Broken Cassette TapeI am Omicron-sidelined, but mending. But if I had known they were going to run this pandemic using the Greek alphabet, I’d have signed up for Nu? instead.” 

A friend of mine who has just come down with COVID emailed me that joke. A Jewish friend I should add, to explain the joke to those of you who have no reason to know that Nu is not only a letter of the Greek alphabet still available to name variants after, but also, in Yiddish, a word that translates roughly to “So?” in English, and like “So?” can carry all kinds of connotations depending on whether it is accompanied by a fatalistic shrug or a “so what” eye-roll. 

In this case, the “nu?” would be a statement of communal resignation, the very best kind. “Nu – I have COVID? Who doesn’t?” In other words, we’re all in this together.

I admire my friend’s tenacity and good humour, because the rest of us aren’t making jokes about COVID – we’re just plain fed up with all of this – tired of talking about, thinking about, reading about, and living through it. Aren’t we?

Read more: Signing Up For Variant Nu

“The final was, he says, ‘Inspiration upon inspiration. For me there was nothing to fear. Nobody knew me. It felt fresh.’”

Left: Bruce Liu DARIK GOLIK/NIFC Right: Dang Thai SonThe quote above is by a Montreal-based winner of the prestigious Warsaw Chopin Piano Competition, a Canadian citizen since 1995, reflecting on his victory. But it’s not Bruce Liu, whose stunning performances in Warsaw won him first prize just a few weeks ago. It’s Dang Thai Son (one of Liu’s teachers, as it happens), as quoted in The WholeNote, vol. 6, no. 5, [page 36] in February 2001, on the occasion of his first Toronto recital. Born and raised in Vietnam, Dang was resident in the Soviet Union when he won the Chopin Competition in 1980, and has lived in Montreal since 1991.

On the heels of Bruce Liu’s triumph in Warsaw, Norman Lebrecht, the resident scourge and critic of the classical world through his many books and his popular blog, Slipped Disc, proclaimed the present day the “era of the Canadian pianist,” noting that, with his Warsaw victory, Liu joins the ranks of Angela Hewitt, Marc-André Hamelin, Charles Richard-Hamelin, Jan Lisiecki and Stewart Goodyear as players of the first rank on the international stage. Forget Glenn Gould – for Lebrecht, this is the great era of Canadian pianism. 

Read more: “The great era of Canadian pianism” | Reflecting on the flags we fly

Joni Mitchell. Photo by Paul BabinI’m not sure I’m entirely surprised that it was a Canadian who wrote “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lament for the loss of a bit of Hawaiian landscape has taken on new meaning in our pandemic-roiled lives some 50 years later. Today, lamenting what has gone, temporarily or not, has become a worldwide emotionally traumatic phenomenon. 

But so has its reverse – being aglow in anticipation of what might return. That’s certainly how I’ve felt as I’ve eagerly devoured the announcements of what’s planned for the upcoming season for many of the major musical institutions in the city. It’s true – the bogey of the variants has taught us that our expectation of a clear, straight-line recovery from our own black plague is not to be. The future is considerably less than clear for performing arts organizations. Nonetheless, the desire to move forward, to plan, to anticipate the future, such a uniquely human characteristic, is on full display in our musical institutions. 

The pandemic has been something of a litmus test for many organizations and institutions in society, testing their durability and persistence, and our musical institutions are no different. Some have struggled to keep the faith, and maintain their identity. Others have refused to let the incredible circumstances of the past 18 months dim their normal creativity. And for a very few, the pandemic has actually made them more creative than ever – among them two organizations in our community one might not have expected to do so: Tafelmusik and The Royal Conservatory of Music.

Read more: The Desire to Move Forward On Full Display

Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and Isaiah Bell as Antinous, 2018. Photo by Michael CooperOne of the more unfortunate things about the pandemic, in my biased opinion, has been the lost opportunity we Canadians have had to say a proper goodbye – goodbye and thank you – to Alexander Neef. Neef, who ran the Canadian Opera Company for 12 years, actually slipped out of town last fall during the pandemic and officially took up his duties at the Paris Opera in February. Since then, he has emerged as one of the boldest artistic directors in the world. 

First, he shocked the intellectual complacency of France by daring to set the companies and administration of the Paris Opera on a thoroughly modern course of social equity and inclusiveness. 

Then, he surprised the world again, this time in the artistic sphere, by hiring Gustavo Dudamel to be the music director of the Opera for the next five years, the expected choice of, it seems, no one. Both were provocative acts of artistic gutsiness and bravado, part and parcel of a man we hardly got to know while he was here. Hardly got to know, and (gauging by some of the chatter I’ve read and heard about Neef over the years) weren’t entirely sure we approved of. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me anymore, because this is Canada after all, and artistic success, especially our own, seems to enrage us. But honestly, am I the only person in Toronto who thinks that Alexander Neef was one of the best things that ever happened to us?

Read more: Alexander Neef and the relevance of excellence

Photo credit CBS PHOTO ARCHIVESo here we are a year later, and we’re still waiting for our lives back. But for me, all of a sudden, the pandemic hasn’t all been bad – because I’ve fallen in love again. In musical love, that is.

For most musicians or repertoire that have penetrated my heart the actual circumstances in which I first heard them are lost to my memory. They’ve just been there as long as I can remember. But not for all. My most vivid repertoire love affair came when I was about 14, maybe, visiting New York, and walking with my parents by the construction site of what would become the Columbia Broadcasting System’s headquarters, the famous Black Rock building on 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan.

To make things more interesting for passersby, CBS had installed little listening posts with headphones so you could sample CBS recordings as you walked by the site. And one of them contained the explosive Finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, in a Bernstein/NY Philharmonic performance – a piece I had never heard before. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d never heard a note of Stravinsky before. There I stood, on 52nd Street, utterly and completely transfixed, playing the excerpt over and over again, many, many times, to either the delight or horror or amusement of my parents. (I think I returned to the site to listen again the next day.) I still have the Bernstein album I bought immediately on my return home.

Read more: Music that penetrates to the heart
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