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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Perlman can be reached at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo for Duet to get Luminato debut

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

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

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

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

Elmer Iseler, Jessie Iseler and Lydia Adams before a performance at Choral Kathaumixw, Powell River BC in July 1996. Photo by Maura McGroartyKnown as the dean of Canadian choral conductors and called a Canadian choral visionary, Elmer Iseler (1927–1998) will be celebrated in a concert titled “Joyful Sounds, a Tribute to Elmer Iseler, 1927–1998 – Twenty Years Later” on April 14 at 7:30pm at Eglinton St. George’s United Church. Lydia Adams will lead the Elmer Iseler Singers in a program of Canadian choral classics, plus the world premiere of a major new work, commissioned to honour the 20th anniversary of his passing. And I will be part of it too.

Iseler helped to found the Festival Singers of Toronto in 1954, and conducted them until 1978. In 1968 they became the Festival Singers of Canada, and also the professional core of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which Iseler had conducted since 1964. The high standard of performance that Iseler achieved drew notice from no less a celebrity than composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), who recorded a number of his works with the Festival Singers of Canada in the early 1960s.

Iseler was a champion of Canadian music, and throughout his career he commissioned and performed numerous works by Canadian composers. By the time he founded the Elmer Iseler Singers in 1979, the commissioning of original Canadian works had become a cornerstone of Iseler’s artistic mindset. The Elmer Iseler Singers Choral Series of published choral works contained hundreds of works, 90 per cent of them by Canadian composers. Iseler’s spirit of embracing Canadian choral music inspired Lydia Adams, the current artistic director of the choir, and Jessie Iseler, Elmer’s widow and the choir’s general manager, to shape the April 14 tribute program with Canadian music to celebrate Iseler’s legacy. For all those reasons, when they invited me to host the event I did not hesitate to accept.

The premiere of a major new work by British Columbia composer Imant Raminsh (b. 1943) headlines the tribute concert. Raminsh told me that a number of years ago Lydia Adams had approached him to discuss the creation of a major new work to celebrate both the legacy of Elmer Iseler, as well as the occasion of Canada’s 150th year. Thanks to a private donation from Elizabeth DeBoer and Ross Redfern, the Elmer Iseler Singers were able to commission the large-scale work, titled The Beauty of Dissonance, the Beauty of Strength, which runs over 40 minutes, in eight movements. Raminsh took two years to gather poetry from all the regions of Canada; he told me that he and Iseler shared a love for the Canadian landscape, and this shared passion informed the design of the new work. The two men had met in the 1960s at the University of Toronto. Iseler saw the score to Raminsh’s Ave verum corpus, liked it and took it into his repertoire, the first of several Raminsh works he championed.

Imant Ranish in his studio at the Vernon Community Music School - photo: Parker Crook/Vernon Morning StarThe title of the new work comes from its central movement, which uses a poem by Montreal poet Arthur James Marshall Smith (1902–1980) called The Lonely Land, a depiction of the Canadian Shield inspired by a 1926 Group of Seven exhibition. Raminsh shared with me that he grew up the son of a forester, whom he described as, “an amateur painter of some accomplishment.” His father was fond of the approach of the Group of Seven landscape painters, and Raminsh recalls that the many paintings by his father adorning his family’s home showed a strong affinity with this style.

This early exposure to landscape painting left a deep impression on Raminsh. His concept for this new work was to reflect the many regions of Canada, which led him to poets such as Newfoundland’s Agnes Walsh (b. 1950); Milton Acorn (1923–1986) of P.E.I.; Quebecer Anne Hébert (1916–2000); Barbara Klar (b. 1966) from Saskatoon; Frederick George Scott (1861–1944), known as the Poet of the Laurentians; English-born Vancouverite, Marjorie Pickthall (1883–1922); and Mohawk-English writer and stage performer, Pauline Johnson (1861–1913). The work’s eight movements are highly contrasting in mood and temperament, appropriate to the range of the poetry. The choir is accompanied by an instrumental ensemble that includes flutist Robert Aitken and clarinetist James Campbell.

So what was it about Elmer Iseler that made him unique among choral conductors? In preparation for the upcoming concert, I asked a number of current and past members of his choirs for their insights and memories.

Current artistic director Lydia Adams remembers how after returning from England, studying at the Royal College of Music and the National Opera Studio, and having learned so much from Sir David Willcocks (1919–2015), “it was more than interesting to find myself working with Elmer and his marvellous choir. As the pianist for the Elmer Iseler Singers, I was able to watch, listen and discover how he was able to make magic with sound, and I watched as he crafted the sound to reflect the music. Everything was always connected to the text and the music reflecting that text. Nothing was ever sung in an ordinary manner. Every musical moment had a purpose and a musical and emotional intent. Elmer lived in a rarified space of creating magic with sound, and he inspired so many of us to do the same. How fortunate we were!”

Robert Missen, who sang in all of Iseler’s professional choirs and who serves as the Elmer Iseler Singers’ artist representative, also commented on Iseler’s craftsmanship. “His rehearsal techniques were second to none, his ear unerring,” he writes. “On the road he would nimbly make adjustments to turn unfamiliar venues into as congenial a choral acoustic as possible. A consummate showman, he created programs that appealed to a broad range of audiences. He would always include a huge proportion of Canadian works, including popular folksong arrangements such as Song for the Mira.” By the time of his death in 1998, writes Missen, Iseler had garnered high praise from some of the world’s most distinguished choral eminences, including Britain’s Sir David Willcocks, Estonia’s Tõnu Kaljuste and America’s Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis. “Canada is a major force on the contemporary international choral scene thanks in no small part to Elmer Iseler.”

Maggie McCoy, a student of Iseler and now the director of marketing for the Ottawa Choral Society, remembers Iseler’s talent as a teacher. “Elmer Iseler was possibly the most important influence on, not just my musical education, but on my entire way of seeing the world,” she says. “He was a kindly but challenging teacher who taught his students to seek beauty... in music, in literature, in art, in the heavens, and most importantly, in the small miracles of the natural world. I don’t really know who I would have become if I had not met him as a young person. He opened my eyes and my mind.”

Stephen Powell, a tenor in the Elmer Iseler Singers from 1991 to 2005, says this: “Interpretively, Elmer was a man of the big phrase, and by phrase I don’t mean notes simply linked together, but rather an overarching musical concept encompassing the entire musical content. ‘No two notes,’ he said, ‘should ever sound the same.’ Powell recalls how in the spring of 1997, shortly after his return from brain surgery, “Elmer was rehearsing with us Healey Willan’s short motet Who is she that ascendeth? which begins with three 4/4 bars scored for double soprano and alto. As he worked on this section repeating it several times, I realized that every beat in every bar was laden with purpose and meaning. The master was back.

“For me, Elmer was one of the greats and I’m glad to have worked with him so closely. Beneath his musical proficiency there was passion, warmth, commitment and meaning, all providing a musical outlook which I could relate to strongly and which influences me to this day.”

Jean Stilwell sang in the Festival Singers under Iseler, along with her mother, Margaret Stilwell. Jean was 18 years old at the time. “I’d had approximately ten voice lessons. I sang for Elmer with a mind to sing in the Mendelssohn Choir. Instead he invited me to sing with the Festival Singers, which was the professional nucleus of the Mendelssohn Choir,” Jean says. “It was a great honour for me. The greatest joy was sitting beside my mother making beautiful music together for seven years. We made up the second alto section. She taught me so much. I expect Elmer knew she would make sure I was well prepared for rehearsals and concerts. The first piece we worked on was Bach’s cantata Lobet den Herrn. Elmer did a fabulous job preparing us to perform it. His attention to detail and musical expression was such a joy of which to be a part.”

Conductor David Christiani was artistic director and choirmaster of the St.-Lambert Choral Society in Quebec for 35 years and remembers [Iseler] talking a bit about airplane travel. “[It] surprised me, knowing how nervous it made him to travel that way,” Christiani recalls. “He told us that when the planes are thundering down the runway for takeoff, at one point the pilot tells the control tower, ‘We are committed’ when the wheels are about to leave the ground and the plane enters into full flight. He said that was the kind of singing he wanted to hear in the music we performed. It is that kind of commitment that has always marked our performances, be it by the Festival Singers or the Iseler Singers and it is that committed singing that …o, Lydia [Adams] and Jessie [Iseler], are keeping alive today.

“I remember all too clearly that, when he passed into heaven far too soon 20 years ago, that great man’s spirit renewed that flame in me as a conductor. Suddenly everything that I did in music became that much more in earnest and that much more committed. Long may it inflame the singers and conductors of tomorrow to remember and preserve his legacy.”

And finally, Carol and Brad Ratzlaff both sang for Iseler, and both also became choral conductors. Carol Ratzlaff remembers: “Brad and I spent the first years of our marriage in EIS with Elmer conducting, 1985 to 1988. These years were a gift which we still treasure. They were busy touring years and offered rich musical experiences which were diverse and challenging. Elmer has had a profound effect on our music-making at every level. His steadfast commitment to and belief in the choral art as an essential part of life has unceasingly inspired my work. I would say that my own sense of calling and unswerving commitment is, in part, due to my musical roots as a very young singer and conductor with Elmer. He had a singularity of purpose, was passionate and stubborn beyond anyone I had met. That awakened something in me, perhaps a sense of calling. I know that Elmer would be proud of our work in VIVA! Youth Singers. He was so supportive of my teaching career, and always interested in what Brad and I were creating. We miss him.”

In addition to the new Raminsh work, “Joyful Sounds, a Tribute to Elmer Iseler, 1927–1998” also includes music by Canadian composers Srul Irving Glick, Ruth Watson Henderson and Healey Willan, and Elmer Iseler’s own adaptation of the plainchant, King of Glory. The J.S. Bach motet, Lobet den Herrn completes the program, which also features a video presentation of highlights from Elmer Iseler’s career, assembled by Edward Mock.

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

Aline Homzy bannerAline HomzyIn the United States in the 1970s, the concept of the musical bitch was big. There was the Rolling Stones’ recording Bitch from 1971; David Bowie’s Queen Bitch from later that year; and Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back in 1974. And, perhaps most importantly, there was the precursor to them all: Miles Davis’ 1970 release Bitches Brew, a jazz-rock album that would eventually garner seminal status in the world of improvised music.

According to musicologist Gary Tomlinson, Davis’ album title referred to the skill of the musicians themselves – best-of-the-best improvisers, brought together for the recording. And though 1970 was coincidentally the same year that Jo Freeman published her feminist BITCH Manifesto (seminal itself, in other circles), the album’s connection to “bitch” as a gendered term was supposedly just that – coincidental.

These words have weight, though – and as they go in and out of vogue, the connotations they carry change in the process. So when violinist Aline Homzy submitted an application to this year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival Discovery Series for a project called “The Smith Sessions presents: Bitches Brew,” she had a lot of musical and linguistic history to reckon with. And when her application was selected, with a concert of the same name slotted for this April 28 at the Canadian Music Centre’s Chalmers House in Toronto, she knew it would be a starting point for something new.

“Bitches Brew” is a quadruple-bill show, featuring four different women-led ensembles. With groups fronted by Homzy, flutist Anh Phung, bassist Emma Smith and drummer/percussionist Magdelys Savigne, the concert is Homzy’s 21st-century take on what it means to equate “bitch” with musical talent, and on how our community thinks about musical artistry today. Same name, new vibe – in a very good way.

“Toronto needs this”

The project comes to Toronto via Edinburgh, from a concert series of the same name run by bassist Emma Smith. On her website, Smith writes that her Bitches Brew sessions are a response “to the eternal assumption that the only woman in the band must be the singer” – a way of highlighting local Edinburgh talent while confronting stereotypes that women often face in improvised music. After playing on one of Smith’s sessions in August 2017, Homzy started to talk with Smith about bringing the series to Canada. When the applications opened for the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival Discovery Series – a concert series that gives Jazz Fest branding and support to innovative local projects – the timing felt right.

On April 28, Homzy and Smith will play a violin/bass duo, featuring some of Smith’s compositions; flutist Anh Phung will improvise with bassist Alan Mackie, in their duo project HaiRbraIN; Magdelys Savigne will lead a trio project, singing and playing percussion alongside Elizabeth Rodriguez (violin and vocals) and Danae Olano (piano); and Homzy will bring her own band, Aline Homzy’s étoile magique, where she’ll be joined by Chris Pruden (piano), Daniel Fortin (bass) and Thom Gill (guitar).

At her Toronto apartment last week, Homzy spoke about how for her, this project came out of a feeling of something lacking in the local jazz ecosystem – and about wanting to bring it to light.

“I told Emma, ‘We have to do this in Toronto. Toronto needs this,’” she says. “Normalizing the roles of women in bandleader positions. As a student, I felt like that was not at all present in school. I don’t think there’s a single full-time woman professor at U of T [in Jazz Studies]; I think there are only a couple at Humber. It’s important for the community for students – women students – to see that it’s possible. And also to provide role models for younger people as well, however they identify… it’s important for them to have a diverse roster of people who are successfully doing what they do, and who are really good at it.”

Having gender-diverse leadership is important for any industry, but it can be particularly crucial in fields like the performing arts, where so much of what happens onstage is guided by performers’ offstage social relationships. In a 2013 article for NewMusicBox, Ellen McSweeney talks about how women performers often pay a hidden “likability tax” when they come off as too self-promoting, assertive, or success-oriented. And in an ensemble situation, where performers rely on having both a supportive fan base and a network of collaborators to survive, being seen as unlikable can carry a high cost.

“I’m doing ‘bitch’ in quotations right now, because I understand it’s a swear word as well,” says Homzy when she explains the project. “But for us, it’s reclaiming that word – especially as a woman leader, when women often get called that name for being too bossy.”

It’s a mentality that impacts how women musicians operate within jazz culture – and one that extends to the way that they perform. In his book Swingin’ the Dream, Lewis Erenberg writes about how during the 1940s, women musicians were often seen as temporary, annoying replacements for the men who went to war – and that the prevailing opinion was that they should either act like “good girls” or “play like men.” Seventy-five years later, Homzy still encounters that attitude in the field.

“I think one reason why a lot of women don’t show up to jam sessions is because you feel like you really have to prove yourself,” she says. “Everyone feels intimidated by that situation, but as a woman, it’s like – doubly that. And some people – some guys – will see a woman come in and on purpose count in the hardest tune, really fast, because they want to see you fail. It’s really discouraging to witness.

“It becomes about [whether] you’re able to, we say, ‘Hang with the guys,’” she continues. “If you can ‘keep up’ then it’s like you’re considered ‘ok’ in the guys’ books. I think that some women take that position: ‘I’m like one of the guys.’ And I think it’s really dangerous. I’ve been in that situation too, where I’ve been like ‘I feel like the guys are accepting me.’ You soon realize that there are sometimes ulterior motives for that, which are quite disturbing.”

Homzy says that it’s a particularly big problem for younger women artists who are early-career or still in school, because it can make it difficult for them to realize their worth. “It took a lot of work for me to realize that wanting to be in the ‘boys club’ was a really toxic way to think about myself,” she says. “I feel like it’s hard to know how good you are, when you first come out of school. As a female instrumentalist, you’re always told, ‘Play more like this,’ or relating to my instrument, ‘Play more like a saxophone, play more like a horn.’ [I had to] come out of school and realize, no – that’s not what I’m doing. I’m a violinist, this is my sound and this is my style.

“You [begin to] realize that sometimes you’re maybe even better than some of your male colleagues – which is interesting, because a lot of male colleagues tend to think that they’re better than you,” she adds. “And it can be really uncomfortable, because [those colleagues] really want to take over – in conversations, and in music.”

Being heard

For Homzy, that gendered feeling of being unheard has particular amplifications within the jazz world as a whole. It’s a big part of why she chose the Canadian Music Centre – a space not often seen as a jazz venue, and a first for the TD Toronto Jazz Festival – for this show.

“Part of the reason that I applied for this project was that I wanted it to be at a venue that wasn’t just a bar or a club,” she explains. “I wanted it to be in a ‘listening room,’ where people listen and don’t talk – where we’re all there to listen to the music. All four of us write original music and we all consider ourselves artists. I wanted to provide a place to play where people are going to listen, as opposed to talking over you.”

I ask if there are many spaces in Toronto like that for jazz; she says there aren’t.

She mentions that she came to the violin from a classical background, and that the feeling of being undervalued as an artist is a chronic issue in the non-classical world. From her perspective, the difference is night and day.

“We’re just not taken as seriously,” she says. “You see it with the way we get paid. You see it with how people think it’s ok to talk over what you’re doing [at any point]. I want to bridge that gap, and show people that improvised music can be – and is – really awesome.”

Clockwise from top left: Aline Homzy (violin), Emma Smith (bass), Anh Phung (flute), and Magdelys Savigne (drums/percussion)‘Women’s music’

In December, The New York Times published an article claiming that 2017 was a “year of reckoning” for women in jazz – a time when we saw a number of standout women instrumentalists presenting projects that were bold, musically inventive, and squarely their own. It’s an idea that shouldn’t be that shocking – but Homzy talks about how even today, people seem to have a hard time coming around to the idea of women authorship in music.

“The info about this project is all there. But so many people have seen it and asked me, ‘Wow, so are you playing the whole Bitches Brew Miles Davis album?’” she laughs. “It’s funny, but also kind of disappointing in some way. Because they completely missed the point.”

Still, Homzy is dedicated to lifting up the work of women creators. Not because there’s anything inherently distinctive about their music – far from it – but because there’s a lot of valid experience and perspective there. And when our music doesn’t represent the demographics of our communities, that perspective, and the power and beauty that go along with it, is something we miss out on.

“I realized, after so many years: I’d been doing these things, playing or writing-wise – not specifically because I wanted to please other musicians, but because I’d been influenced by that [oppression],” she says. “And now, I’m writing music in a way that is influenced by those experiences. We’ve experienced different challenges; I think that makes a lot of women’s music sound unique and different.”

That 2017 New York Times article references the same thing. “There’s nothing to suggest that these...musicians expressed themselves in any particular way because of their gender,” it reads, “but what we know is that until recently they might not have been in a position to stand up onstage alone, addressing the audience with generosity and informality, empowering the room.” As Homzy seems to attest, that’s its own rare and powerful thing – and an experience that, without question, is worth seeking.

“The Smith Sessions presents: Bitches Brew,” featuring Aline Homzy, Emma Smith, Anh Phung and Magdelys Sevigne, will be presented on April 28 at the Canadian Music Centre’s Chalmers House in Toronto, as part of the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival Discovery Series. The event will also be livestreamed by the Canadian Music Centre, at

Sara Constant is a flutist and music writer based in Toronto, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be reached at

St. Michaels CathedralIt happens every time after the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah. There are always audience members in tears – profoundly affected by the art and majesty of the music. There are not many other major works that have this effect, and probably none that are so beloved in Toronto. St. Michael’s Choir School performs Parts II and III of Messiah for Easter 2018, 

having performed Part I during Christmastime 2017.

There’s a long European choral history of all-male choirs, commonly known as boy’s and men’s choirs. They’re a common feature in many churches and boys’ schools in Europe, for example in the Anglican tradition in the UK. They are not common in Canada, but a handful of Canadian boys’ and men’s choirs still exist. Few, anywhere, have such a storied history as St. Michael’s Choir School in downtown Toronto. Adjacent to the head of the Archdiocese of Toronto – St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica – St. Mike’s Choir School has been generating high-quality musicians since 1937.

Peter Mahon, interim choir head at St. Mike’s, sat down with me over the March break to talk through their upcoming Messiah performance. I’m no stranger to Messiah myself, as a singer with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir whose annual performances in Roy Thomson Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra draw well over 8000 patrons over a week-long run. Mahon is also no stranger to the work as a singer: a veteran countertenor, he sings in the alto section of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, whose own annual Messiah run reaches about 5000 patrons and includes the incomparable “Sing-Along Messiah” at Massey Hall.

Messiah is a big work, both technically challenging and requiring a high level of artistry. So, perhaps not surprisingly, as far as Mahon knows, the work has never been performed by the school. “It’s very easy in a place like St. Michael’s Choir School to only focus on what you do well,” says Mahon. “These guys have to basically do a performance every week, preparing for a mass; four or five pieces of music, and the older boys, at least two pieces of chant. You can focus on that mass preparation, and there’s loads of work to do.” Mahon relishes the challenge of introducing this beloved Toronto tradition to the choristers of St. Mike’s. “It’s nice to have a change of pace. I think they’re finding it very refreshing.”

The first half of Messiah, performed by the school this past Christmas, has six chorales that are conventionally performed. Parts II and III have about double that amount depending on cuts or additions. Unlike the Christmas performance, which numbered over 160 choristers, this time Mahon has assembled a smaller set of students, around 60, to present the work. The boys had to audition to perform in this concert. Any wrangling of children aged 10 to 17 is inherently challenging and Mahon appreciates that for this concert the boys want to be there, rather than have to be there.

Andrew Walker, an alumnus of the St. Michael’s Choir school program, returns as one of the two tenor leads at the core of the tenor section. Other Tafelmusik professionals joining in are Richard Whittall and Simon Honeyman on countertenor/alto; Paul Jeffrey, joining Walker on tenor; and Joel Allison and Keith Lam on bass. All of them are joined by the all-boy treble line on soprano. Whittall and Honeyman share the alto solos and Michael Colvin joins as tenor soloist. The only female-identified voice will be Meredith Hall as soprano soloist.

“I had never done Messiah before I did it with St. James Cathedral,” says Walker, joining me at a café before a Toronto Mendelssohn Choir rehearsal. He was introduced to the piece after leaving St. Mike’s. “We never did a major work or oratorio while I was there. It was always about providing music for the Cathedral. Even when we did our major concerts for Christmas or the spring or fall, it was pretty much always motets.”

Walker reflects on the power of being able to perform a work like Messiah: “I think it’s incredibly difficult to know what it really feels like until you have done it. In Grade 5, I was in intermediate choir. It’s the first year you start providing the music at the cathedral. But in Grade 5, to learn this music … Messiah is a great piece of repertoire to sink your teeth into, but it’s a big work to take on as one of the first pieces of music in just the first ten years of your life. It’s exceptional. It’s a good challenge and a testament to the teaching staff, Peter, Teri (Dunn), and Maria (Conkey).”

Mahon has added another challenge for the choir in this Messiah, by emphasizing Baroque interpretation and aspects of Baroque singing style: spacing between notes to give the music lightness and energy; more articulation on specific notes and less on others, to drive musical phrasing; and dynamic phrasing that tapers off at the end, appropriate to the fugal counterpoint common at the time.

“They aren’t doing badly on the Baroque interpretation – but it all takes some getting used to,” Mahon says. They are used to Palestrina and songs like that, he explains, but the great sweeping sounds of Renaissance music are dissimilar to the technical precision and nuanced phrasing of equal length notes that he is asking for here. After all, these choristers are being asked to acquire a cultural feeling for Baroque music that usually takes years to master.

Peter Mahon conducting the SMCS choristers in GermanyThe fact that these boys are singing with an orchestra is already in itself exciting,” says Walker. “That a 13-year-old boy is being introduced to Baroque and period music is really something, and part of the mandate of the school. I think if you’re educating a new generation of singers, knowing about Baroque pitch is important.”

As a guide to matters of interpretation, Mahon has referred the boys to the Tafelmusik recording of Messiah, a close match to what he’s looking for. “It takes a little longer to teach them the music,” he says. “Getting them to do the style and actually understanding how to sing a Baroque phrase rather than a Renaissance phrase is quite hard.” It helps that Mahon himself led the larger contingent of choristers in the Christmastime 2017 performance of Part I so they are not entirely new to the art he’s looking for.

The boys are talented and excited, ready to delve into the work. They have been rehearsing since January. “It’s quite something,” says Mahon. “They’re so motivated, they know the music. In the fall, they auditioned with For Unto Us a Child is Born. This time around they auditioned with All We Like Sheep.” Walker is impressed to hear that the boys auditioned on that chorale: many singers consider the vocal runs in All We Like Sheep amongst the hardest sections of music in the entire score.

Walker reminisces about his time being back at St. Mike’s and what he would have felt like getting a work like Messiah to perform and having to audition. “I switched from being a treble in about Grade 8,” he says. “You are still a red jacket at that point. You get your blue jacket when you enter high school. At age 13, that these boys are actively wanting to sing this piece, and on top of that, can, is an incredible idea. It bodes well for the future of the choral scene in Toronto. What an honour it is to sing with a group of musicians and create this art together. The music lends itself to excellence, and to a really good show, to creating something magical. There are some moments in the piece that are life changing, and I don’t use that term lightly. What an amazing moment; how magical and momentous it is.”

St. Michael’s Choir School presents Handel’s Messiah Parts II and III with conductor Peter Mahon; Meredith Hall (soprano); Richard Whittall and Simon Honeyman (alto); Michael Colvin and Andrew Walker (tenor); Joel Allison and Keith Lam (bass); and a Baroque orchestra, on Saturday, April 14 at 7:30pm at St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto.

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