Alex Pangman lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her musician husband “Colonel” Tom Parker. When she's not singing or attending to music business she's likely to be at the farm, horseback riding.

Alex at Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans

“Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing,” Alex Pangman is a singer whose love for popular music from 1920 to 1940 charms people in a graciously old-fashioned way. Her sparkly energy seems to come from some limitless source. People love her beautifully wrought covers of older standards – her smooth warm delivery will remind you a little of your own favourite singer from that time. But Pangman’s voice is truly her own, and she makes a specialty of breathing life into lesser-known music from the period. The style may sound familiar but “new” old songs have to be offered with first-rate diction and this, along with her special way of letting the song’s own narrative shine, makes for pretty irresistible listening. She’s proving to be a fine period-informed songwriter as well. She has led her regular swing band, the Alleycats, since 1998.

Pangman was born with cystic fibrosis: an incurable genetic disease which destroys the lungs. and in many cases ultimately requires lung transplantation. Pangman’s first double lung transplant in 2008 was considered successful, but she continued to have infections and by early 2013 her health was failing. Only the people closest to her knew – she continued to sing (sitting down) and opened for Willie Nelson at Massey Hall in June 2013 while waiting to hear if a second transplant donor could be found – the call came six weeks later.

Pangman’s courage, energy and capacity to seize every moment is deeply inspiring. Maybe it has something to do with choosing to live a life where you truly love what you do.


  • June 4: Saturday Swing Night at Dovercourt House Swing Dance Ballroom. (9:15pm, Toronto);
  • June 16 Manhattans Pizza Bistro and Music Club. (7 to 10pm,Guelph);
  • June 24 TD Toronto Jazz Festival presents “Heather Bambrick & Friends” with the Russ Little Quartet at The Old Mill Home Smith Jazz Bar. Bambrick will trade songs and duets with guest Alex Pangman. (7:30pm, Toronto);
  • June 25 TD Toronto Jazz Festival presents Alex Pangman and her Alleycats. The sextet will take over The Rex for 90 minutes of pure swing. (8pm, Toronto).
  • ALSO: July 30 at the Niagara Jazz Festival, August 5/6 Oakville Jazz Festival, and Sept 2 and 3 at the CNE (Toronto).

May-MysteryChild_PANGMAN_childhood-image_hairbrush.jpgDo you remember that childhood photo being taken?  I remember the smell of the wooden record player – when record players were still furniture!  I can still smell the wood as I would have when I opened the lid, and feel the shag carpet under my feet.

Anything you’d like to say to young Alex in that photo? I might encourage her to write more songs. I think the most original songs I ever wrote were as a child! Ha! That, and don’t drop the needle!

Where did you grow up? I was born/raised in Mississauga Ontario to John and Connie Pangman. Dad worked in finance and for a time Mom was a V.O.N. nurse. My big sister, Jennifer, was into music via ballet. We both attended Froebel [independent] school where we learned to be self-active and creative. I was terrible at math (and music theory) even into high school. So bad in fact, that instead of studying post-secondary music, I went to UofT for art history! To be honest, my jazz education happened listening to thousands of old records, mostly driving to and from the stables. Horses have brought me many good things in life to offset having been born with lung disease. I still ride today.

Alex and GypsyEarliest memory of hearing music?  My first memories are foggy. Mom had a guitar and I’m sure she sang to me, but I think my first memories of music were at Gramma and Grampa’s house in London (Ontario). Gramma had an electric organ (with all the foot pedals!). Grampa played the uke and the spoons.  Grampa used to strum on his uke and sing “Five foot two, eyes of blue … ”

Pangman_child_organ-console.jpgWhere did hearing music, both formal and informal, generally fit into your life as a child? Mom and Dad liked the oldies, and we listened to them on a weekend (Saturday?) oldies show over dinner.  That record player in the photo was stocked with a lot of my folks’ LPs: ABBA, Buddy Holly, Cats, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Brubeck, My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, West Side Story, Arlo Guthrie. We weren’t churchgoers but we sang “Oh Canada”  every day at school (oh my, I just dated myself!)

A first recollection of yourself making music? Again, my memory of firsts is gruesomely bad, but I remember getting those Mini Pops albums and singing along a lot.  I got my first uke quite young and would —wait for it— wake up early on weekends to sneak downstairs and play it quietly to myself. Keener! And I remember singing along to Judds recordings with my mom.  Mom was worried I shouldn’t do wind instruments with my lung disease, so it was mostly rhythm instruments for me. Ukulele being the first of those! Go tell Aunt Rhody, go tell Aunt Rhody, go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead …!

Any early first music teachers who made an impression?  I remember being quite knocked out when a kindergarten teacher could play guitar. I mean, it was maybe only a three-chord song, but she was pretty awesome in my eyes. There was a lot of music and singing at Froebel. Oh -- and a choir teacher who told me that to sing in a section I needed to hear the girl on either side of me. Which was perhaps a polite observation pointing out I was more suited to solo singing.

How about making music with other people? I had play dates with my school chum Suzie McNeil and I would love to find the recordings we made -- such fun!  When I met the guys who would become my early jazz mentors and first band -– musicians from around the GTA –- they lent me all sort of jazz records and invited me to sing with them at the Schnitzel House!

First performances for an audience? I was Annie for our school musical. I was nervous enough my first night at the Swiss Marmite that I believe I sang with my back to the audience. And I sang at the aforementioned Schnitzel House in Port Credit (again, atrocious memory for details, unless it’s a song lyric or melody!)

When did you begin to think of yourself as a career musician?  I got sick and lost my university year. When I got better I realized I didn’t want a career in academia or a museum. Life is short (when you have a serious lung disease, more so!) and I decided to do something immediately thrilling: music! I didn’t want to spend years writing essays. I wanted to be on stage singing, and I pretty much did just that! I didn’t think of it as a career — it was just living in the moment.

Ever think you would do something else? Museum curator –- or so the aptitude test had me believe!

Where does music fit into your personal/family life at home today?  It fits right in perfectly! There is a stack of 78 rpms (old jazz and old country) in the kitchen I share with husband “Colonel” Tom Parker.  He’s a music teacher for the TDSB and I met him at the Cameron House where he has played country music forever. He gave me mandolin lessons. And then we got married, to summarize. Hahaha! I love having a singing partner across the breakfast table from me, and a guitar not far away.

If you were driving ALONE and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose? The Boswell Sisters spring to mind.

Any new or recent recordings, DVD or film projects?  Our recent album, New, received a 2016 JUNO nomination for Vocal Jazz Album. Currently I’m in between recording projects and inviting inspiration in a world where recordings seem to earn less and less.  I’ll be singing a song for the Canadian Music Hall of Fame soon, so, stay tuned! It’s a beautiful old song (perfect for my predilections!) And I recently performed a duet on the upcoming Nat King Cole album with Ori Dagan.


Now in his sixth year as artistic director of the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy. violist Douglas McNabney was born and raised in Toronto. He’s a busy chamber musician with an international career, also an educator – currently professor of Chamber Music at the Schulich School of Music of McGill. Prior to TSM he was artistic director of the Domaine Forget Music Festival and Academy (2001-2005), and chair of the Department of Performance of McGill University (2004-2008). In 2009, he was responsible for the artistic direction of the Haydn 2009 project at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal where the complete cycle of all 68 String Quartets was performed in one week. McNabney lives in Le Plateau in downtown Montreal, with his wife, Isolde Lagacé. Some of his other passions include architecture,building things, and good food and wine with friends.

McNabney, with his wife, Isolde Lagacé

Suppose you're chatting with a friendly fellow traveler. After they tell you about their career in pest control or medical imaging, they ask what you do for a living. How might you reply?

Telling people you play the viola is a good conversation stopper. They’re either embarrassed or don’t want to reveal their ignorance!

April_Mystery-Child.jpgWhen you look at your childhood photo today, what does it cause you to think about or remember?

The TV series Mad Men. To a kid growing up in the 60s, things were never quite what they seemed to be. Watching the adults misbehave in Mad Men explained some of the awkward situations I witnessed as an innocent child!

Where did you grow up?

Rexdale, playing on the banks of the Humber River – when it was wild, not a park!

How did your family earn a living?

I come from a large family of Irish immigrants. My father had 11 siblings who were all modest labourers and workers and few of their children (my cousins) went to university. Except the Eaglesons – Alan Eagleson is my cousin. An infamous one.

Were there musicians in your childhood family?

No – I was the black sheep. I am the only musician, only doctorate. My sister played the French horn – very well. She’s a successful CEO of an insurance company in Ontario now.

Your absolute earliest memories of music?

My father listening to marching bands and Irish and Scottish tenors: the band of the Coldstream Guards and John McCormack or Kenneth McKellar singing “Oh Danny Boy.” I did sing in a church choir. My parents would drive my sister and me to choir practice Thursdays and services on Sunday. They rarely stayed for the service, though. (Mad Men-style hypocrisy!)

What is your very first recollection of yourself making music (any kind of music)?

Piano lessons on a folding cardboard keyboard in Grade 1 at public school.

What was your first instrument?

Piano, which I stopped at age 13 to take up the drums, which in turn I sold to buy my first violin at age 16.

Where did you attend high school?

Richview Collegiate. I am a musician because of a high school music program in Toronto - I wouldn’t be a musician otherwise! It distresses me to think that the opportunities I enjoyed as a young person are no longer offered to young people today. I had my first violin lesson with my high school music teacher, Pat Burroughs, at 16-years old. He took our high school chamber orchestra to Charlottetown, PEI, the following year to Banff and in my last year to Paris, France (hence my lifelong fascination with, and appreciation of, French culture). I also played in the Etobicoke Youth Orchestra and met extraordinary musicians associated with the public school system like Barry Goss and Mario DeSotto. If it wasn’t for those wonderful, dedicated and inspiring teachers, I’d probably be a lawyer or an architect. Not that there would be anything wrong with that! But I’m sure I’m a lot happier as a musician – and more fortunate.

Can you remember a first experience of making music with other people?

Playing Beethoven Op. 18 no. 1 with high school friends and being totally, completely and madly intoxicated by the discovery of an intensity of communication like no other on this earth. At least for me!

Do you remember when you first performed for an audience (other than your family or a teacher)?

Not really. Performing in the church choir every week, piano class recitals, and especially high school orchestra concerts, the idea, or rather routine, of public performance seemed a natural part of playing music.

McNabney at 20What did you right after high school?

University of Toronto -- bachelor in music; University of Western Ontario ---master in music; my first job (and real education) as a chamber musician in the Galliard Ensemble; met Isolde, got engaged to be married ten days later; then moved to Montréal and attended Université de Montréal for a DMus en Interprétation; hired as principal viola of Orchestre Symphonique de Québec; left that position three years later to become a professor at McGill.

How did you begin playing the viola?

I always say the viola chose me, not the other way around. When I was in university, one summer a string quartet needed a violist and I volunteered. I immediately fell in love with the dark, sensual sound of the instrument, and perhaps more importantly, with the role it plays in a quartet. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, all relished playing the viola. It is the quintessential chamber music instrument, not really a solo instrument. The inner voices in a string quartet add richness and character to the group and the viola provides colour and depth to the sound. It helps bridge the melodic line of the violin and the harmonic and rhythmic line of the cello. To be a violist is to take on the supporting role. The violist is the ultimate team player!

When did you begin to think of yourself as a career musician?

Very late – in my mid-20s. I was intending to go to law school after my music degrees My then fiancée, Isolde, looked at me after I had done very well on my LSAT exams and said she had no intention of marrying a lawyer. She came from a family of musicians and had agreed to marry a musician, not a lawyer. And that was that.

Do you remember a time when you thought you would do something else?

See above. And I’m still toying with the idea of doing a degree in architecture once (if ever!) I retire. Not to actually practice as an architect, of course, but to satisfy a deep curiosity about our relation as human beings to the spaces we occupy, the tensions between form and function etc.

McNabney with his grandchildren, Clara and Arthur

Where does music fit into your family life today?

Music is everywhere! And always will be. My wife runs a magnificent concert series in Montréal at the Salle Bourgie of the Musée des beaux arts. Both my children are professional musicians -- my son, Raphael, is the bass player with Les Violons du Roy and my daughter Mélisande, a harpsichord and fortepiano player, also plays with Les Violons du Roy. Her partner, Isaac Chalk, is principal viola with Les Violons. My son’s wife, Leila, a psychiatrist, keeps us all in line and ensures that it all functions smoothly. That’s a joke of course, but as Danny Kaye once said: “it’s a joke, but it’s true!”

If you were driving alone and could sing along to any recording, what would you choose?

Brahms G Major Viola Quintet Op. 111. Although it’s a bit of a challenge to sing that opening theme of the cello.


May 1: Viola quintets with Scott St John, Solomiya Ivakhiv, Sharon Wei and Tom Wiebe at Heliconian Hall.

May 18: Schubert Rosamunde Quartet and Webern’s Langsamer Satz, with Axel Strauss and Toronto Summer Music Academy alumni Joshua Peters and Marc Labranche at the Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

New or recent recordings, DVD or film projects?

I have had a lifelong relationship with the Beethoven string trios beginning with my first professional engagements with the Galliard Ensemble. With colleagues Axel Strauss and Matt Haimovitz, we are planning to record the complete cycle over the next two years. For me, there is a sense of completing the circle in this project that is immensely satisfying!

McNabney with his Viola CREDIT Bo Huang

Music's Children gratefully acknowledges André and Morgana

Mireille Asselin lives in Riverdale with her partner Chris Enns. Some of her other pastimes include fawning over cute dogs in the park, taking math classes for fun, baking unnecessary treats and passionately advocating for Toronto's east end.

Mireille Asselin was born in Ottawa, and grew up in St. John, New Brunswick, and the Ottawa Valley. She attended école secondaire publique De La Salle, Ottawa, and moved to Toronto to begin her bachelor of music at the Glenn Gould School.

Now in her third season with the Metropolitan Opera, Asselin made her Met debut in the 2014/15 season in Manon, in the role of Poussette. This season, as cover for the role of Adele in Die Fledermaus, conducted by James Levine, she was called upon to perform when soprano Lucy Crow became ill. Asselin sang the role on opening night (last December 4) – by all accounts to the delight of those who attended. (There’s a great interview with Asselin at about how the Met’s understudies prepare.)

“ … Possessed of a beautiful crystalline voice with a cool, bright middle register and clear-as-a-bell top, Asselin has a natural charm in her voice and in her bearing. … “(Eric C. Simpson. New York Classical Review, December 5, 2015)

Asselin Fledermaus Met Opera by Marty SohlLast October in Toronto you may have heard her in Mahler's Symphony No.4 with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra, or more recently in a Songmasters Series recital at Mazzoleni Hall called “Le Travail du Peintre,” with baritone Brett Polegato.  April 7 to 16 Asselin will sing the role of Celia in Opera Atelier’s much-anticipated production of Lucio Silla.  In May she will sing the title role in Handel’s Berenice with La Nuova Musica (London, UK) at the Göttingen International Handel Festival, and in June she’ll sing Mahler's Symphony No.8 with the Calgary Philharmonic, followed by Cosi Fan Tutte at Ashlawn Opera (Charlottesville VA).

Asselin earned her master’s from Yale University’s opera program. She was a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio (2011 to 2013), and a Toronto Summer Music Academy Fellow (Art of Song) in 2012.  Prior to her studies at Yale, she completed a B.Mus. at the RCM Glenn Gould School in Toronto.

Suppose you're travelling, and chatting with a friendly fellow traveler who asks what you do for a living? This one is easy, because this scenario actually plays out quite frequently! I usually say, "Oh, um, I'm an opera singer. I mean, I sing classical music with opera companies and orchestras and things." And then that either sparks an interesting conversation, or my travelling companion will go back to his or her book.

REPEAT_Mystery-Child_March_holding_a_star.jpgTell us about your childhood photo? I don't have a specific memory of that photo being taken, but I do have very clear memories of that day -- it was the dress rehearsal for our ballet school's year-end show and my class was dancing to a medley of... well, I don't quite remember!.. What I do remember is that my mom and I had put great care in the making of my cardboard tin-foil star and I was quite proud of it. We always performed our shows in the local high school auditorium. I remember my classmates and the test of my patience having to wait for (what seemed like) hours in my costume until it was our turn to practise our scene on the stage. I was fascinated with the older ballerinas who seemed so graceful and talented.

Anything you would like to tell young Mireille? I don't think I would give young me any special advice, because every hurdle I encountered growing up taught me a hard lesson that I am grateful for today. I think kids have a beautiful curiosity and lack of self-consciousness that should be left alone for as long as possible. I would, however, love to have a casual chat with her... I think it would be hilarious! I was a precocious, headstrong kid, and I'm sure I'd profess opinions and make categorical statements that would give me quite a chuckle now. But you know, come to think of it, I'd probably just tell her that she was a lucky kid to have such a great family and that she should give her mom an extra kiss for bringing her to ballet classes.

Mireille ballerinaWhat’s your absolute earliest memory of hearing music? My mom says I first kicked in her tummy during the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy at a performance of The Nutcracker! My own strongest memory is my father picking me up and dancing me around our living room to The Temptations:

I've got sunshine on a cloudy day.

When it's cold outside I've got the month of May.

 I guess you'd say  – what can make me feel this way?

 My girl (my girl, my girl) Talkin' 'bout my girl …


I've got so much honey the bees envy me.

I've got a sweeter song than the birds in the trees.

Well, I guess you'd say What can make me feel this way?

My girl (my girl, my girl) Talkin' 'bout my girl (my girl).


Hey hey hey

Hey hey hey



I don't need no money, fortune or fame.

I've got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.

Well, I guess you'd say What can make me feel this way?

My girl (my girl, my girl)  Talkin' 'bout my girl (my girl)."

Other musicians in your childhood family? On my mom's side I have a cousin who is a conductor and pianist, and an aunt who is a pianist who leads a contemporary ensemble in Philadelphia. There are also many naturally gifted singers on my dad's side: my dad himself has a great big voice, so do my godmother and my cousin. My mom nearly went to college for cello performance, but decided on an English Lit degree instead. :)

Where did hearing music fit into your childhood? Growing up in a small-town I heard music mostly at home (CBC was always on in our kitchen), and in my community at church, camps and in my school choir.

A first memory of making music? Endlessly singing Disney songs into a little tape recorder which I'm sure my parents regretted giving me immediately. I was also very gifted at my little xylophone!

Mireille toddlerMaking music with others? I joined choir in first grade because I was new at school and wanted to make friends. I remember our choir director telling us to feel like Chia Pets, with grass growing out of our heads in order to get us to sing with more head voice and a nice straight posture.

When did you first sing by yourself for an audience other than your family? I believe it was when my school choir sang some Christmas carols at the local mall and I had a solo! A big day!

A first music teacher? I first studied piano with a very nice girl in New Brunswick who was quite good at motivating me to want to learn. But it was a later teacher, Mrs. Goud who was the most special of my early piano instructors. She had a beautiful house in the country, she was glamorous and kind, and encouraged me to compose. She made playing piano about making music, not just getting all the right notes.

The origins of your appetite for staged works? I was always a theatrical kid, putting on little pageants for my family and performing in lots of different capacities, but I was also quite terrified of playing piano and singing in front of people. It was a skill I really had to learn and I think that my stubborn nature ensured that I couldn't quit it just because it made me uncomfortable. Ironically, I feel that it was precisely because performing in public was such a challenge for me that I took to it and ultimately made it my career.

Do you remember the point at which you began to think of yourself as a career musician? I truly didn't know that a career in music was a possibility until I transferred to an arts school in Grade 10. It was then that I saw the girls in the years ahead of me preparing for their music school auditions and I first gave real thought to the idea. Music had always been my primary and all-consuming extra-curricular activity, but I always thought of singing as my main hobby and non-academic pursuit. It wasn't until I saw that people my age were doing it that I thought "Wait, can I really do this as my job?? How amazing would that be!".

Did you ever think you would do something else? Oh, absolutely! I was always big into the sciences and my career goals varied from astronaut (which fizzled after I couldn't go to space camp), to biochemist, to infectious diseases specialist (I loved Robin Cook books!).

Where does music fit into your day-to-day home/ family life today? My partner Chris is very good at making up completely improvised songs on the spot, so we have fun sending ridiculous lyrics back and forth at each other to whatever tune comes to mind. Because music is something that surrounds me every day and in my work, I find it important to decompress with something "palate cleansing" if you will.. and so when I'm at home I mainly listen to talk radio and podcasts instead of music. That being said, when I need an emotional release I will blast something cathartic like Britten's War Requiem, or play Glenn Gould's recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations when I need to recharge my soul.

If you were driving/walking absolutely all alone where nobody could hear you and could sing along to anything at all what would you choose? I can’t resist singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody when it comes on the radio.. but who can??


- April: Mozart's Lucio Silla with Opera Atelier (role of Celia)

- May: Handel's Berenice at the Göttingen International Handel Festival in Germany (role of Berenice)

- June: Mahler's Symphony No.8 with the Calgary Philharmonic

- June/July: Così fan tutte (role of Despina) and a recital at Ashlawn Opera in Charlottesville, VA

- Sept.-Nov.: Rossini's William Tell at the et (covering Jemmy)

- Nov.: Versailles Project with Boston Early Music Festival in Boston and NYC

- Dec.: the Amici Ensemble's “Gala Event”

- Dec.: Messiah with the Minnesota Orchestra

- Dec-Feb: Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met (covering Rosina)


Lutenist and conductor Lucas Harris, originally from the USA, has made Canada his home for the past 12 years.  He lives in Toronto’s east end with his spouse (Tafelmusik violinist) Geneviève Gilardeau, their daughter Daphnée (age four), and their Irish doodle Ciaccona (named after the ground bass pattern). In Lucas’s studio, you’ll find one theorbo, two archlutes, three renaissance lutes (8, 10, and 12 courses), two 13-course baroque lutes, two baroque guitars, a bandora, a cittern, a renaissance guitar.  Also an Ibanez jazz guitar, plus eventually an 1831 Guadagnini classical guitar now being restored.This multi-instrumentalist is one of North America’s busiest early music performers. He grew up in Tempe, Arizona, where his father worked in computer technology and later taught computer classes at a community college. His mother was the director of a social service agency and a marriage/family therapist. Harris studied early music in Italy at the Civica Scuola di Musica di Milano (as a Marco Fodella Foundation scholar) and in Germany at the Hochschule für Künste Bremen. He was based in New York City for five years before relocating to Toronto.

In Southern Ontario you have probably seen and heard him in regular engagements with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, the Toronto Consort and I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. He’s a founding member of the Toronto Continuo Collective, the Vesuvius Ensemble (dedicated to Southern Italian folk music), and the Lute Legends Ensemble (a multiethnic trio of lute, pipa, and oud). He’s also played with several modern-instrument groups, including the Boston, St. Louis and Montréal Symphony Orchestras, the Metropolitan Opera, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Via Salzburg.

On the faculty at Tafelmusik’s Baroque Summer Institute he teaches lute and coaches vocal and instrumental ensembles, and he has recently joined the faculty of the Vancouver Early Music Festival’s Baroque Vocal Programme. Harris has also served for 12 years on the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory’s Baroque Performance Institute. He’s in ongoing demand for lectures and master classes at several universities.

Harris has been a guest music director with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, the Ohio State University Opera program, Vox Angelica and Les Voix Baroques, recently created and directed a program of Austrian sacred music with the Toronto Consort, and is the artistic director of the Toronto Chamber Choir.

If you could travel back through time and meet the young person in that childhood photo is there anything you would like to ask him, or tell him? I’d say “Stop watching television and use your time to learn something that could be useful to somebody someday.”  I want those hours back.

Suppose a friendly fellow traveller asks what you do for a living? I start by saying that I’m a musician and then see if they ask for more details.  If so I try explain what a lute (not a flute!) is. I try using these phrases until I see a light bulb appear above their head: “round back,” “pear-shaped body,” “Renaissance,” “neck that looks broken,” “Greensleeves,” etc.

The instrument on the left is a 14-course archlute by Michael Schreiner (Toronto, 2010) after David Tecchler, Rome c1725 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) The instrument on the right is a 15-course theorbo by Michael Schreiner (Toronto, 2004) after Sebastian Schelle, Nürnberg 1728 (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum)  PHOTO: HEATHER HOLBROOKWhat’s the difference between a theorbo and an archlute? I’ve been asked that hundreds of  times and I have the impression that people really want the answer to be that one of them is obviously longer.  But I’m afraid you can’t tell by the length of the overall instrument.  Here’s the simplest answer I can give: the shorter (fingered) strings on the theorbo are around 20cm longer than those of the archlute, and this extra length necessitates a “re-entrant” tuning where the top one or two strings are tuned an octave lower.

Earliest memories of hearing and making music? I have distant memories of loving a couple of LPs by the Muppets as a kid. At Christmas my Dad would sometimes put his favourite John Denver LP on.  My brother and I just grew to hate it and so we’d make fun of him, poor guy.  One year we actually hid it from him so we wouldn’t have to listen to Merry Christmas Little Zachary”yet again.  And then years later we bought the CD reissue and bought it for him as a joke.

One of the first classical concerts I attended was a classical guitar recital by Chris Hnottavange, the teacher  that I later worked with as a teenager.  It must have been his final recital for his graduate work at ASU.  I think he played the Britten Nocturnal, which some say is the best piece ever written for guitar.

 I remember my mother occasionally playing the upright piano in our living room – I think she stopped completely when I started taking piano lessons. I remember a weekly music class in elementary school and I have a flashback of being invited to improvise on the xylophone while the teacher played some chords on the piano.  I suppose that was my first jam over a ground bass.

First instrument? I didn’t have a great fit with my piano teacher and at around age 12 asked if I could quit.  My mother insisted I should take up another instrument and so I asked (obviously!) if I could take electric guitar. They found a really unique teacher who did both electric and classical guitar, Chris Hnottavange. I studied with Chris for six years (age 12 to 18), starting with AC/DC’s Back in Black. I soon moved into playing in jazz combos/big bands, and finished that period with a full-on classical guitar recital which featured works by Bach and Couperin.  I do feel it’s amazing that all of that was with the same teacher.

A first performance? I sang the role of Fasttalk Freddy in my school musical The Amazing Snowman.  He was a greasy agent trying to get rich from managing a talking snowman.

And right after high school? I tried to get away from music and started college as a literature major.  I imagined myself as a humanities professor who would give inspiring lectures that flit between literature, philosophy, art and music.  Halfway through college I changed my mind and threw myself into the core music-major courses. I went to a wonderful small liberal arts school called Pomona College in Southern California.  I’ve just been back there this past weekend, invited to share one concert with seven distinguished alums and a second concert with my former guitar teacher, Jack Sanders.  What powerful nostalgia I felt being back there.  The music faculty is almost the same as when I graduated 20 years ago!

Memories from any first paid engagements? As a teenager I did some weddings, sometimes with a guitar and flute duo.  Once I told the mother of the bride that we had an arrangement from Les Miserables.  There was a long silence, after which she replied in an emotional voice: “Phantom and Les Mis are VERY important to our family.” One of my college profs hired me to play the Christmas show of the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus.  I think this was my first real paid concert engagement.

PHOTO: TARIQ KIERANWhen did you begin playing the lute? I knew about the lute’s amazing solo literature from playing some transcriptions for the guitar, and had heard some lute recitals at a guitar festival I went to in Arcata, CA.  Eventually, in college, I got the idea on my own to try playing the lute and discovered there was an instrument available to borrow.  I had an amateur lutenist friend in Los Angeles (Howard Posner) who helped me get started. When I discovered basso continuo, it seemed like the perfect bridge between the two parts of my guitar background.  It was classical, but I had to use my knowledge of harmony and was invited to improvise

How does music fit into your personal/family life at home today? Since Daphnée was born, a new tradition of composing songs for/with her has evolved, often to help her understand or cope with something difficult.  Sometimes the songs are famous melodies with new text (in French or English or both) and sometimes original melodies that one of us makes up.

Where does teaching/mentoring fit into your life/work these days? During the season I do only the occasional lute lesson or vocal coaching, sometimes guest lectures at U of T.  I get more into teaching mode in the summer: I’m on faculty at three workshops: Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute, Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute and Vancouver Early Music’s Baroque Vocal Programme.

If you were driving ALONE and could sing along to ANY recording, what song would you choose? Tough one.  It might have to be The Police’s Roxanne.  But I would have to squawk it out in falsetto or sing down about three octaves from where Sting does it.


The Lute Legends Ensemble has been revived with oud player Demetri Petsalakis: we’re making some new promo materials and starting to snoop around for gigs.

Also – please stay tuned over the next year for the release of a new solo lute CD.  I was inspired by Oliver Schroer’s CD where he simply recorded himself improvising in little churches while walking the Camino. I’ve got some new recording equipment and am threatening to do a new solo CD where I’m my own engineer, producer, and editor.

March 13 3pm: “A Voice of Her Own.” The Toronto Chamber Choir will sing a “Kaffeemusik” program, created by Lucas Harris, about women composers (from Hildegard to Clara Schumann) The script asks how it was possible that a few women managed to compose despite all the obstacles. Guest conductor: Elizabeth Anderson; Katherine R. Larson (University of Toronto), narrator.

April 23 8pm “I’ll Be Watching You” with I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble  I FURIOSI presents stalking, before harassment laws were conceived, with guests: Marco Cera, oboe and guitar; Lucas Harris, lutes and guitar

May 6 and 7 8pm and May 8 3pm: “Monteverdi Vespers of 1810.” The Toronto Consort with British tenor Charles Daniels, tenor Kevin Skelton and Montreal’s premier cornetto and sackbut ensemble La Rose des Vents.

May 28 8pm “The Sun Rises in the East.” Another new Toronto Chamber Choir program  featuring 17th- and 20th-century choral music from Eastern and Central Europe.


Looking back now, my parents had this wish for me before my birth. My name, “Teng,” means rising – taking off – in Chinese. My parents wished me the ability to fly and see the world freely.

Teng Li lives in Toronto’s King West neighborhood with her loving husband, percussionist John Wong. She loves tasting amazing food, eating all sorts of dessert and drinking good wine and beer. Having learned to knit from YouTube videos a few years ago, she knits baby booties, scarves and hats. Her next projects are sweaters for her hubby and a friend. She’s been working on those for a couple of years; one of these days they will be finished!

When you look at your childhood photo today?

CHILD-Teng-Li_MysteryChild_2_Dec2015_Cropped.jpgI don’t remember taking this photo but it must have been in the summer – my parents’ old apartment in our hometown, Nanjing, China. Nanjing is known as one of China’s four “hotpots” because of its unbearable heat and humidity in the summer. My family didn’t own an air conditioner and I remember practising with streams of sweat going down my back and forehead. The fingerboard was often so wet, after a day of practising, my left fingers felt as though they had been soaked in water for a long time.

If you could travel back through time and meet the young person in that childhood photo?

I would tell young Teng, “All the hard work you are doing now will pay off later. The time you spend on music makes you have better connection with it. Don’t be too stressed, everything is going to work out.”

Do you remember when you began to think of yourself as a career musician?

I knew from a very young age – since I was in elementary school – that I was going to be a musician. My parents saw my talent very early on – on my second birthday I received a violin as a present. I started taking violin lessons at age five when I was big enough to hold that instrument. There have been times when I would get lazy and think “Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to practise right now …’” Those were only moments of weakness though.

Other musicians in your childhood family?

My mother is a well-respected retired schoolteacher, and my father is a tai chi master – among his many other abilities. He was a Beijing Opera singer – so talented that he had a job with the provincial company at 18 and performed many major roles for foreign leaders. Unfortunately, he was forced out of the company because of the Cultural Revolution. I often think my father is one of the most talented and musical people I know, and it is so unfortunate he and many people in his generation were never provided the opportunity to develop their talents because of the historical events. He was sent to a coal mine away from home to work but continued to be interested in the arts. He performed at the mine as a performance host, singer and bamboo flute player, and at one of these performances he met my mother. He was the host, and she, a schoolteacher reading a poem that she had written for the event. How romantic is that!

My parents moved to Nanjing, and my mother continued teaching, while my father worked in a long distance bus company. They still live in Nanjing, China. When I performed in Beijing and Shanghai last December, they came to see me perform. They have visited Toronto a couple of times and came to many concerts while they were here.

Earliest memories of hearing music?

My father used to play bamboo flute at home; I’m sure he played for me a lot when I was an infant. To this day, I still like the sound of the bamboo flute a lot – I even brought one of his flutes to Toronto. I remember my father and his brothers would get out instruments to play and sing together at the big Chinese New Year family gathering.

First recollections of making and hearing music?

Maybe because all of our parents went through the Cultural Revolution, and western music and traditional music were banned during that time, parents put their musical desire in their children, and hoped their musical dreams would be continued. On my floor of the apartment building, every kid my age played a musical instrument.

Classical recordings were not easy to find. Going to a concert was the only way to learn what good playing was. I remember watching violin recitals, concerts and prizewinner concerts at a very young age. My parents took me to see other kids perform and I remember thinking: I wish I could play like that. On some of my Shanghai trips, after lessons my father would take me to the Shanghai Conservatory to hear a student recital.

Do you remember the first time you performed for people other than your family or teacher?

My first memory of performing is very vague, but I do remember performing in grade 1 with my school string ensemble. Everyone else in the ensemble was much older than me, and we performed by memory. I must have been just so excited, and giggled a lot. When the music started, I was quite tired already… And then I felt something was wrong, but continued to play the whole thing. I later realized I had played the wrong piece…. I was so embarrassed, especially because I had already thought about becoming a professional musician.

First teachers?

When I was about seven, my teacher at the time decided to go to Paris to continue her training. Before she left, she mentioned a very famous violin teacher in Shanghai whom she had studied with, and said she would be happy to help me contact him. With her recommendation, father took me to Shanghai to meet this teacher, and the train ride from Nanjing to Shanghai became my weekly routine. I would wake up around 10pm on Saturday evenings, and father would ride the bike for an hour with me in the back of the bike from the south end of the city to the north where the train station is. Then we would take the train to Shanghai around midnight. Most often, by the time the train stopped in Nanjing en route to Shanghai, there were no seats left. To ensure I got enough sleep, father would put me on the luggage rack and would stand next to the rack holding me the whole night to make sure I didn’t fall off. I also sometimes slept under the seats.. We would get off in Shanghai, have a very quick breakfast, and go to my 8am lesson. We would then catch an afternoon train back home. To this day, I still have special feelings towards the Shanghai Train Station.

China has many conservatories, and the most famous is the Central Conservatory in Beijing, where they have students from elementary to post graduate level. I auditioned for the school at age nine and was accepted. I left home and my parents to live in a dorm in Beijing to continue my studies in music. I had three roommates, all from different parts of China. On our first night in the dorm we didn’t sleep at all – we were chatting so much that we got a warning from one of the dorm supervisors!

When did you begin to play the viola?

I entered the Central Conservatory as a violinist. Because there were so many good players who were born my year, the elementary school accepted many students. But we needed to audition again for the middle school, and there were only half of the spots. I remember walking into the audition classroom – that panel would have been the biggest I had ever seen because the school invited all the professors to come help out. Apparently after we played, the oldest and most respected professor said, “We always make the worst violin players violists as a back-up career path. This year, there are so many players; I want a good violinist to become a violist. I want her.” That’s how I became a violist.

Maybe it was all meant to be.I sometimes think it was all karma – my first violin teacher was a violist. He is from Shanghai, and so is my mom. I remember hearing them speaking in Shanghainese. He was very sweet, and very kind to me.

I studied in the Central Conservatory for seven years. I had been doing quite well in school, and my family and I decided it was time to for me to go see the world, study at the world’s most prestigious school, and with world’s most respected teachers. I left China to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when I was 16.

Music and musicians in your home life today?

My husband is also a musician, and he understands very well how a musician’s schedule works very differently than most other people’s. When I am not rehearsing and performing at the TSO, I’m usually teaching at University of Toronto, or rehearsing and practising for an upcoming concert. I often leave home in the morning and won’t come home until 12 hours later. Our busy schedules make us treasure the limited time we have together.

Upcoming Concerts

February 3 to 8 Teng Li will be in Poland where she is the artistic director of an international summer program – Morningside Music Bridge – which attracts top-level students from all over the world. She’s been involved with this program since 1999, as a student, alumna, teacher,

and last summer became the artistic director. Her upcoming trip is to audition potential students for the program.

February 19 7pm Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre, Toronto
; Trio Arkel Concert Series
 with Marie Bérard, violin; Scott St.John, violin; Sharon Wei, viola; and Winona Zelenka, cello

February 29 8pm Von Kuster Hall
, London, 
University of Western Ontario; chamber music concert
 with Marie Bérard, violin; Scott St.John, violin; Sharon Wei, viola; and Winona Zelenka, cello

March 2 6:30pm 
Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto
; solo appearance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
 performing Paganini’s Sonata per la Gran Viola

March 19 London; Toronto Symphony Chamber Soloists with Jonathan Crow, violin; Joseph Johnson, cello; Nora Shulman, flute;
 Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, harp.

April 24 3pm Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Toronto
; Amici Chamber Ensemble
 with Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Amici Ensemble
: Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet; Serouj Kradjian, piano; and David Hetherington, cello.

May 27 7pm Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre, Toronto
; Trio Arkel Concert Series 
with Yaoguang Zhai, clarinet; Marie Bérard, violin; Winona Zelenka, cello.

Looking Further Ahead

June 20 to 26, Cleveland; Li will perform in the Cleveland Chamber Festival.

June 28 to 30, Shenyang, China; Li is giving masterclasses and performing a concert at the Shenyang Conservatory.

June 31 to July 29, Beijing, China; Morningside Music Bridge has been invited to celebrate its 20th anniversary at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Li will be in Beijing during this time to teach, perform and make sure the program runs smoothly.

July 29 to August 9, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA: Li will perform at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

August 9-16, San Diego, USA: Li is teaching and performing at the Bravo Music Festival.

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