Postcard given out at Snow Memorial - 918 Bathurst Centre, Toronto.

Michael Snow, artist-at-large

Sorry, but I’m going to have to skip over much of Toronto-born artist Michael Snow’s vast and diverse body of work, including milestone experimental films, sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs, holographs, slide projections, videos, books and recordings (78, LP, cassette, CD, streaming), among other media. While primarily highlighting his lesser-known career in live music, I’d be remiss if I didn’t first mention a few of his large scale Toronto public artworks.

Read more: Remembering Michael Snow (1928-2023) - Music as Shared Experience

“We want to connect to the simple idea that music can be powerful. Our goal is to make people gasp at the right moment, and feel sad at that right time. That’s a basic concept, but it keeps us going. We don’t want people to go away  and say ‘They were really in tune.’ That’s the kiss of death. We want people to talk about how the music made them feel.”  - Geoff Nuttall, quoted in The WholeNote, September 2010. 

St. Lawrence String Quartet in 1992: Lesley Robertson, viola; Geoff Nuttall, violin 1; Marina Hoover, cello and Barry Shiffman, violin 2.

The Canadian musical community was deeply saddened to learn of the death on October 19 of Geoff Nuttall, co-founder and first violin of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Music TORONTO’s artistic producer, Jennifer Taylor – whose email and phone have been flooded with audience members mourning him  – responded to The WholeNote’s invitation to expand on the 30-year relationship between the SLSQ and Music TORONTO

“I adopted the St. Lawrence Quartet for the 1992 season when they were emerging from student life into a career and before they won Banff,” Taylor wrote. “I made them Music TORONTO’s first ever ensemble-in-residence with a three-concert series in which they could program what they wanted to play, often with senior guests they wanted to play with. From there we settled into what became a 30-year relationship; after our residency ended they returned to our stage annually. We looked forward to their interest in repertoire; we lived with them through their changes of personnel; we watched as the stage door opened to see what Geoff Nuttall had done with his hair that year. The SLSQ shared many new works with us, and their love of Haydn. They were always themselves, a unique, exuberant, technically proficient quartet. We loved them; we enjoyed them.”

St Lawrence Quartet in 2022: Christopher Costanza, cello, Lesley Robertson, viola, Owen Dalby, violin, Geoff Nuttall, violin.

“Geoff Nuttall was a great violinist,” she continued. “He chose chamber music and he drew others, musicians and audiences, to him. He couldn’t sit still; some of our audience hated that – but they came, they just looked away. When we did some digital concerts during COVID, I noticed that Geoff kept looking out into the house – the empty house – while playing; he knew we were there. He was always communicating – his joy in the music, his understanding, his sheer delight in sharing what he had discovered. “Geoff’s death at just 56 is a great loss. It is some small consolation that we live in a digital age and we can hear him and see him in a wealth of recorded performances.”

Co-founder and former member of the SLSQ, Barry Shiffman, now associate dean of the Glenn Gould School and director of the Banff Centre, told CBC Music that “Geoff had an ability that is so rare, the ability to make the listener feel what he is feeling. It sounds so simple, yet it is everything. There’s no security blanket, just a brilliant, electric personality that transmits the feelings directly. I remember hearing him when we were both teenagers, and he had that gift then. It was a way of making music I had never known and it changed me. Sitting beside him for thousands of concerts and countless hours of rehearsals has been one of the great gifts of my life.”

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Three-Horned Enemy from The Princess of the Stars, (Wildcat Lake, 1997) designed by Jerrard and Diana Smith. photo credit SEAN HAGERMAN“Murray had the tendencies of a renegade and rascal, but one with a benevolent and honourable artistic purpose in mind,” wrote Esprit Orchestra conductor and music director Alex Pauk, in a September 10, 2021 remembrance for The Globe and Mail. And Pauk should know, having, by his own count, conducted more than 80 performances of R. Murray Schafer’s music over the years, with Esprit and other orchestras. 

“He was a consummate artist – a no-holds-barred kind of guy who’d never take on a project or cause without his total commitment” Pauk went on later to tell me. “He’d always be straight and never let you down once he agreed to work with you. ” 

Esprit was not the start of their relationship though. They had already met, a decade before Esprit was founded – a meeting that Pauk, in his Globe remembrance, credits with setting Pauk on his long-term musical path. “[It was] 1973, when I moved to Vancouver and made an appointment to see if he’d hire me for his World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University,” Pauk writes. 

And Schafer’s response as Pauk remembers it? “Alex, don’t get involved in academia – just go on being a conductor and composer – a much better thing for you to do!”

Read more: R. Murray Schafer’s Complex Legacy

1901-cover“I’ve been walking around in a fog this week, trying to process Jeanne Lamon’s passing. Such a vital force in my life and the lives of so many others. I hope you’ve managed to celebrate her in this edition?” Larry Beckwith

Very few of our readers who became faithful followers of Tafelmusik during almost four decades under Jeanne Lamon’s musical direction, will be hearing about her all-too-sudden death here. The shock waves have spread, and, as Larry Beckwith says in his note, you are likely, like us, in a bit of a fog, trying to process her passing.

As for celebrating her in this edition, it all feels a bit too soon and sudden and sad and raw for that – a bit presumptuous even – at a time when those whose musical lives were most closely intertwined with hers, need most to speak, and are doing so.

We took this cover photo (hard hats all round!) for a September 2013 story in which Larry Beckwith, himself a long-time member of the Tafelmusik Choir, chatted with Jeanne about what lay ahead. What jumps out at me is how she is setting the tempo for what she sees ahead, looking with clear eyes not just to life for Jeanne after Tafelmusik, but life for Tafelmusik after Lamon. You can find it in our archive at (Vol. 19).

And takes you to a moment of music from House of Dreams – music it took her particular kind of leadership to elicit from her brave and merry little band.

For now we mourn. Let the moments of celebratory remembering begin, so tears of joy can follow.

Leon Fleisher. Photo by Joanne SavioLeon Fleisher devoted his life to the piano, first as the foremost American pianist of his generation. The much-lauded collection of LPs he recorded in the 1950s and 60s was capped by a matchless collaboration with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Then, in 1965, he found it difficult to use the fingers of his right hand, a condition diagnosed as focal dystonia, restricting his repertoire to pieces written for the left hand. But his musical reach grew in other ways – conducting and teaching. 

Based in Baltimore at the Peabody Institute from 1959 on, he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (1986-2011) and in Toronto, where he was one of the cornerstones of the Glenn Gould School, occupying the Ihnatowycz Chair in Piano. In his late 60s, Fleisher regained the use of his right hand with botox and rolfing treatments and resumed limited concertizing and recording (as detailed in the 2006 Oscar-nominated short film, Two Hands, available on YouTube). 

One measure of the man can be gleaned by the memorable masterclasses he gave during his frequent visits to Toronto (of which I was fortunate to audit 27, between November 2014 and April 2019). They were inspirational and memorable, strewn with anecdotes and words of wisdom. All in the service of bringing the notes on the page, the composer’s intentions, to the fore. “In our celebrity-based culture we are not the stars. We are indispensable, [we’re] needed to bring the music to life,” he said. “[But] the music is the star.” 

Fleisher always sat in the front row of Mazzoleni Hall, aisle seat on the left side, with the score on a music stand in front of him. When a student finished their presentation Fleisher stayed seated, silent for a long moment. He then asked the student if they had any concerns about what they had just played – anything that Fleisher might help with. I remember one student voicing  concern about his nerves prompting Fleisher  to illustrate a case of nerves by one of the greatest composer/pianists of the 20th century. 

Fleisher was five years old at the time and had been taking piano lessons for six months. His mother took him to hear Rachmaninoff at the War Memorial Concert Hall in San Francisco. After the concert, his mother dragged him backstage to meet the great musician, who suffered from nervous tension whenever he was onstage. Fleisher’s memory was clear: “He was very tall, short haircut, face lined like the map of Russia.” In a heavy Russian accent, Rachmaninoff asked Fleisher, “You, pianist?” A pause. “Bad business …” 

Fleisher’s conclusion: “There are bad nerves and good nerves. How much of what I want to do will I be able to communicate? That’s the good nerves.” 

At one masterclass I attended, on November 29, 2014, Fleisher was into the second piece of the morning masterclass when Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C Minor Op.60 triggered a recollection: “I had the pleasure once – and it really was a pleasure – of playing this with three guys named Jascha [Heifetz], Grisha [Piatigorsky] and William [Primrose].” What did he remember? That there was no piano in the green room in the hall in San Francisco, which upset Fleisher, prompting Piatigorsky to calm his nerves: “Leonski, warming up before the concert is like doing breathing exercises before dying.”

The next day after listening to Rebanks Fellow Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula play Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, Op.110, Fleisher mused: “It suddenly occurred to me that Beethoven has innumerable ways of expressing his final journey into heaven. I’m getting to that point myself,” he said. “How does one face the end of this life and the beginning of the next?”

When Fleisher was nine, the legendary pianist Artur Schnabel invited him to be his pupil, first in Lake Como, Italy, then in New York. “For ten years I studied with one of the great teachers of the 20th century – for two years after, I was absolutely lost until I discovered that everything he taught me was lodged in my cerebellum and it was just a matter of uncovering it,” he said. “One of the ways to do this is by singing the notes and the rhythm (and deciding whether the consonant is soft or hard). Singing gives you a much clearer idea of what you’re facing.” 

For 60 years Fleisher continued a musical legacy traceable directly back to Beethoven through Schnabel and Schnabel’s teacher Theodor Leschetizky who studied with Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil.

Schnabel references were plentiful in Fleisher’s masterclasses, especially when discussing music  by Beethoven and Schubert. Looking back over my records, I see that on April 21, 2017, a student playing Brahms’ Intermezzos Nos. 4-6, Op.116 triggered Fleisher’s analytical instincts before he settled into a surprising Schnabel anecdote. “We work in two dimensions simultaneously: sound – loud and soft and everything in between – and time, which can be strict or with a degree of flexibility. I think time is the more difficult dimension to work in because the pulse can easily become mechanical sounding. A curious thing – Brahms’ music flows at a specific personal rate – it flows more like lava than water. And there’s a richness and a warmth to it.”

And then the anecdote: “My teacher, Schnabel, let it drop very casually one day in a lesson, that he had known Brahms. Brahms had a habit in Vienna on Sunday of going into the Vienna woods with a basket for a picnic. The little Schnabel went along one day. Brahms asked, ‘Are you hungry?’ before [commencing eating]. And after he asked, ‘Have you had enough?’ – and that was his conversation with Brahms.”

At that point, Fleisher got up and moved to the piano, accompanying the student in the upper octaves of Brahms’ fourth intermezzo, but with his left hand. It was truly inspirational. And with his singing, he coached a much better performance. “Good. That was a good sound. And now the memory of something so fragile – when a phrase is repeating it’s not necessarily an echo but a chance to do it more beautifully. It’s a memory, very fragile. If you do too much it will disappear – be very still.”

Another tack he took with a student was to ask “To what extent were you successful in doing what you tried to do?” – an opening gambit designed to encourage scrutinizing the score and elevating the student’s performance. He never missed a chance to make one of his favourite points: “Music is a horizontal activity that goes through all sorts of adventures – everything has to be part of the entire arc – it is filled with vertical events like beats in a bar – the danger is that it is filled with coffin nails.”

Fleisher’s pedagogy was filled with aphorisms. “Playing beautifully is not necessarily beautiful music.” Or “A metronome is a machine; it has nothing to do with music.” And “Romantic means playing long notes short and short notes long.” He always deferred to the score: “You are the actor; the music is the director.” And paradoxically (discussing Schubert’s Sonata D958): “In time you can build the structure with slight rhythmic distortions. Great art in a sense always involves healthy distortion.”

Other comments reflected Fleisher’s playful mind: he once described Beethoven’s markings in the fourth movement of his Sonata No.13 “Quasi una fantasia” as not just accents – “Beethoven has a habit of poking his elbow into your ribs.”

And his analytical prowess: “Of music’s three elements, rhythm is the most important. Harmony – because you can make thousands of harmonies with melody – is next. Melody is the least important.” And: “You’re made up of three people: Person A imagines how the piece should be before they play – their ideal, their goal; Person B actually performs it; Person C listens to Person B and if it’s not what A intended, C tells B who makes adjustments. This is a constant aspect of performance.”

And above all his delight in it all: To a student on February 11, 2018 after the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No.11, Op.22: “You leave me speechless … I don’t come here to be blown away but when I am, it’s a great pleasure.” A few minutes later, the student smiled as she played the second movement accompanied by Fleisher’s left hand at the top end of the piano.

To experience Fleisher’s inimitable approach, watch his March 31, 2004 masterclass on YouTube from Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, with the 17-year-old Yuja Wang playing Schubert’s Sonata No.19 D958 when she was a student at the Curtis Institute.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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