Ben SteinThe specific concert that sparked this conversation takes place Sunday, November 19, 2017, in the Music at Metropolitan concert series at Metropolitan United Church, one of a cluster of major downtown religious edifices that gave Toronto’s Church Street its name. The Met United congregation will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018. This particular concert celebrates music that goes back 200 years before that, but in an intriguingly modern way.

Titled “Jazz Standards of the Seventeenth Century,” it promises “ground basses, lute songs and madrigals sung and played with the freedom, invention and unpredictability of modern club performers” and is the brainchild of lutenist Ben Stein. Under the rubric “Musicians on the Edge,” it features Stein on lutes along with the Rezonance Baroque Ensemble (Rezan Onen-Lapointe, violin; and Dave Podgorski, harpsichord), along with co-conspirators Emily Klassen, soprano; Charles Davidson, tenor; and Erika Nielsen, cello.

A few days after our initial discussion, Stein got in touch, balking at the idea being characterized as his “brainchild.” “I hope what I’ve written doesn’t give the impression that this is a new thing I’ve come up with. If anything, I’m late to the program. There are a good number of [early music] groups building programs and ensembles around improv – but they are European for the most part. There are a few ensembles in the USA, and very little in Canada, which is why I’m pushing for it. And while places like the RCM are starting to add these elements, in my opinion they start too late. That was the key with the Neapolitans and their antecedents – it was built into early training. … Also we are being a bit liberal with the 17th century thing in the title; we`ve got a few bits of 18th- and 16th-century rep as well. It`s more about looking at the forms that musicians were aware of – ground basses, dances – that you can find in different centuries, though they evolved and changed during that time. …”

But let’s start at the beginning.

WN: So, how, why, when did you propose this idea to Pat Wright [Patricia Wright, music director at Met United]?

BS: Last year I presented a concert called “The Mystery of the Partimento” as part of the Music at Met series. It got a very good response from audience members who didn’t know quite what to expect, because no one knows what a partimento is. I didn’t until recently, even though I’d been playing early music for a number of years.

And what is it?

Essentially a bass line over which musicians were expected to extemporize melodies. Partimenti were a central element of Italian Baroque and galant music training, especially in the Neapolitan conservatories that produced some of the most popular performers and composers of that era. They resemble basso continuo accompaniment lines, but they weren’t just for chord harmonization. You were expected to use partimenti to create interesting melodies, and the Italians were renowned for their mastery of this skill.

Seeing how much people enjoyed having classical extemporization taking place before their eyes, I thought: if I was going to play a couple of rock or jazz sets for a club gig, I’d pick music I Iiked, find some musicians I was comfortable with and jam on the chord changes. Why can’t I do the same with classical repertoire I enjoy, playing melodic variations in a historically informed manner? So my colleagues and I are going to treat songs and madrigals, as well as partimenti and ground basses, as jumping-off points for improvisation, and no two renditions will be the same from rehearsal to concert.

Patricia Wright regularly programs early music at concerts and church services … The Rezonance Baroque Ensemble are actually Met’s artists-in-residence this year, playing at church services throughout the year, and also the featured ensemble for the Marg and Jim Norquay Celebration Concert in April 2018 – I’ll be joining them and other players for a collaboration/jam on Baroque concertos and sonatas. I’m planning to play the Vivaldi Lute Concerto in D, improvising on the the famous Adagio movement with the freedom of a player of the era.

I remember Jim Galloway, our long-time Jazz Notes columnist once remarking, in a column significantly on the topic of how to listen to jazz, saying (very loosely paraphrased), words to the effect of “If you want to find the structure and the beat listen to the bass, not the drums, It’s all built from that.” So when I saw this listing I immediately thought “Aha, the man with the lutes, especially the theorbo, must have had something central to do with this.” Is Renaissance/Baroque continuo as backline the way the word is used in a jazz context a far-fetched idea?

Jim was right! It really is “all about the bass.” Baroque and Renaissance musicians were aware at all times of the intervallic relationship between bass and treble voices. Beginner sight-singing exercises in the Neapolitan conservatories were not one-voice melodies, but two-voice duets, with the vocal line  accompanied by a maestro or more experienced students. Musicians learned to improvise in melodic counterpoint to bass lines. They even had a name for musicians who possessed this skill:  contrapuntisti. But contrapuntal knowledge is not fostered effectively in modern training; it’s reserved for advanced theory class, which is the worst place for it. So yes, I agree – if you truly want to understand a melody, play the bass line first! That  should be de rigueur for all instrumentalists and singers.

“Freedom, invention, unpredictability.” These are the words chosen in the Music at Metropolitan release to try to capture the jazzy essence of the concert. But often in the jazz context the platform for those things working is the strong sense the players, and at best their audiences, have of the structures that allow for the apparent spontaneity of the “improvisations.” How far would you push the comparison in terms of the two musics structurally  and in terms of the kinds of spontaneous on-the-spot negotiation that will take place among the players on stage during the performance? And would you say a jazz-lover in the audience might even have an edge over a typical period music aficionado, in terms of recognizing what is taking place?

Audiences of the Baroque court were aficionados, quite similar to the denizens of the jazz club. They were very aware of the components of composition – dance forms, ground basses, structural elements that recurred from composer to composer – and they expected invention and variation. I’ve found that classical audiences really enjoy hearing a model – a ground bass, madrigal or partimento – and then having a musician vary it before their eyes, composing on the fly. It’s as fun and engaging as watching a jazz musician take a solo, and rarer than it should be in early music performance, especially in North America.

So, problems of tuning aside, do you see the potential for an ensemble like yours, which is becoming comfortable with working from charts, actually rocking out with a jazz quartet capable of reading a Pergolesi oboe concerto score so you have a text to work with?

I am very interested in any kind of stylistic interaction that gets people challenging their preconceptions about how to play and sing - and most crucially, how to listen to music. I think classical musicians have a lot to learn from the jazz approach. And harmonically and structurally, there’s a lot more connection between rock, folk and early music repertoire than people understand or acknowledge. I’ve played Bach and 12-bar blues; Cole Porter and Caccini. I see more similarities than differences in them all. And I like to think of a score as something to be adventuresome with, to alter and vary, rather than to execute like a script within strict parameters. I’m advocating an approach that is serious, but not solemn; historically informed, but not historically constrained; and respectful, but not reverent towards the written score. If I feel like interrupting a composed set of variations to add my own,  I’m going to do it – and encourage others to do the same.

So, all going well, what happen from here?

I’d simply like for the skill of improvisation to be more widespread among classically trained players.  Why stop at the Baroque era? What if young musicians were given the tools and skills to improvise in a Classical or Romantic style? For that to happen, it’s got to be bred in the bone from the beginning of training, which means that our current approach has to be rethought. Even with various pedagogical attempts to develop creativity and stronger aural skills, we’re still very focused on correct execution of the written score as a primary goal, to the exclusion of all else. Score reading is a professional necessity, of course – but increasingly, so is improvisation. Baroque musicians could do both, and jazz musicians can do both, so it’s time for us to get with the program! The Neapolitans learned this approach from the very start of their training. Their beginner drills were simple, but the effect of them on young musicians’ ability to listen and create was profound.

This pushes your musical buttons, I see!

I’m a bit evangelical about pushing this, for sure, especially in Canada. It’s happening elsewhere, and has been for a while, but it’s not at all prevalent here. Very few people know about partimenti, and I’ve met players from all over the world who struggle to improvise Anyhow, ranting again! I could add that there’s a terrific website about partimenti, at Northwestern U which might entice people to have a look. Just google “Gjerdingen Partimenti” and you’ll find it. The guy who did it is one of the top two researchers in this area.

Better still, come on Sunday, November 19. Hopefully you’ll hear what I mean.

David Perlman can be reached at

Daniela Nardi - photo by Danilo UrsiniIt was October 11 when I got in touch with Daniela Nardi, newly appointed artistic and executive director of the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture Arts Media and Education, less than a five-minute walk north of the Bathurst/Bloor subway station.

Coincidentally, October 11 was also the opening day of the 12th edition of the Music Gallery’s X Avant New Music Festival, which would, in other years, have had nothing to do with this story, because it would have been mostly presented at the Music Gallery’s usual home at the Church of St. George the Martyr on John Street, just south of Grange Park. This season, though, adjacent condo construction woes are, literally, shaking the Music Gallery to its foundations, leaving the Gallery and its partners scrambling for alternative venues.

Now it seems that 918 Bathurst has emerged as the answer to at least some of their prayers. As David Dacks, artistic director of the Music Gallery says: “We are beyond excited to present the majority of the [XAvant] festival in the beautiful main hall of 918 Bathurst ... The Centre has been a welcome new partner in helping us to stage the festival with a similar sense of occasion as our audiences have come to expect from the [St. George the Martyr] church environment.”

I started out my conversation with Daniela Nardi by asking what she thinks the qualities of 918 are that Dacks was referring to when he said “similar sense of occasion.”

“There are many possible layers to that” she replied,”the first being physical. That is, the music events presented at St. George the Martyr certainly had a vibe – not just another concert hall or club setting but a unique space. Combined with the Music Gallery’s top-notch sensibilities for presenting concerts, the musical experience was a special one, a particular one, unlike any other concert experience. And this is the same for 918 Bathurst. Our space is an ex-Buddhist temple, with its A-frame roof, all the wood, midcentury detailing. There is no other space like it in the city hence the musical experience created in this space is special, is unique. And the acoustics to boot are truly wonderful. Above all, though I think it has to do with a similar sensibility when it comes to the value in presenting quality. Both the Music Gallery and 918 Bathurst adhere to this sensibility as a mantra; coming to things from the same viewpoint allows us to be in sync, work together seamlessly in order to create the kinds of experiences we believe to be memorable and substantive.”

WN: The first time I became aware of 918 Bathurst as a venue was back in March 2012 when b current and Theatre Archipelago brought Nicole Brooks’ Obeah Opera there for its first workshop production. I don’t even know how long before that the Centre was already a going concern. Even since then, to be honest, it’s been on my radar more than my itinerary, despite the range of ensembles and presenters who feature in these pages who’ve used it, or are planning to – Ensemble Polaris, Afiara Quartet, TorQ Percussion, Opera 5, Tafelmusik, Toronto Creative Music Lab, Music Gallery, Teo Milea ... It seems like it still remains for many (artists and audiences), one of those “best kept secret” places – a “How come I never knew about this place” kind of thing. Fair comment?

DN: Absolutely a fair comment. It is Toronto’s best kept secret, it is a gem of a space and it is pretty remarkable that not enough people know about it. I hope to change that. The space is like no other space in the city and it is the perfect size. You can seat 200, it is intimate, the acoustics are great. We have a piano thanks to the Music Gallery and hopefully going forward with our partnership, 918 will house the other piano the Music Gallery owns. It is easily accessible by subway, part of the downtown core, part of the Bloor Street Culture Corridor. And this is just the start. But to go back to the question, I believe that not enough has been done to promote this space as a performance space. It has been a great staple for the community that surrounds it and has survived by word of mouth. Given its size and architecture, it is most suitable for most arts/music presenters in the city.  Considering the programming, we would like to create, as well as to continue, our partnerships and collaborations, we hope to demonstrate the fact that 918 is a unique cultural hub, a cultural sanctuary if you will, a cultural destination.

Say more about the “sanctuary” aspect. There’s the main hall (which was literally a sanctuary in the spiritual sense). And what else?

Yes, the Great Hall was used as a Buddhist temple – and you can still feel the good vibes. But we do have two smaller skylit rooms which we call the SunRoom and StarRoom which are primarily used for gallery showings, installations, also good for smaller more intimate concerts, meetings. We also have a slew of rooms in our lower level which are great for classes and meetings, a and fully equipped kitchen suitable for catering of events.

“Artistic and executive director” is your official title and you’re just starting in that role, right? So I am wondering to what extent you were aware of the Centre yourself as an artist, prior to applying for the position?

Yes I just started in July, then went off to Edinburgh to perform at Fringe so really I haven’t even had my first 100 days yet! But on the artist side of things, yes I did know about the space, had been in it a few times for other performances and was quite enamoured with it. Never did I think I’d end up here doing what I am doing.

Are the “executive” and “artistic” challenges ahead distinct and different from each other in your own mind at this point? Which ones wake you up in the middle of the night?

The two roles are distinct and different from one another. Executive, to me, is about managing all the moving parts which make the facility function: from day-to-day, nitty-gritty matters to more big-picture items like fundraising, strategic planning and marketing. This role is about making the venue go so that the art can soar.

The artistic director role is where my artist side can be creative, where I get to play. Discovering and showcasing the creators, thought-leaders and visionaries of our city is truly inspiring and satisfying. I say satisfying because being an artist myself, I am grateful for the opportunity to give other artists a space to do their thing and as a result, contribute to Toronto’s cultural landscape.

What keeps me up at night more are the items on the executive side of the checklist. Now being in this role, I can understand how presenters would talk about their bottom line. There truly is one! I find myself, when I am talking to artists, saying things like “I still need to keep the lights on,” which shocks me at times, like a parent saying “Because I said so.” But this is the reality. I want to keep this space running, sustainable and viable so that all creators can do their thing – and how to do that? THAT keeps me up at night.

And why are you the right person for the job?

Why? Well, first I don’t see this as a job. I have been in the arts all my life. I bring love, passion and hard-earned wisdom to this role. My skills set comes from the school of hard knocks, not an MBA program (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I have a drive and truly a passion to showcase the arts. I am driven to give an audience an experience. Whether it is through my own shows as an artist or from presenting other inspiring creators, I am motivated by the desire to move an audience member, to give them a moment where they can suspend themselves, be present and have an experience like no other.

I have the impression that much of the artistic and musical  programming over the years has taken the form of the Centre being available to partner organizations (so mainly as a venue). But does 918 have plans for more events/series of your own?

Yes, I do have intentions of creating our own programming. 918 has not done that for some time. I see our programming as multidisciplinary, with strong emphasis on music. But as our tagline suggests: Where It All Happens. THAT is what I would like to see.

From art to theatre, music to dance, film to literature from all cultural groups, I want to see 918 be the place where it all can happen. I want 918’s reputation to be the place where people come to find out what is happening in the Toronto cultural landscape, what artistic and cultural contributions are being made. To be life-enhancing. Tall order perhaps but I’ll try.

Planning arts and culture in the city seems to fall into two camps: there are those who talk about big plans for “making Toronto into a real music city,” and those who think it is already one, and worry about “keeping it real” in the face of forces, economic, political, social, that weaken the existing social and cultural fabric. I’m interested in your own thoughts on this. Also, where 918 Bathurst fits in.

First and foremost, Toronto is an amazing music city. We are finally coming into our own. Developing a personality, a character. Having been born and raised in this city, I have seen it grow, shape, form itself. No more are we comparing ourselves or thinking ourselves less than our American colleagues. We have it going on – and we are proud. Finally.

How I believe 918 fits into “keeping it real” is by staying committed to quality. By staying committed to giving audiences what is good and not what is expected. The moment you lose sight of that commitment is the moment it all starts to fall apart, when you do start to fall prey to the forces.

Perhaps this all sounds like new-agey rhetoric but if you ask what does it take to keep things real, you will observe that it’s about being true to what one believes. And when one is committed to that, nothing can shake it loose.

Margaret Bárdos in Music für das Ende - Blake Hannahson

Claude Vivier

Nearly 35 years after Claude Vivier’s abrupt death, something about his musical spirit is in the ether.

In Vivier’s opera Kopernikus, a child named Agni, recently deceased, is revisited by what Vivier calls several “mystical figures borrowed from stories” – characters such as Merlin, Lewis Carroll, the Queen of the Night, a witch, a blind prophet – all of whom presumably would have been part of the child’s dream repertoire while alive. As she enters the afterlife, these characters gravitate around her, and she becomes the axis around which they revolve – she becomes, as Copernicus’s great discovery did, a new “centre of the universe.” Now, in the wake of a landmark performance of Kopernikus at the Banff Centre this summer by Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, a wave of Vivier’s music is about to pass through Toronto – such that Vivier himself is about to become, much like Agni, the main character in his own drama.

Along with Against the Grain’s production of Kopernikus at Banff, several other local groups will be presenting his music this season. On October 15, Esprit Orchestra will open their season with the Toronto premiere of his large orchestral work Siddartha. There will also be two performances of his string ensemble piece Zipangu: first with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in a show hosted by Soundstreams on October 16, and second in a concert co-presented by New Music Concerts and the RCM’s 21C Festival in the spring. Perhaps most unusually, from October 27 to November 4, Soundstreams is mounting a production called Musik für das Ende, a three-part theatre presentation of Vivier’s music based around his piece of the same name.

There’s no particular reason why these performances are all happening now – and when pressed, the various players involved all insist it’s a coincidence. But it seems less like chance and more like a convergence of like-minded feeling, around a man who many in Toronto’s new music community regarded as a mentor and a friend.

Vivier’s own life was a remarkable one. Born in 1948 in Montreal of unknown parents, Vivier was adopted at the age of three and brought up for the priesthood, before leaving the seminary and devoting his life to composition. Studying in Quebec and abroad – most notably in Germany with Karlheinz Stockhausen – Vivier’s works mirrored his personal life, always circling back to themes of death, ritual, loss, and a wild, sensual understanding of beauty. In a final disturbing parallel, his body was found in his Paris apartment in 1983 after picking up a young man at a local bar – murdered at the age of 34.

Vivier remains one of Canada’s best-known composers, but his works aren’t as frequently performed as one might expect – which makes this present-day convergence around him difficult to explain. Perhaps it’s because on the one hand, his work feels big – slow-moving, mythical soundworlds that have the spectre of death in them. Something about Vivier’s music still reads as monumental: Kopernikus was chosen as the piece to herald a new era of arts programming at the Banff Centre, Musik für das Ende is the keystone of Soundstreams’ 35th anniversary season, and Siddartha, on a concert for which Esprit (also turning 35) has enlisted 93 performers, is in that sense one of the biggest works that the orchestra has ever done.

But at the same time, there’s more to his music than that. Among the individuals involved in the upcoming concert programs of his music, those who knew him personally describe a singular, thoughtful, sometimes reckless man, with a type of music-making that was uniquely his own; those who know him only from his music say the same. Something about Vivier’s music, especially the music he created later in his life, is so independently crafted that it still sounds wholly inhabited by his voice. Something about his work, and the vibrant life that he drew from to create it, feels for many – even over three decades since his death – incredibly intimate, and intensely alive.

Alexina LouieComposer Alexina Louie clearly remembers the blow of Vivier’s death. “I was in Brussels having a premiere of a piece,” she recalls. “I had run into Claude on a street in Montreal, and he was excited because he’d just gotten a Canada Council grant to go to Paris to write. I’d said I was going to be in Brussels at that time and he said, ‘Well, why don’t we meet up [in Paris]? Just give me a call.’ So I was calling him from Brussels and the phone never made a connection. And that was the weekend that he died.”

She also remembers his friendship – visiting him whenever she was in Montreal, and him doing the same in Toronto. “We would talk about music – he had very strong ideas about what constituted good music and bad music, and of course we had little tussles about things,” she says. “But he was a very special person. [And] his tragic death hit our community really hard.”

Thinking back on his life and music, Louie describes a composer who was relentless – someone who stuck to his convictions, no matter what. “He took a lot of criticism for his music,” she explains. “It shifted from this European take to this soundworld that was uniquely his own, based on one melody line with colours that were built around it. Compared to what was going on in European art music at that time it was very simple…[But] now, all of these decades later, it’s that music that he wrote, that is so fascinating, exotic, unusual, that is now being embraced.”

“Not everyone likes Claude’s music,” she adds. “But it’s so strong, you can tell it’s his voice when you hear it.”

One of Louie’s major compositions from the year of Vivier’s death – a large ensemble piece titled Music for a Thousand Autumns, commissioned by Montreal’s Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) – was written, in part, for him. “I wrote two pieces [that year] that were quite important to me at that time,” says Louie. “One was Music for a Thousand Autumns; one was O Magnum Mysterium – in Memoriam Glenn Gould. And these premature deaths really made me reflect a lot about what it takes to be a creative artist. Because – it’s my experience anyway – that it takes every ounce of your being to create a piece that you feel worthy. And both of them did that. They lived life like that.

“I had just moved back to Canada in 1980, and I received a commission from Serge Garant [at SMCQ],” she continues. “I was working with these ideas of eternity and what lives on after the death of a person – and also the fear of writing a piece for Montreal, which at that time was a city where an outsider was not necessarily always embraced warmly. There’s a theme in the piece, Music for a Thousand Autumns, that I connect with Claude. It’s a very simple theme, and it’s got colouration around it, and it’s my call to Claude. I’m calling out to Claude: ‘I need inspiration for your town – I want to write a good piece, I want to write a worthy piece.’ I wrote it with him in mind.”

Louie’s partner Alex Pauk, the founder and director of Esprit Orchestra, was also a close friend of Vivier’s. Louie describes the climate in which she, Pauk and Vivier all came of age: one where no composers had immediate institutional support, and where they were all used to channelling their own determination to succeed. Pauk was president of the Canadian League of Composers at a time when Canadian orchestral music wasn’t being heard on Canadian stages, Louie explains. That was a big part of why he started Esprit. In those first years, without an administrative team or the resources one might expect from an orchestral leader, Esprit was based out of the living room of Pauk and Louie’s home.

In Esprit’s concert on October 15, titled “Eternal Light,” Vivier’s Siddartha is slotted between the music of two other composers. Compositionally, they seem to embody Vivier’s own past and future. Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), a work that combines elements of orchestral composition with Balinese gamelan, seems a predecessor to the fervour for Asian (particularly Indonesian) music prevalent during Vivier’s time. The other piece is a 2016 work titled Spacious Euphony by Christopher Goddard – a doctoral student at McGill studying under a colleague of Vivier’s, John Rea.

Esprit gave its first public concert in August of 1983, just months after Vivier’s death. In the years that followed, Esprit played plenty of Vivier’s music, but never Siddartha – for which now, Louie says, the timing is right.

“Alex knew he wanted to do this piece for a long time,” Louie says. “And it just never happened. But because it’s the 35th anniversary of Esprit, he said, ‘This is the time to actually do it.’”

“Because Alex found Claude’s music compelling, and worthy,” she adds. “And it just felt right.”

Lawrence Cherney - photo by Trevor HaldenbyLawrence Cherney, artistic director of Soundstreams, never knew Vivier personally – but from the moment he first saw his music years ago, he knew that it was something special. “Somehow, I had been given a copy of the manuscript of [Music für das Ende],” he says. “It was literally written in his hand. And every once in a while for a year or two, I’d pull this thing out and think, ‘What have we got here?’

“We began to think about producing it then,” he adds. “But quite honestly, in those early days, I think we had no idea what this was. For me, it was just an intuition that there was something.”

The production this month, created by Soundstreams around Vivier’s music, is in three parts. The first, featuring Québécois actor Alex Ivanovici, is an original monologue inspired by Vivier’s letters. The final section is the title piece: Ivanovici alongside ten singers in a staged version of Music für das Ende. And in the centre will be a performance of the uncanny, eight-minute work Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) – the last piece of music Vivier ever wrote.

“There’s this very eerie connection between what he wrote [and his life],” says Cherney. “Always this flirtation with life and death and beyond.”

This particular Soundstreams production has been a long time in the making – seven or eight years of planning, with rehearsals that have been going since August. “It’s immersive theatre, in a way that we’ve never really done before,” Cherney says. “I’m very proud of the things that we’ve done over the years and it isn’t about better or worse, but this is definitely different.”

Cherney describes how Musik für das Ende is structured: highly precisely, but with a lot that depends on interpretation. It was crafting that interpretation and developing it with the cast that proved to be one of the company’s biggest challenges. “It takes place in this twilight between theatre and music and opera...and it’s not any one of those, and yet it’s every one of them,” he says. “In terms of what a vocal ensemble can do, there’s a tremendous freedom in that.

“All that I can say about this is that I feel a little bit like what biographers must feel,” says Cherney. “The more I found out about this work, and about Claude, the more mysterious and the more intriguing it got. It’s not that I got close to him personally, but in a sense that mystery around the piece, and the depth of interpretation that we had, amplified as time went on.

“In a way, [Vivier’s music] keeps receding,” he says. “Every time we think we’re getting closer, there’s another horizon there. I think that’s a good sign.”

Rehearsal of Musik für das EndeThe title page of Vivier’s manuscript for Musik für das Ende bears a dedication, written in German, to “die Leute die heute sterben werden” (the people who will die today). “Living in the midst of beings destined for death I have often reflected upon this,” Vivier writes. “Instinctively I see these beings no longer in life but in death. In my dreams I was living more and more the strange ceremony of beings who vanish for ever, who become an ‘infinite moment’ in the eternal silence.”

If you trace the coming performances of Vivier’s music throughout the year, what you seem to get is a series of moments that are suspended in time. This fall at the Soundstreams season opener on October 16, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra will collaborate with Indigenous choreographer Michael Greyeyes on a new interpretation of Vivier’s Zipangu. Later this season, Zipangu will be reprised by New Music Concerts, the group that first commissioned it in 1980, alongside a new work by Brian Harman that was inspired by it. For Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, Esprit Orchestra’s performance of Siddartha on October 15 feels like a bridge between the past and the future, and a way of treasuring the memory of a friend. And for the second Soundstreams production of the season, Musik für das Ende from October 28 to November 4, Lawrence Cherney and his team have been forced to confront these ideas of legacy and immortality onstage, dredging up the past in ways they hadn’t expected.

In the days before his unexpected death, Vivier’s work Do you believe in the immortality of the soul? was concerned with asking about life, and about the permanence of the loss he saw all around him. In his music, he seemed to be searching for a way to not vanish after death, and to move from silence towards a new type of sound. It would seem like he’s found it.

Benjamin Grosvenor - courtesy Patrick Allen: Grosvenor has an uncanny knack of getting to the essence of any piece he plays. Add to that a burnished tone (he is one of the supreme colourists performing today) and impeccable, unfettered, seemingly effortless technique and you have one of the best pianists on the current concert stage.

Grosvenor is a unique creator of sound, worlds within worlds, attentive and nuanced; a riveting performer with keen musical insights. In the public eye for more than half of his life, the 25-year-old returns to the Jane Mallett Theatre November 7 for his third Music Toronto appearance since March 2014. The following email exchange took place in mid-September and focuses on that upcoming recital.

WN: You became the youngest-ever winner of the keyboard section of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition when you were 11. How life-changing an event was that?

BG: I think the competition cemented in my mind the idea that I would like to be a pianist. It was a great experience at the time, in particular the final which gave me the opportunity to play with a professional orchestra for the first time. The attention it brought began my career, although in those early years I did not give many concerts as naturally I needed the space for schooling and simply to grow as a musician.

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

The first composer I really fell in love with was Chopin, and the first piece I played that I felt a significant connection with was by him - one of his waltzes. The first performers who had an attraction for me were those that I saw playing live (Stephen Hough and Evgeny Kissin, for example) as well as Argerich, Horowitz and Lipatti, who were artists whose recordings we had in the house. It was only in my early teens that I began to listen more widely to other pianists and musicians and discovered many other names both current and historical, becoming fascinated by artists such as Cortot, Feinberg, Schnabel and others.

You said in a 2013 YouTube webcast that your attraction to composers like Chopin, Beethoven and Bach initially came from listening to recordings by pianists from the first half of the 20th century. Are you still inspired by these giants of the piano? What has been inspiring you recently?

I still find these pianists to be a source of inspiration - I was recently listening once again to some of Cortot’s Schumann recordings which are a marvel. I find these days though that I have less time for listening than I would like, and particularly not enough time to attend live concerts. Something I often relish about playing with orchestra is the opportunity to hear the second half of the program.

Our previous email exchange was prior to your 2015 Toronto concert with its Baroque rearview-mirror quality. Your program consisted of most of the pieces you recorded shortly thereafter for your Homages CD. I’d like to focus on your upcoming Music Toronto recital, beginning with Mozart’s Sonata No.13 in B-flat Major, K333 “Linz.” What in Mozart speaks to you in general? And what in the “Linz” sonata in particular?

There is a distilled quality to Mozart’s music - it has such purity and directness of emotion. But it is not just gilded, elegant music, rather music that teems with energy, complexity and life, with such a range of character and emotion. He had an extraordinary gift for juxtaposing diverse ideas and elements in ways that seem natural and effortless, and it is music always filled with the surprising and the unexpected.  

The piano sonatas are fascinating works to play in that there is such vivid characterization of the material. His ingenious uses of textures make the most of the instrument’s limitations, and the music seems so often to refer to other timbres and instrumental combinations. With one instrument responsible here for the whole dialogue, the writing is even more varied than that of the piano concerti (where the piano only needs to be a piano!) and though written in a pianistic context, one can imagine wind solos, quartets and tuttis. The Linz sonata is a great example of this. The outer movements have a tremendous sense of nervous energy and joie de vivre, both rich in thematic material and character. The last movement seems - with its written-in cadenzas and apparent solos/tuttis -  almost like a piano concerto without orchestra. The slow movement is incredibly tender and lyrical, with wind serenades and string quartets, and has a particularly unsettling and affecting middle section.

Brahms’ Four Pieces for Piano, Op.119 are so contemplative, eloquent and emotionally rich. Clara Schumann famously described the first as a “grey pearl, veiled and very precious.” How would you characterize them?

They are four singular and contrasted works. The first has a sense of sadness and resignation, with a large amount of dissonance, particularly in the opening bars which give the piece from the start a particularly searching and doubting atmosphere. The second is agitated in the outer sections, with a luminous waltz in the middle, all based on the same material. The third intermezzo is light-hearted and humorous, and the Rhapsody is largely defiant and joyous, though it ends with darkness and agitation in the tonic minor.

Brett Dean conceived his Hommage à Brahms as three interludes to be played interspersed between the Op.119 Piano Pieces. What moved you to take the audience on that journey?

I worked with Brett as a conductor in Australia when we did Mozart K466 together. I was at that point considering programming Op.119 when he sent me these pieces, written for Emanuel Ax. I thought it was very effective as a set, with the pieces providing illuminating contrasts to the Brahms works, and that it was fascinating to have this juxtaposition of old and new.

The second half of the recital begins with a piano arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Did you discover it through George Copeland’s 1918 recording? Is it a variant of Leonard Borwick’s arrangement? What attracted you to it?

I had been interested in playing some more Debussy, and a friend pointed me in the direction of the Copeland recording which I thought was very effective in capturing the spirit and essence of the piece. There is an interesting quote from Copeland about his transcription: “I spoke to [Debussy] of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano – music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. This has always seems to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.”

 However, examining the scores of the original and these two transcriptions, I came to the view that Copeland was a little sketchy in places, almost as if a reminiscence of the work; Borwick better preserved compelling subtleties in these passages. What I have ended up playing is mostly Borwick, with a few touches of Copeland and of my own.

I find it intriguing that the original version of the Debussy was written in 1894, just a year after the Brahms Op.119, and that the final two works on your program, Berg’s Sonata Op.1 and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, were both written in 1908. How did you decide on the repertoire for the Toronto concert?

This was part of the idea for the construction for the program. Indeed, with the Mozart as a kind of preface, there are four seminal works here that were written within two decades, and I think it fascinating to hear them together.  The Debussy, with its whole-tone scales and unstable tonality, is the bridge in that sense. Indeed, Pierre Boulez called it the beginning of modern music.  

What drew you to the Berg sonata?

I have loved Berg’s music since playing some of his early songs during my studies at the Royal Academy. I had also had a good experience getting to know his violin concerto by reading it through with a friend who was preparing it. I love this rich and dense harmonic world, with its tonal ambiguity, whole-tone scales and chromaticism. It is an emotive work, dramatic and uneasy, with a sense of tension that stretches from the first cadence until the final coda when the tonic triad is finally reinstated.

Gaspard has been a staple of yours for many years and it appears on your first Decca CD (2012). What fascinates you about it?

Gaspard contains some of the most evocative music written for the piano. In playing this music, you feel somewhat like a painter, with so many colours at your disposal, but it is perhaps above all about invoking atmosphere – casting a spell. The poems by Bertrand always add a particular fire to the imagination. I think my favourite piece of the set remains Le Gibet, which is so hypnotic and awe-inspiring. There is one phrase in particular in the middle of the piece which I never cease to find deeply moving, where – among all this that seems larger than the individual – suddenly there emerges this sense of personal vulnerability, and of incredible sadness.

I’ve read that you find the stage to be liberating. Please elaborate.

Performing onstage can feel liberating, but I think performances feel very different from occasion to occasion. I would say the form of music making I find most consistently liberating is chamber music.  You are making music with others - all striving for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts - yet the intimate scale means that it is a true partnership of equals. It can be entirely magical!

Lands End Ensemble - photo by Bo HuangIt was a pleasant, late summer sunny day, and I was having a nice, relaxed conversation with composer Elisha Denburg, at the Canadian Music Centre on St. Joseph St. in downtown Toronto.

Denburg serves as the general manager of the Canadian League of Composers (CLC). We were reflecting on the coming uptick in CLC activity towards the end of October, as the pre-eminent annual international contemporary music festival, the ISCM World New Music Days, approaches, returning to Canada for the first time since 1984, and to Vancouver for the very first time.

The CLC is home to the Canadian Section of an international organization, the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM), which sponsors this contemporary music festival each year in a different country. The stated purpose of the festival is to “present music from each of our members, showcasing the incredible diversity of musical practice in our time.”

Elisha DenburgIn the course of our conversation, Denburg reminded me that the previous time the ISCM festival was in Canada, in 1984, it was not the CLC, but rather the now defunct Canadian Music Council (1946–1990) that hosted the Canadian Section of the ISCM, and thus the festival. His observation triggered a flood of memories for me, as I vividly recalled participating in that earlier edition of the festival, both as a broadcaster with CBC Radio, and as a composer/performer with the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE).

The 1984 ISCM festival had been a grand event, held over 13 days, with concerts presented in both Toronto (September 21 to 28) and Montreal (September 28 to October 3). Many of the concerts were recorded for broadcast on CBC’s English and French language radio services, including those heard on Two New Hours, the national network new music series I had created in 1978.

Over the course of the festival, a great number of new and recently composed works by internationally recognized composers were performed, including those by Canadians such as Serge Arcuri, John Burke, Brian Cherney, Micheline Coulombe St.-Marcoux, Denis Gougeon, Alex Pauk, John Rea and many others. Esprit Contemporaine (now Esprit Orchestra), only in its second season, gave the world premiere of one of Cherney’s most important works, Into the Distant Stillness, as well as the Canadian premiere of Ritratto by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. Toronto’s New Music Concerts presented the Canadian premiere of Laboratorium by French composer Vinko Globokar. The CEE presented the Canadian premieres of two outstanding electronic compositions, Klang by British composer Jonty Harrison and Love in the Asylum by American Michael McNabb, as well as repertoire works by the members of the ensemble: David Grimes, Larry Lake, Jim Montgomery and me. And of course, there were dozens more concerts with compositions from nearly 50 different countries.

It was not my first World New Music Days. I had also been to the 1983 ISCM festival, which had been held in Århus, Denmark. Steen Frederiksen, the head of music for Danish Radio had contracted to broadcast the entire festival on the Danish national radio network. He noted that there were an unusually large number of Canadian compositions in the programming that year, and persuaded CBC Radio Music to send me and members of my Two New Hours team to produce CBC broadcasts from Århus. Being at the Århus festival also served to prepare us for the 1984 ISCM festival in Toronto and Montreal, which had already been confirmed back in 1981.

The new concert hall in Århus had opened just the year before, and at that time was the largest in Scandinavia. We made several Two New Hours broadcasts there, and were able to include major interviews with such notable Danish composers as Per Nørgård, Bo Holton and Bent Sørensen, as well as with visiting composers from other countries. In the course of making this series of broadcasts we came to appreciate the magnitude of the organizational effort such a festival entails.

In 1990 a funding crisis forced the Canadian Music Council to fold, and the designation of Canadian Section of the ISCM was transferred to the CLC. Nineteen years later the idea to host the ISCM festival in Canada was rekindled. “I had the initial idea to do this, while talking with ISCM Canadian Section president André Ristic in June 2009, sitting outside a house in Vancouver after a reception,” Winnipeg composer Jim Hiscott told me. “I had just been elected as vice president of the Canadian Section, and was thinking about how great it would be to have the festival in Vancouver. Many new music groups are in the city and province, and there’s a different aesthetic and cultural range than in most European communities. We both started developing it immediately.”

The CLC made its bid to present the 2017 edition of the festival in 2014, in partnership with the Vancouver series Music on Main and its artistic director, David Pay. The pitch was accepted, and the process of organizing and producing the concerts in Vancouver began. The first Canadian edition of the ISCM festival in 33 years will take place November 2 to 8, with more than 30 concerts and events in a number of popular Vancouver venues. The Vancouver team shortened the festival title, calling it simply ISCM2017.

Which brings us back to the CLC office and my conversation with Elisha Denburg. Near the end of October, Denburg will travel to Vancouver to set up and host the Festival Hub, a centre for festival information which will act as a space that provides opportunity for artists, delegates and audience members to connect, network, share resources and refresh between concerts. The Festival Hub will be in a space know as The Post at 750, which houses the offices of Music on Main near the CBC Vancouver building on Hamilton St., and close to many of the concert venues. There will be concerts at The Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts, Christ Church Cathedral, the Orpheum, The Annex, the Roundhouse, UBC School of Music, Vancouver Playhouse and the Vancouver Public Library.

There will be many programming highlights during ISCM2017, as can be expected in a festival this large. Artistic director David Pay was successful in attracting a number of touring groups, including the National Arts Centre Orchestra and music director Alexander Shelley; the Ensemble contemporaine de Montréal; the Aventa Ensemble; Land’s End Ensemble; the Bozzini Quartet; and the Victoria Symphony, as well as a number of internationally recognized soloists. Add to these the many local Vancouver ensembles, such as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Hard Rubber Orchestra, the Turning Point Ensemble, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Elektra Women’s Choir, musica intima, the Emily Carr String Quartet, the Standing Wave Ensemble and many more, and you realize that this is an event of enormous scale and potential impact on new music in Canada.

There are too many concerts to single out a fair selection of significant works to be performed. Having said this, I will confess that, on my personal wish list, I’m eager to hear violinist Andréa Tyniec give the world premiere of Evta, Ana Sokolović’s violin concerto, with ECM+; as well as Land’s End Ensemble performing Omar Daniel’s compelling Trio No. 2; and a late-night, free concert in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library’s downtown branch, featuring the spatially deployed Redshift Vertical Orchestra, with surround sound performances of music by seven Canadian composers – Jordan Nobles, Lisa Cay Miller, Alfredo Santa Ana, Rita Ueda, James Maxwell, Tim Brady and Benton Roark.

(None of this, of course, can happen without significant resources, and the ISCM2017 team acknowledges the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, Creative BC and the Government of BC, the City of Vancouver and the SOCAN Foundation as its major funders.)

If you’re able to be in Vancouver the first week of November, it’s an opportunity to hear some of the best new concert music in the world. As of this writing, two of the concerts have been cleared for what the festival team are calling viewing events. See the ISCM website for up-to-date information. There will also be a documentary of the entire festival, scheduled for release later in November.

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