the inner life, and works with them.

And the musicians?
The actors themselves. Only two will not be singing or playing instruments: Nigel Shawn Williams as Claudius, and Tantoo Cardinal as Gertrude. All the others will be singing and playing instruments, with no additional musicians to back them up other than [composer and music director] Thomas Ryder Payne as live mixer and sound man.

As Rose went on to explain, the company is comprised of actors who are almost all musicians as well. Noah Reid, whose album Songs from a Broken Chair is available on iTunes, stars as Hamlet. Brandon McGibbon of the ElastoCitizens, and many musical theatre credits including Once and The Producers, will play Laertes as a teenager so obsessed with his guitar that he never puts it down until his world falls apart with the death of his father and madness of his sister. Jack Nicholsen, Greg Gale, Jesse LaVercombe, Beau Dixon, Cliff Saunders, Rachel Cairns (the one piece of cross-gender casting as Rosencrantz) all have strong musical backgrounds, and Tiffany Ayalik, who plays Ophelia, has special vocal techniques from the discipline of throat singing “to go to places other people don’t go.”

“To go to places other people don’t go” sounds like a fitting mission statement for this latest outing by an always adventurous theatrical team.

Hamlet runs January 2 to February 11 in the Tarragon Main Space at 30 Bridgman Ave., Toronto.

GouldSchoenberg BannerGlenn Gould recording Schoenberg’s songs with Helen Vanni, 1964 - Photo by Don HunsteinLate in 1974, CBC Radio, in collaboration with writer/host Glenn Gould (1932-1982) and with me as producer, presented Arnold Schoenberg: The Man Who Changed Music, ten one-hour-long broadcasts honouring the centennial of the birth of composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951).

It was a comprehensive series of programs, and in the course of those ten episodes a great deal of Schoenberg’s music was heard, including the early Romantic works, the middle period, freely atonal pieces and the serial, 12-tone works of his late period. The inclusion of much of the Austrian/American composer’s piano music, as recorded by Gould himself, was a unique feature of the series. Gould’s script was written carefully and in a conversational style, for shared delivery between the CBC Radio staff announcer (or “sidekick,” as Gould at times called him), Ken Haslam (1930-2016) and Gould, the series host. The writing was clear, precise, with typical Gouldian exactitude. Every word was meant to count, even those words that appeared to express the personal opinions of Haslam, but which had clearly been placed in the script by Gould. And the point of all these words and music was to share as much of the Schoenberg legacy with CBC listeners as was possible within the allotted air time, and along the way, to demonstrate Gould’s devotion to it.

In the tenth and final chapter of that series of broadcasts, and at precisely the right moment for summative comments about the ten programs, Gould says, “Even now, 23 years after his death, it’s extraordinarily difficult to effect any really balanced judgment about Schoenberg’s contribution. Though it’s not particularly difficult to find an axe to grind and with which one can whack away with.” And despite Gould’s own personal admiration for Schoenberg’s music, he doubted that the composer would ever become, as he termed it, “a household word.”

Notwithstanding this assessment of the prospects for a wider acceptance of the music of Schoenberg and his students and disciples – the so-called Second Viennese School – people like flutist/composer Robert Aitken, the founder and artistic director of Toronto’s New Music Concerts (NMC), value it as an essential foundation of today’s music. And in fact, within the first eight weeks of 2018, New Music Concerts’ programming will include Schoenberg’s Phantasy Op.47; his String Trio Op.45; the Chamber Symphony Op.9, in a quintet setting by Anton Webern (1883-1945); and Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Chamber Concerto. A newly commissioned Chamber Concerto by Montreal composer Michael Oesterle (b. 1968), which uses the identical chamber orchestra as Berg’s concerto, will reflect the entire collection in the light of the present.

Robert Aitken - Photo by Daniel FoleyI asked Aitken what prompted him to create, in effect, a mini-revival of the Second Viennese School in New Music Concerts’ programming for 2018. He told me that the desire to include this repertoire is always a factor in his thinking, and that it has been so ever since he studied composition with John Weinzweig in the early 1960s. Weinzweig taught the 12-tone, or serial, technique of composing that Schoenberg had devised and introduced in 1921. Aitken told me that one of the aspects of Schoenberg’s music he admires is that, even given the frequent complexity of the counterpoint, the clarity of the music is never an issue. Aitken says that clarity and attention to every minute detail are also important values in his own compositions, musing that such attention to detail is a Virgo trait. (He and Schoenberg are both Virgos, as was Schoenberg’s student, John Cage (1912-1992).)

New Music Concerts’ three-concert Schoenbergian revival kicks off at the Betty Oliphant Theatre at 8pm on Sunday, January 14, with a program featuring the Chicago-based Duo Diorama, violinist MingHuan Xu and Winston Choi, piano, performing the Schoenberg Phantasy Op. 47, and as the soloists in the chamber concertos of Alban Berg and Michael Oesterle. In that tenth and final centennial broadcast in the CBC’s 1974 Gould/Schoenberg series, Gould said of the Phantasy, composed in 1949, and one of Schoenberg’s last completed works: “I still think it’s full of uneasy mixtures of Brahms and Wagner: you know, expressionistic violin lines, soaring, diving, equally expressionistic harmonics within a relatively four-squarish sentence structure.” Gould himself recorded the Phantasy with violinist Israel Baker in 1964 for Columbia Records.

Michael OesterleThe idea to commission the Chamber Concerto by Oesterle sprang from the shared enthusiasm by Aitken, Oesterle and Daniel Cooper, an enthusiastic NMC supporter, for the Berg Chamber Concerto for piano, violin and 13 winds (1923-1925). Oesterle’s concerto has the same instrumental forces as the Berg, and it will receive its world premiere on the January 14 concert. The Berg Chamber Concerto will complete the program. Aitken will conduct the NMC ensemble, with Duo Diorama as soloists.

Three weeks later, on February 4, at Gallery 345, NMC will present a 1923 Anton Webern arrangement of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 (1906). The Calgary-based Land’s End Ensemble will be joined by Aitken on flute and clarinetist James Campbell for this quintet version of one of Schoenberg’s more frequently arranged works. Schoenberg himself arranged the piece twice, for both smaller and larger forces. Berg made an arrangement for two pianos, and Webern’s arrangement itself exists in two versions. Land’s End Ensemble will also perform trios by Canadians Sean Clarke (b. 1983), Hope Lee (b. 1953) and Matthew Ricketts (b. 1986).

Finally, three weeks later on February 25, at 8pm at Gallery 345, NMC will present another late work by Schoenberg: his String Trio Op. 45 (1946), in a performance by Trio Arkel, along with a program of trios by Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) and James Rolfe (b. 1961). The concert will be preceded at 6:30pm by a screening of the Larry Weinstein film, My War Years: Arnold Schoenberg.

Perhaps by the end of this sequence of three concerts, it will be revealed that any doubts about the value of Schoenberg’s contribution have, by now, diminished or even vanished altogether – and that, if not yet in Gould’s phrase “a household word,” Schoenberg is at very least a welcome and engaging house guest.

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

George Li - Photo by Simon FowlerThe 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition produced a motherlode of talent, sparking concert careers by each of its top four prizewinners. This past March, Show One Productions brought gold medallist Dmitry Masleev to Koerner Hall; on February 4 they will complete the Koerner circle with George Li’s recital there. Boston-born Li – the son of Chinese immigrants – shared second place with Lithuanian-Russian pianist Lukas Geniušas, whom Show One presented in a memorable 2016 Koerner Hall concert with fourth-place winner Lucas Debargue of France.

A student of English Literature at Harvard now in his fourth year, Li explained in an email exchange with me in mid-November that his non-musical studies have affected his approach and led to a deeper understanding of the music he plays, echoing what he told the Harvard Gazette in September 2016: “With music, there’s a balancing of different qualities and you have to have control and finesse and technique. There’s always a fine line between too much control and technique with being overly emotional, overindulgent. With literature, it’s not always an outpouring of emotion. It never goes overboard. It’s on the cusp of going overboard, but it never does.”

Elsewhere in this issue in his Editor’s Corner, DISCoveries editor David Olds calls Li a “fabulous young performer” in his review of Li’s debut CD, Live at the Mariinsky.  

WN: How important a role did music play in your home growing up?
GL: It was definitely a big part of my life ever since I was little. I was always surrounded by music, whether it be listening to the classical radio station, going to concerts to hear the BSO, or recitals in Boston, or listening to my sister practise.

How did you come to start playing the piano? How old were you?
I started when I was about four years old, and much of how and why I started was due to the things that I mentioned above. Because music played such a big part in my life from a young age, it almost became inevitable that I would try it out, and I haven’t stopped since!

Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child?
I remember becoming obsessed with the Moonlight Sonata for a period of time, as well as Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3, so I suppose Beethoven and Prokofiev.

Who were your musical heroes in your formative years?
When I was in my teens, I listened quite a bit to pianists in the Golden Age of playing, so I really idolized Cortot, Horowitz, Gilels and Richter. I also started listening to a lot of orchestral music, so conductors like Abbado and Kleiber gave me great inspiration as well.

Do you feel a particular kinship to any pianist (or musician) living or dead?
I connect especially with Horowitz, because of his magical abilities with the piano; the amount of colour and character in his playing is astounding, and he’s also unafraid of taking risks.

When did you feel that you would devote your life to music?
I think I started realizing that I would fully immerse myself in music when I was 12 or 13. It was actually at a concert I was playing then when I realized how powerful music is, and what a transformative experience it was to be able to perform onstage. Since that concert, I decided I would fully dedicate myself to music.

Your upcoming Toronto recital mirrors your first CD, Live at the Mariinsky. What went into choosing the repertoire for it?
There were several reasons, but the most important for me was that I felt that there was a strong arc throughout the program. Although each piece is of a totally different style and from a different period, there is also a fluidity throughout; each piece flows naturally into the next in terms of tone and character. For example, in the first half of the CD, the Haydn sonata – which contains a nuanced tinge of darkness and tragedy – flows quite naturally into the turbulent, dramatic tragedy that is the Chopin Sonata No.2.

You concluded the program of your Toronto debut with Music Toronto in December 2012 with the Liszt Consolation No.3 and Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, both of which also conclude your first CD and Koerner Hall concert. What is the attraction these pieces have for you and how has your approach to them evolved over the years?
Liszt has been a favourite composer of mine throughout the years, and these two pieces especially have been a part of me for a long time. I especially appreciate that Wagnerian drama and the operatic references that he often implements, and while we don’t exactly hear Wagner in the Rhapsody, I nonetheless try to highlight the drama and the variety of colours that I do hear throughout the piece.

Are there any particular pieces, orchestral or chamber, that never grow stale for you?
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Mahler’s Second Symphony and quite recently Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune have been a few of the orchestral pieces that I’ve been listening to incessantly.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Afghanistan Poppies - photo courtesy of University of OregonIn 2009 Canadian poet Suzanne Steele was appointed as the first ever Canadian war poet, and served in Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry as a part of the Canadian Forces Artist Program. She documented her experiences in her poetry and on her website, After her return home, she mentioned to the late Michael Green, a co-founder of One Yellow Rabbit theatre in Calgary, the idea of writing a requiem using the words she had written in Afghanistan. Green introduced her to Heather Slater at the Calgary Philharmonic, who in turn suggested Vancouver composer Jeffrey Ryan as a collaborator. Steele liked Ryan’s music, and soon they were working together on a project that became Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. The work received its premiere in Calgary in 2012, and was also produced and recorded with the Vancouver Symphony last January.

Ryan and Steele were easy and effective collaborators. Ryan recently told me, “It was clear to me from our first meeting that for Suzanne, the poetry would be coming from a deeply personal and emotional place–of course it could be nothing else but. So I knew that, not being the one who was there, it was also my job to be the counterbalance to that. Suzanne wrote and wrote, and I gave practical feedback from the compositional side: I think this is one too many stories, this needs to be longer, this needs to be shorter, this needs to be soprano not tenor, we need to combine these two ideas, can we have an orchestra-only moment here, and so on. It helped that Suzanne has a degree in music, so she had an understanding of what I was talking about, as well as how to write words that can be effectively set and sung. In the end, I think through this process we came up with something that is a perfect marriage of words and music.

I asked Ryan what struck him most about Steele’s poetry. He said, “The most exciting thing for me is that she was there. She was writing from what she saw and experienced. She knew people there who were killed, she knew people who came home with PTSD, she knew their families. So I knew there would be a truth and authenticity in her poetry that, really, no other poet could have brought, and it gave the piece immediacy and relevance. Also, it was a perspective I never could have even imagined myself. But being able to talk with her as the words were being shaped meant that as soon as it was time to start composing the music, I knew where she was coming from and what she was wanting to express, and from that foundation I already had ideas about what the music would sound like. It’s the same when collaborating on opera; being part of the development process of the story and the libretto, discussing each draft and giving feedback, means that the music is already emerging in my head long before I put pencil to paper.

Suzanne Steele“One thing that Suzanne said in our first meeting stuck with me through the whole process. She said that she was there as a witness, and it was the artist’s job not to provide the answers, but to ask the questions. We both agreed that it was important that the piece not takes sides in the conflict, but convey a witnessing of events to the audience: ‘These are some of the things that happened, what do you think about that?’ As the composer, I sought to express musically the emotional and dramatic content of each scene, whether it was the triage nurse trying to hold down a sense of panic as more and more injured arrive, or the fragmented thoughts of a soldier with PTSD, or the joyful sounds of children playing a game amongst the rubble.”

The completed work, Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, is scored for four soloists, both adult and children’s choruses, and orchestra. The piece is in nine sections, opening with an evocation of the space and calm of the North, and a prayer for healing. The program notes in the score state: “It quickly comes back to earth, and to Afghanistan, with the fractured memories of a soldier suffering from PTSD, living in the present but tortured by the past, the sound of helicopters ringing in his ears. As the work unfolds, a young soldier writes home during a cold Afghan night, the voices of parents and children echoing in his mind. In the Day of Wrath, apprehension turns to catastrophe seen first in slow motion, gradually speeding up to real time as a soldier, critically injured by an Improvised Explosive Device, is airlifted to emergency care. A lover mourns. A soldier is killed two days before the tour of duty ends. A body returns home. Two soldiers tell their story of a lamb. Children play. Voices of light evoke a flock of birds flying freely overhead. A medic is overwhelmed by mounting casualties. A soldier seeks to be made whole again. In the final movement, the choir looks to an unknown future as the soloists remember past sacrifices, all coming together in a closing appeal for rest and peace.”

To commemorate Remembrance Day this year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Tania Miller will give the Toronto premiere of Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. The TSO production features soprano Measha Brueggergosman, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone Brett Polegato with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. TSO music director Peter Oundjian has written: “Of course, Jeffrey Ryan is one of the country’s most distinguished composers, and his work as our affiliate composer some years ago was outstanding. I am always keen to hear the most recent works by our former affiliates, and when our creative team brought this Requiem to me, I knew that we should program it. It is truly an epic work. Suzanne Steele’s moving poetry and Jeff’s powerful music make for an unforgettable experience.”

The performances take place in 8pm concerts on November 9 and 11 at Roy Thomson Hall. The concert also contains music by Vaughan Williams, the Scottish piper G.S. McLennan and a short so-called “Sesquie for Canada’s 150th” by Julien Bilodeau. Jeffrey Ryan will attend both Toronto performances, as well as a November 10 Calgary Philharmonic performance, in Calgary.

Jeffrey Ryan - photo by Chick RiceSteele and Ryan’s Requiem adds to the ever-growing repertoire of musical works honouring the sacrifices of Canada’s soldiers over the course of our history and makes for a poignant reminder of the reasons behind their creation. Ever since Canadian poet, doctor and soldier, Lt. Col. John McCrae (1872–1918) wrote In Flanders Fields, composers have been drawing inspiration from it and setting it to music. In 2006, Kingston, Ontario composer John Burge composed his Flanders Fields Reflections. Burge called McCrae’s work, “Perhaps the most famous poem ever written by a Canadian.” The recording of Burge’s work by Sinfonia Toronto on Marquis Classics won the 2009 JUNO for best classical composition. McCrae’s poem has been set numerous times by composers around the world. Interestingly, the very first setting was by American Charles Ives, in 1917. More recently, Canadians Stephen Chatman, Eleanor Daley and Alexander Tilley have also used the poem. In Chatman’s case, it was a setting commissioned by the Vancouver men’s choir, Chor Leoni.

McCrae’s poem is of course not the only literary source for music of remembrance by Canadian composers. Chatman has also made Remembrance Day settings using poetry by Walt Whitman (Reconciliation) and by Christina Rossetti (Songs of Remembrance). (Music by Chatman, Daley and Tilley will be sung in a concert titled “Acquired Taste: Music for Remembrance,” at 7:30pm on Sunday, November 12 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in Toronto’s west end.)

Born in England, Healey Willan (1880–1968) came to Canada in 1913 and lived and worked through both world wars. He wrote An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts in 1921 for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It’s a work that was dedicated to the memory of those members of the choir who had been killed in WWI. Then, in 1939, as Canada entered WWII, Willan composed A Responsory for Use in the Time of War, while serving as precentor of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto.

Near the end of his life, Harry Somers (1925–1999) composed A Thousand Ages, a major work for boy soprano, men’s choir, orchestra and electronics. The title comes from a line in the hymn, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past. Somers’ father had served in WWI and was haunted by severe nightmares throughout his remaining life. Somers recalled how as a youth he had often awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of his father’s screams. A Thousand Ages is one of Somers’ most personal works, and it received its premiere during the Winnipeg Symphony’s New Music Festival in 2000, with Bramwell Tovey conducting. Tovey was so impressed with the work that he made a version that replaced the orchestra with silver band. This is the version that I recorded with my production team, for a CD featuring the Hannaford Street Silver Band and the men of the Amadeus Choir at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Toronto. It’s a powerful, visceral work that conveys the horrors that soldiers experience. Personally, I feel it’s an impactful work that should be performed more often at Remembrance Day observances.

The same CD, on the Opening Day label, also contained an important work by Tovey. This was his Requiem for a Charred Skull, written as Tovey’s reaction to the war in Kosovo. It was this recording that won Tovey the 2003 JUNO for best classical composition.

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

Philip ChiuPhilip Chiu, acclaimed for his collaborative piano work with Jonathan Crow, Janelle Fung, James Ehnes, Andrew Wan and Raphael Wallfisch among many others, makes his Toronto recital debut for Music Toronto on November 28.

In a mid-October email exchange, the talented and personable Hong Kong-born pianist told me that he was excited to come back to Toronto, “very much my hometown and place of musical birth.” He left when he completed his studies at the Glenn Gould School in 2006 and has returned many times for concerts and recitals (most recently with Jonathan Crow at Toronto Summer Music) “but this feels like a real homecoming artistically, especially since it’s a return to form as a soloist.”

WN: Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child?
Who were the first performers you fell in love with?

PC: I like this pair of questions because I can answer them with the same story: In brief, 1) Mendelssohn 2) Jon Kimura Parker. I forget exactly how old I was, maybe 14 or 15, when I was studying Mendelssohn’s G Minor Piano Concerto. Between working feverishly on that piece (so many arpeggios!) and constant exposure to the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, I had completely succumbed to the infectious effervescence of Mendelssohn’s writing. Up until this point in our story, I never really listened to much classical music, so after years of taking me to classical music concerts and trying to keep me awake, my parents must’ve been totally confused to be hearing orchestral music coming from my room... I’m sure they thought I was hiding something! Suffice it to say, I was not your classic case of a young pianist dreaming of being the next Rubinstein or Horowitz.

One day I happened to catch a performance of that same concerto on CBC, and I was so thrilled to hear someone playing it the way I hoped I could play it! I caught the name of the pianist (Jackie Parker) and tried locating a recording to purchase. Sadly, his website revealed no such recording. In mild distress, I wrote to the email address on his website expressing my admiration for the recording I had heard and asked if it was available for purchase (expecting an efficient, dismissive reply from his agent).

I was totally floored when I received a reply from Jackie just a few days later. He had written an explanation of the recording (a live CBC recording that was not available for purchase) and excitedly asked about my progress with the concerto and shared his thoughts on the piece. He finished by saying that he would ask his father to search for the recording in his archives and to send me a copy (on cassette tape, of course) as soon as possible. I received the recording with another kind letter from his father within a short period.

This tiny, personal moment has stayed with me these last 15 years; among other things, it has shaped my idea of what it means to have success and to encourage those coming up (in my case, from very, very far away) behind you.

You’re known as a top collaborative pianist. What are the challenges of a solo recital?

Going solo involves an interesting mix of challenges and rewards. First and foremost, the memory component of the solo piano recital requires its own special mention: No thanks to Liszt for creating an expectation of pianists that far exceeds those of any other instrument. I am not one of those musicians with a prodigious mind that memorizes music the first time they hear it on the radio; it was one thing when I was a teenager and my brain was a soft, malleable mass, but now, trying to find the time to memorize about 85 minutes of music (for one program!) is not particularly easy nor, frankly, the most rewarding part of music-making. I am buoyed by more and more famous pianists (e.g. Alexandre Theraud, Gilbert Kalish) having scores on stage, but it’s still quite hard to shake the stigma associated with doing so.

Another challenging aspect of performing solo, as someone who has found some degree of success as a “very sociable pianist,” is convincing the established musical community that a pianist can be many things and, shockingly, even perform all roles extremely well. There is little doubt that collaborative pianism and solo pianism have some stark differences in their skillsets, but there is a surprising amount of bias (from all sides) about the ability of one to perform the other.

I absolutely love the thrill of having the stage to myself; the not-inconsiderable allocation of brain power dedicated to playing with others is now freed up for... anything! Even the finest of collaborations have some limitations to how far one can stretch timing/phrasing or introduce new ideas on the fly (of course, one of the joys of chamber music is pushing that boundary and being amazed by the results), but when I’m alone on stage, I have only to answer to the composer, the audience, and myself.

What went into choosing the repertoire for your Music Toronto recital? Please give us a snapshot of each of the works you’ve chosen.

“Stories & Legends” is a program I created specially for my Music Toronto debut. I would like to add how grateful I am to be performing in this longstanding series in the city where the majority of my education took place. I have many fond memories of attending great piano and chamber music recitals hosted by Music Toronto, so I was ecstatic when I heard from my agent Andrew Kwan that they had gotten in touch. When choosing the program, it was vitally important to me to share something of myself and not only to present A Good Piano Recital Program.

Our evening starts with The Mother Goose Suite. It is a brilliantly simple work that showcases Ravel’s uncanny ability to channel innocent wonder into song. It is a work I came to know intimately through my work with Janelle Fung (as part of the Fung-Chiu Duo), and is also, in a small way, my homage to our musical partnership. Fairy tale after fairy tale, Ravel gifts us beautifully rendered, first-person perspectives from these stories. I present it here in its solo arrangement by Ravel’s friend Jacques Chariot.

The companion work I’ve chosen for the first half is a personal selection of Rachmaninoff

Preludes. I find they are not unlike the Mother Goose Suite; self-contained tales that evoke diverse images and emotions. I’ve chosen five for five, five preludes that loosely match, in sense and style, the five movements of the Ravel suite.

Schubert. Yikes. The Wanderer Fantasy. Double yikes. This is a beautiful, impressive (every piano program needs some fireworks) piece that strays fairly far from its source material, at least in character. Save for the second movement, which quotes the original Der Wanderer lied almost directly, the remaining three movements present this melancholic song in a more jubilant, high-spirited manner. Twenty minutes of keyboard intensity with plenty of Schubertian modulations, melodies, and mood-changes.

Our night concludes with Liszt’s Deux Légendes; epic storytelling at its very epic-est. Liszt uses all his tricks in the piano-writing book to vividly illustrate two biblical stories (St. Francis’ Sermon to the Birds, and St. Francis of Assisi Walking on the Waves). You will hear birds, you will hear undulating waves, you will hear quiet, awestruck wonder and also very loud wonder.

Two years ago you were the first recipient of the Prix Goyer, an award so covert that the performers in the running for it don’t even know they’re being considered. Now that you’ve had time to digest it, what has winning the prize meant to you?

I can’t say I’ve really taken much time to digest it, haha. I was obviously flabbergasted to know I was the first recipient of the Prix Goyer, but my next reaction was to think of all the other more-deserving musicians I know who should have received it. Honestly, I think I’ve spent most time trying to find ways to justify (to myself) having been awarded this prize.

In another way, I took winning that prize as a message that it was time to change direction. It felt really, really good to be recognized for my work as a collaborative artist, but it was also a sign to myself that it was time to take stock of what I had accomplished thus far and consider where I wanted to go next. It’s a big part of the reason I’m answering your questions today: I knew that it was time to set aside the collaborative hat for a moment and show everyone a lesser-worn, but much-beloved hat: Solo Phil.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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