Laila Biali“Humber at 50: A Celebration Through Music” took place on the evening of January 17 at the RCM’s Koerner Hall, just under 20 kilometres east of Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus, which houses their Creative and Performing Arts school.

The choice to host the event at Koerner Hall was wise, for multiple reasons. The first: Koerner, with a capacity of 1135, was almost completely full, with current Humber students, faculty, staff and alumni comprising a significant portion of the audience. The second: from each level of Koerner’s lobby, attendees had a clear view of the CN Tower, which was lit up in Humber’s blue and gold colours. Not immediately visible, but equally illuminated, was the Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square, which was visited during the day by Mayor Tory for a photo op with the Humber Hawk, the college’s mascot.

Although the event was a celebration – through music – of the 50th anniversary of Humber College as a whole, it also served as a de facto celebration of Humber’s music program, which was established in 1972, following the founding of the college by a mere five years. This predates the beginning of jazz courses at the University of Toronto, which were first introduced in the 1979/1980 academic year. With the exception of special guest artist Kurt Elling – who, in fairness, has worked and performed with Humber students in the past, as part of the school’s annual artist-in-residence initiative – the evening’s performers were all faculty and alumni of the music program. Moreover, eight of the program’s 14 pieces were either arranged or composed by faculty and alumni.

The proceedings were emceed by Garvia Bailey, host of JAZZFM.91’s Good Morning, Toronto, and the performances were structured in roughly chronological stylistic order. The first half of the concert was played by the Humber Faculty Big Band, led by Denny Christianson, the director of the music program, and began with Arlen and Mercer’s 1942 hit That Old Black Magic. Arranged by trombonist Al Kay – who was in attendance, although unable to play, due to an injury – the song featured trumpeter John MacLeod, who was amongst Humber’s early graduates in the mid 1970s, and Ted Quinlan, head of the Guitar Department. Next up was Duke Ellington’s Fantazm, arranged by John LaBarbera, with an excellent performance by Pat LaBarbera, whose soprano sax was balanced and exciting both in his treatment of the melody and in his solo, and by Nancy Walker, whose self-possessed, evocative playing was particularly well-suited to the eerie solo piano section in the arrangement’s middle section.

Following the beautiful 3/4 Calendula – composed by, and featuring, tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald – special guest vocalist Kurt Elling joined the big band for the remaining four songs of the set, beginning with Mike Abene’s decidedly Lydian treatment of Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out. Elling is a confident, natural performer, whose easy command of the stage drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd when he started singing the standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, which featured a bluesy, muted cornet solo from MacLeod, and an athletic guitar solo from Quinlan. I Like The Sunrise – another Abene arrangement, with lyrics by Elling – paired Elling with Brian O’Kane, in a winning turn on flugelhorn. The set ended with Tutti for Cootie,  a swinging, medium-tempo piece that switched between minor and major, and served as a showcase for the talents of bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Larnell Lewis.

Elling – Grammy-winning, DownBeat Critics’ Poll-topping, Obama Administration White House-performing – is a star, and maintains a far-reaching international tour schedule. It is a testament to the calibre of the Humber Faculty Big Band, and to Elling himself, that his appearance in the first set felt like a real collaboration, and never, as can sometimes be the case in such situations, like a hired gun going through the motions. As mentioned above, Elling has a history with the program, and both he and the band exemplified a dedication to excellence, a generosity of spirit, and an engaging sense of fun that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

After a brief intermission, the second half of the concert commenced with Rik Emmett (of Triumph and later solo fame) and Dave Dunlop performing their instrumental piece Red Hot. Emmett and Dunlop have been frequent collaborators, and the two have performed as the duo Strung-Out Troubadours since their eponymous debut album was released in 2006. Emmett introduced the next song – Triumph’s popular 1981 hit Magic Power – by opining, to ample cheers, that the Humber faculty has always stood for the “magic power of the music.” Following Emmett and Dunlop, singer-pianist Laila Biali took the stage to perform her funky, odd-metre original Upside Down, with the help of Lewis, bassist Rich Brown and the horn section of Colleen Allen, Shirantha Beddage, Brian O’Kane and Kelsley Grant. Elling and Pat LaBarbera returned to the stage to join Biali for Randy Bachman’s Undun, on which LaBarbera took, perhaps, his most compelling solo of the evening.

rinsethealgorithm at The Rex (from left): Larnell Lewis (drums), Luis Deniz (alto sax), Robi Botos (piano) and Rich Brown (electric bass)Rich Brown’s rinsethealgorithm were up next, taking the stage to perform Brown’s melancholy Promessa, on which the bandleader-bassist took a beautiful, compelling solo. Brown is a masterful player, with a rare combination of great tone, time, melodic sense, and tastefully deployed chops, and it is fitting that rinsethealgorithm – a band lovingly emulated by Toronto jazz students in practise rooms for well over ten years now – had a place of prominence on the bill. Forward Motion, their second song, showcased the remarkable talents of saxophonist Luis Deniz and pianist Jeremy Ledbetter, in addition to a thrilling drum solo by Larnell Lewis. Lewis – a recent Grammy winner with the American band Snarky Puppy, Humber alumnus, and current faculty member – is a joy to listen to, and, it should be noted, was on stage for 12 of the evening’s 14 songs, sounding just as comfortable playing big band swing as he did playing rinsethealgorithm’s fusion-forward repertoire.

It should be noted that Humber has four distinct music programs: a BMus in Jazz and Commercial Music, a Certificate in Jazz Performance, a Graduate Certificate in Music Business and a Graduate Certificate in Music Composition. Enrolled in these four programs are approximately 400 students, whose training, provided by “a faculty of 17 full-time and 80 part-time teachers,” includes “performance, production, songwriting and composition in jazz, pop, R&B, Latin and world music.” It is imperative for a good music program to foster both individual talents and to create a productive, healthy community in which these talents can thrive; the success of the former cannot, generally, exist without the health of the latter. In this regard, Humber seems to be performing admirably: as 2016 JUNO Award-winning alumna Allison Au puts it, Humber succeeded in providing her with “an incredible network of musical mentors and peers,” and gave her “the tools and confidence to find [her] own voice in both composition and performance.”

In addition to its postsecondary music program, Humber’s School of Creative and Performing Arts operates the Community Music School, founded in 1980, and “originally established to offer children and youth an alternative form of music education to traditional classical lessons.” The Community Music School is a rarity in the Canadian educational landscape; while analogous programs exist within the classical world, such as the RCM’s Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists, pre-college mentorship opportunities for students interested in jazz and commercial music – beyond, of course, private lessons – are somewhat limited. These opportunities are typically found in high school band programs, or in ensembles associated with music festivals, such as the National Youth Jazz Combo and the Conn-Selmer Centerstage Jazz Band (MusicFest Canada), or the TD Jazz Youth Summit at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. (The JAZZFM.91 Youth Big Band, a free weekly program for qualifying students, is also an important group.) But the Community Music School, which, for senior students, has weekly private lessons, faculty-guided small ensembles and instruction on improvisation, provides the kind of scaled-down college environment that prepares students for success in post-secondary music-program studies.

Programming an event like Humber at 50 is challenging, as administrators must balance artistic concerns with the necessity to showcase a representative cross-section of institutional talent. While the Humber Faculty Big Band played the full first set, the second-set acts – Rik Emmett, Laila Biali, and rinsethealgorithm – played two songs each before passing the baton, detracting (probably inevitably) from the concert’s momentum. And yet, as the concert progressed, the importance of the programmatic variety became clear.

Neil Young’s Heart of Gold was billed as the “Grand Finale” – a kind of built-in encore, as Bailey reminded the audience during the standing ovation that followed – and with Biali, Elling, Brown, Lewis, Emmett and the horn section of LaBarbera, Allen and Beddage, it served as an intergenerational, genre-fusing representation of the music program as a whole. While the description may seem like a cliché, the Humber music program really does give every indication that its strength lies in its diversity: by giving students both a solid grounding in tradition and the encouragement to create new works, the school has created a strong community of musicians who are doing great things.

As the concert drew to a close, it became clear that there was another important benefit of hosting the celebration at Koerner Hall: the central location, amongst older institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto, and the Royal Conservatory itself, served as an apt reminder that Humber College – at a comparatively young 50 years – has achieved remarkable success in a relatively short amount of time.


Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Ēriks Ešenvalds“Overpow’ring light burst upon my startled senses!” 
– Northern Lights, Ēriks Ešenvalds

At a certain point in the blended storytelling, music, and video multimedia monument Ēriks Ešenvalds calls Nordic Light Symphony, he has singers wet their fingers, running them against the rims of glasses filled with various amounts of water. The movement causes ethereal pitches and overtones, evoking one of the greatest natural phenomena beyond our planet - the Aurora Borealis.

The Aurora Borealis has long captured the imagination of Ešenvalds, as it has countless others for millennia. This striking magnetic effect, also known as the Northern Lights, is inseparable from the people who live in the Northern regions of the planet. Stories, spirituality and life itself have been built around and through these stellar experiences. But they are a visual experience, without sound. “Keep in mind this is the Earth’s largest atmospheric optical phenomenon,” Ešenvalds told Inga Ozola of Latvian Public Broadcasting. “When it overcomes the starry skies above you, your vision alone cannot take it all in.”

Ešenvalds comes to Toronto as part of a visit organized by the Orpheus Choir of Toronto for the Canadian premiere of his Nordic Light Symphony. Premiered in 2015 with the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and State Choir Latvija, conducted by Māris Sirmais, the work was awarded the Latvian Grand Music Award, the highest musical honour of the composer’s home country. This was Ešenvalds’ third time receiving the award for choral compositions in his career.

Laura Adlers, of the Ottawa-based Adlers Agency, is a core part of the team that has led to Ešenvalds coming to Canada. She was with him in 2015 when he gave the keynote at the Singing Network in St John’s, Newfoundland (and kissed the cod, which as the story goes makes him an official Newfoundlander). A lot of what interests him is the “connection of nature and faith,” sentiments well-shared with inhabitants of The Rock. Nature strongly shapes his musical and creation process; and he is incredibly careful with his craft. “I have learned first to find the idea or story of the piece,” he said in an interview with choral conductor, composer and music journalist Andrea Angelini on her website. “Then I go to the library to find perfectly suitable lyrics; and only then I have my nibbled pencil and a blank music sheet and at my piano I compose the piece.”

Nordic Light was an expedition of love. The work is the result of four years of research and the culmination of a very careful thought process inherent in his unique approach to storytelling. Overlapping with a two-year appointment at Trinity College, Cambridge University, UK, completed in 2013, Ešenvalds studied 150 books and spoke with experts on the Aurora Borealis. “I was fascinated by their dimensions, the versatility of their colours, and forms, and the mystical legends rooted in Northern folklore (including folksongs),” he said on Part of Nordic Light relies on the storytellers themselves as part of the multimedia experience of the narrative. By video, 22 storytellers bring life to the music directly from the North from the Iñupiat and Inuit peoples, and people from Iceland, Latvia, Finland, Norway, and Estonia. In total, Nordic Light explores 33 distinct stories about the lights.

In a TEDx Talk given in Riga, Ešenvalds explains the diverse stories he learned. He acknowledges that many of these stories are gone, lost: “The unique cultural heritage had disappeared.” Yet, a multitude of stories remain in many places where the lights are perceived and mythologized. Latvian skies rarely see the lights, but they are not unknown. Folklore tells stories of fallen warriors continuing their fights across the sky. To some, it is a giant fox jumping around, throwing the lights up into the sky along with the snow. For others, it is spirits playing soccer. Some of the stories are more sinister: if you whistle at the lights, they’ll chop your head off.

Robert Cooper, conductor of Orpheus, is a strong supporter of Ešenvalds. In 2011, one of Cooper’s singers returned from a trip to Latvia with a pile of Ešenvalds’ music, a name that was virtually unknown at the time outside of Latvia. “I was so intrigued by his music,” says Cooper, “especially his longer piece Passion and Resurrection, unlike his other smaller works. I’m always looking for extended works for Orpheus and this was dramatic and theatric with semi-chorus and a demanding soprano line.” Cooper performed the Passion in 2011 and again in 2013, with Ešenvalds visiting the second time as his popularity increased.

Cooper recalls: “Ēriks started telling me about this story, about all the stories around Nordic Light and I was very intrigued.” Orpheus joined with the Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union, the State Choir of Latvia, the Berlin Radio Choir, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and chorus, and the City of London Sinfonia to commission the Symphony.

With Ešenvalds himself coming, many choral educators and groups across the region became interested in having him workshop. The program has evolved to incorporate various regions, multiple choirs and several Canadian cities, all made possible by the incredible support of Latvian Canadians, but also as part of Latvia’s international celebrations of 100 years of independence. As Ešenvalds’ popularity has grown, so too has that of Riga-based music publisher Musica Baltica. Distributed internationally under Edition Peters, Musica Baltica will be touring with Ešenvalds as a lead in the centenary celebrations and were a key partner in this tour.

Ešenvalds is particularly excited about his visits to universities along the trip. He will be visiting Mark Vuorinen, at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo (February 26); Jean-Sébastien Vallée, at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University (February 27); and John Armstrong at the University of Ottawa (February 28). Ešenvalds himself is an educator, having studied at the Latvian Academy of Music where he now teaches, since completing his Cambridge University residency.

In Toronto, the Orpheus Choir and That Choir are joined by their music directors – Bob Cooper and Craig Pike, respectively – for the Nordic Light Gala performance. Pike says: “Rehearsing Ešenvalds works, apart from being incredibly fulfilling, challenges us spiritually, musically and existentially.” Both ensembles are enjoying the experience. “He writes with a great deal of depth. There’s a quiet inner spirit,” shares Cooper. “You know that something is happening behind his notes that he has really considered.”

Prior to the performance, there will be the Canadian premiere of the documentary Nordic Light: A Composer’s Diary followed by a one-on-one with Ešenvalds. Over the course of the visit, Ešenvalds will engage with audiences and musicians from Kitchener to Toronto, Ottawa to Montreal. He’ll be back in Canada for Podium 2018 in St John’s, Newfoundland.

Composers of Ešenvalds’ calibre are rare finds; evocative storytellers at heart who listen to the world a little differently than the rest of us. And in listening, they can create a palette of sounds that evoke amazing things – the popping of the trees in deep cold, the wind over the land, the sounds of birds in the pitch black of night, and the especially powerful sound of hearing whales breathing in the fjords of Iceland – things heard and recreated in music by Ešenvalds. In many ways, Nordic Light is an act of listening, translated through Ešenvalds’ unique way of hearing the world.

Toronto Events

A Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Wednesday February 21, 2018, 7pm. St John’s Evangelical Latvian Lutheran Church, Toronto.

Canadian Premiere of Nordic Light: A Composer’s Diary and One-on-One with Ēriks Ešenvalds. Saturday February 24, 2018, 3pm. Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

Nordic Light Gala Concert featuring the Canadian Premiere of the Nordic Light Symphony. Saturday February 24, 2018, 7:30pm. Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.


A Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Monday February 26, 2018, 7pm. Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo.


Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Tuesday February 27, 2018, 7:30pm. Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal.


A Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds

A seminar and singer’s workshop for choirs, conductors and fans of choral music. Wednesday February 28, 2018, 7pm. St Joseph’s Church, Ottawa.


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ImageContemporary music is acknowledged as a means of introducing fresh ideas. And contemporary vocal music offers a powerful artistic medium for the delivery of meaningful and profound messages.

I have witnessed this often throughout my career in broadcasting and music production. Before my professional life, one of the earliest and most indicative examples of this occurred when I met the Polish/French composer and conductor René Leibowitz (1913–1972) while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin (UW) School of Music in 1967. Leibowitz was a strong advocate of the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), the Second Viennese School and new music in general, after World War II. He had been invited to UW as a guest lecturer in 1967, thanks to the efforts of Austrian/American violinist Rudolf Kolisch (1896–1978), leader of the Pro Arte String Quartet which was the quartet in residence at UW. Both Leibowitz and Kolisch had close ties with Schoenberg. Kolisch had been a student of Schoenberg since 1919, and in fact, after the death of his first wife in 1923, Schoenberg married Gertrude Kolisch, Rudolf’s sister. In Leibowitz’s case, it was hearing Schoenberg’s work Pierrot Lunaire that inspired him to become a composer himself.

René LeibowitzDuring this, for me, momentous year at UW, Leibowitz and Kolisch collaborated in overseeing performances of several of Schoenberg’s works, including Pierrot Lunaire, the Violin Concerto and, especially significant for me as a student, the choral work, Friede auf Erden (or Peace on Earth,) a work premiered in 1911. I was a member of the UW Concert Choir that year, and over the course of many rehearsals, we prepared Friede auf Erden under Leibowitz’s baton. The process of preparing this intense and passionate cry for humanity was itself a memorable experience, focusing on achieving clarity through the intricate counterpoint and frequently fluctuating tempi of the score. But I will never forget the look on Leibowitz’s face as we performed the work in concert. It was, for me, a young student, the first time I had witnessed a genuine, undiluted expression of pure ecstasy on the countenance of a conductor. This was a work whose message carried especially deep meaning for Leibowitz, and in turn, for all of us in the choir and the audience.

David Lang. Photo by Peter Serling.As we approach the season of Lent, there are a number of significant works scheduled for performance in Toronto that underscore this capability of vocal music to convey powerful messages. Particularly notable are two unusual settings inspired by the Passion according to St. Matthew. On Sunday afternoon, February 25 at 4pm, the Elmer Iseler Singers will offer a performance of The Little Match Girl Passion by American composer David Lang at Eglinton St. George’s United Church. It’s a 2008 composition for choir, for which Lang won a Pulitzer Prize that same year. In his program note, Lang says, “I wanted to tell the story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. The original is ostensibly for children, and it has that shocking combination of danger and mortality that many famous children’s stories do.” He continues: “There are many ways to tell this story. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus. The most interesting thing about how the Passion story is told, is that it can include texts other than the story itself. These texts are the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock, or remorse. These are devotional guideposts, the markers for our own responses to the story, and they have the effect of making the audience more than spectators to the sorrowful events onstage.”

Lydia Adams, artistic director of the Elmer Iseler Singers, shared her very personal view of the work. She said: “I first became aware of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl through listening to performances online, and felt immediately connected to it. The sparseness and sadness of the music conveyed the horrible sadness of Hans Christian Andersen’s words, and it struck a chord. For me, the chord was personal. We have so many homeless people in the freezing cold here in Toronto, and, a number of years ago, someone very close to me was one of them. We didn’t know he was safe for a number of months. We feel as a society that we must protect children and others who have no home. When we fail at that, our society is diminished. With this performance, I wanted to put the spotlight on child poverty and homelessness in our city and our country.”

Tan DunA contrasting, but equally personal approach is the Water Passion after St. Matthew by Chinese composer Tan Dun, presented by Soundstreams on March 9 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre at 8pm. Tan says that he views water as “A metaphor for the unity of the ephemeral and the eternal, the physical and the spiritual – as well as a symbol of baptism, renewal, re-creation and resurrection.” He wrote that, “When I read the account of the Passion in the Bible, I heard the wind, the sound of the desert. Perhaps for other readers of the Passion, every image is red and bloody – but instead I always felt the desert heat, and heard the stones and the water. So I shaped the story through these sounds, giving the element of water an important theme.” Several years ago, as he listened with his pregnant wife to an ultrasound, he heard the sound of water and he realized, “This is the sound all human beings hear first. It’s the beginning, and the beginning is the ending, and the ending is the beginning. That’s the meaning of resurrection. Resurrection isn’t just a new life, but a new idea.”

The stage setting and lighting are integral parts of his Water Passion. Seventeen large transparent water bowls, lit from below, are set up in the form of a cross. The cross delineates the performance areas for the two choruses (one consisting of sopranos and altos, the other tenors and basses) the two vocal soloists (soprano Carla Huhtanen and bass-baritone Stephen Bryant) and the instrumental soloists (violinist Erika Raum and cellist David Hetherington). The conductor, David Fallis, and three percussionists are positioned at the respective ends of the cross. Fallis has said that, “For me, Tan Dun’s Water Passion sets the passion story in an eternal context, but not necessarily the eternal context of Christian theology. The water imagery (which leads to starting the piece with “Baptism” – a unique addition to the passion story), the water leitmotifs, the water instruments pervading the work, all these give a sense of endless calm, natural washing.”

Sir James MacMillan. Photo by Philip Gatward.Between these two passions, another major contemporary choral work will be featured during the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival. On Wednesday March 7 at 8pm at Roy Thomson Hall, music director Peter Oundjian will lead the TSO and the Toronto Children’s Choir in the North American premiere of Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan’s Little Mass. It’s a work that MacMillan wrote in 2014 for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Youth Choirs, and it is “little” in name only, running a good half hour. Macmillan wrote that, “My Little Mass is a setting of three of the smaller sections of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) for young voices and orchestra. Nevertheless, each movement is reasonably substantial, with much space for the orchestral music to grow and develop.” Peter Oundjian, who will conduct the work, told me that, “MacMillan’s music has a passion and intensity that speaks directly to the listener, an emotional response that comes from a deep faith. His vision is ideally suited to vocal music, and I consider him to be one of the finest choral composers in the world today. In particular, he has an innate affinity for children’s choir – I cannot think of a contemporary composer who has explored the sonority of young voices more effectively. This is a heartfelt, deeply moving work, and I wanted to bring it to Toronto audiences.”

Just as significant as these works cast with large forces, is the upcoming premiere of another major vocal work, but in the genre of the art song: the premiere of a cycle of songs by Vancouver composer Jeffrey Ryan, which set writings of the artist, Emily Carr. Titled Miss Carr in Seven Scenes, Ryan’s 25 minute song cycle was commissioned by the Canadian Art Song Project (CASP) and will have its premiere on Monday, March 19 in a program presented jointly by CASP and the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto, in Walter Hall at 7:30pm. The recital is titled “The Artist’s Life Through Song,” and features mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Christopher Enns, and pianist and CASP co-artistic director, Steven Philcox. In his notes to the work, Ryan says that, “Many years ago, at a used bookshop in Cleveland, I discovered Hundreds and Thousands, the published journals of the iconic Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871-1945). Carr wrote about her struggles to be an artist, both creatively and practically: to develop her own voice, to adequately convey what she saw to the canvas, to discover the intersection of art and spirit, to deal with self-doubts and frustrations, to find an audience, to sell her paintings, to make ends meet. As I was just finishing my doctoral studies and about to embark on my freelance career, her words resonated deeply with me. The challenges she wrote about were much like the ones I was about to face, and indeed every artist faces.”

Ryan continues: “For me an art song is a little opera scene, with character and back story, and, like the orchestra in an opera, the piano never merely accompanies. I knew immediately that Carr’s journal entries, personal yet universal, could bridge song and theatre in a kind of monodrama of an artist’s life – though it was not easy to condense the texts from a 300-page book! These resulting seven scenes provide a series of snapshots chronicling Carr’s parallel journeys of capturing the mountain to her canvas and conquering the mountain to artistic success and validation.” In writing for mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, Ryan said he found in her an ideal interpreter for such a remarkably intimate story.

Also on the program are Four Short Songs on poems of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) by John Beckwith and American composer Ben Moore’s Dear Theo (letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, Theo,) sung by baritone Christopher Enns.

These, and many more new works underscore the potential for profound reflections on contemporary life. I’m pleased to say I have seen Leibovitz’s ecstatic expression on others over time, although perhaps not often enough. But through the audience’s support of our composers and authors, it will continue to appear.

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

Nick FraserBannerNick Fraser has become a key figure in Toronto jazz since moving here from Ottawa two decades ago, an inventive and inspiring drummer who invigorates any music he touches.

He’s played across the spectrum, but he’s been most notable as a creative force in some special groups, like Drumheller, a quintet that set a standard for free jazz in Toronto for its decade-long existence. Then there’s the chamber jazz supergroup Ugly Beauties, with pianist Marilyn Lerner and cellist Matt Brubeck, as well as his membership in the fusion quartet Peripheral Vision, the Lina Allemano Four, as well as Allemano’s edgy electronics-driven improv project Titanium Riot.

Nick Fraser. Photo by Brett Delmage.

Lately, though, Fraser has been taking steps to raise his international profile as drummer, composer and bandleader. His most prominent association is with saxophonist Tony Malaby, a central figure in New York free jazz who first established his credentials working with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

Fraser’s connection with Malaby goes back 20 years: “Tony and I met in 1996 at a jazz retreat in Idaho that was run by Gunther Schuller. I was 20 years old and Tony was in his early 30s and I was really impressed with his sound and his demeanour. We’ve kept in touch over the years and have worked together fairly regularly since 2012.” They’ve worked in a trio with Canadian-expatriate pianist Kris Davis, but February offers a chance to hear them in Fraser’s unusual quartet project that’s launching its third CD, Is Life Long?, on Clean Feed, the world’s most active free jazz label. The configuration of the group, with cellist Andrew Downing and bassist Rob Clutton, has an inspired flexibility, with Downing moving freely between lead and rhythm roles.

Tony Malaby and Joe Hertenstein at Downtown Music Gallery, NYC, October 2016. Photo by John Sharpe.Fraser’s vision as a bandleader/ composer is to open the music’s possibilities. “I’m interested in music that allows the musicians to occupy a number of spectra. The quartet music allows us to occupy extremes of the dynamic range, or to juxtapose traditional musical language with more experimental gestures, or to swing between collective improvisation and solo-oriented action. Of course, this is true of all “free” music, but having compositions allows for, in addition to those things, a range of intentionality in the music.”

Fraser initially describes his compositions as numbered “Sketches,” later sometimes assigning titles. On Is Life Long? individual sketches sometimes merge into spontaneous suites. “They’re all vehicles for group improvisation and they’re not finished until they’re performed. Even then, they’re only finished until the next performance. As for the specific musical content, often it’s just a melody, sometimes with a given harmony line, bass line or rhythmic structure ... it varies.“

Every performance is an adventure. As Fraser remarks of the band members, “Tony is a very powerful, special musician and I cherish each time we get to play together. That said, I think the same thing about Andrew and Rob. Each of the people in the band offers me an amazing model of artistic growth.”

The quartet launches Is Life Long? at The Rex Jazz and Blues Bar, February 5 and 6, 194 Queen St. W.;; (416) 598-2475.

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

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.

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