Mary McGeer lives in Toronto’s east end with her husband Rollie Thompson, a law professor. When she’s not making words-and-music magic she’s a voracious reader who loves watching old movies (1930 to 1950s).

Septembers_Child_-_Mary_McGeer.jpgMary McGeer is artistic director of the Talisker Players chamber music concert series. She’s also general manager and principal violist of the larger flexibly sized Talisker Players Choral Music Orchestra dedicated to collaborating with choirs. McGeer also freelances with  diverse  ensembles in and around Toronto, from baroque to new music. Principal violist of the Huronia Symphony from 1998 to 2010 and a member of the Phoenix String Quartet for ten years, she is also a teacher and chamber music coach.

The Talisker orchestra came first, arising out of a one-off gig in 1995 where McGeer assembled a chamber orchestra to perform with a choir. Today the ensemble is an accordion-pleated marvel that shrinks and grows according to the needs of the repertoire. It’s made up of fine working musicians who have a shared appreciation for music that has words.

Talisker Players chamber music concerts, “Where Words and Music Meet,” came a bit later. Their four-concert series of chamber performances celebrates its 20th anniversary this year at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre (as does The WholeNote). Talisker’s themed concerts of works for voice and chamber ensemble are usually narrated by an actor – always an engaging blend of vocal and instrumental music, poetry, and theatre.

Mary McGeer doesn’t remember her childhood photo being taken – she was barely two. But the photo and the context reflect both an early interest in literature and an environment that nurtured it.

McGeer grew up in Arvida, Quebec, in the Saguenay Valley.  After high school she went to McGill University where she studied history and political science, later completing a diploma in performance at Université Laval. She studied viola in Toronto and New York.

Your absolute earliest specific memory of hearing music?  The records my parents played: there were children’s records (Burl Ives…) also opera, and lots of Broadway. I still know all the words to several Broadway musicals. Opera – not so much.

Were there other musicians in your childhood family? No – they’re pretty much all scientists.

How did hearing music figure in your childhood life? Radio and records at home, music at school and in church, but not much live performance. Occasionally we would hear touring performers in recital.

First memories of  making music? Student recitals – also the annual Jeunesses Musicales competitions, always nerve-racking.

Did you sing as a child? No, other than hymns in church.

What was your first instrument, and why?

Piano. There were very few teachers of other instruments in that rather remote area at the time.

What do you remember about a first music teacher? Mme. Partous – I still have a vivid picture of her. She was a fine musician and gave her students an excellent grounding in theory and history, as well as technique.

Your first experiences of creating music with other people? There was not much opportunity in that part of the world. The closest would be accompanying my church choir.

What do you remember about your first times performing for an audience? I was always nervous about performing – possibly in part because I tended to be a crammer in preparation. As a youngster, I always preferred sight-reading – or fooling around on the instrument – to serious practice. That did change later on.

What do you think are the roots of your later appetite for staged works and multidisciplinary performance – the words-and-music aspect of what Talisker does? It would be my life as a bookworm, probably. Also, a lifelong interest in vocal music, and the joy of accompanying it, whether it’s choirs or solo singers.

Do you remember when you began to think of yourself as a career musician?  Not really, it sort of snuck up on me... .

In early life I assumed that music was not a career and that I’d be doing something else – in fact when I went to university I stopped playing altogether for a few years. Even after I came back to playing, I worked at a number of other things – history, journalism – before realizing that I needed to be a musician.

Where does music fit into your home life today?  My husband listens to a lot of music for pleasure. In my case, it’s usually with a purpose – investigating repertoire, hearing new singers, learning scores – which is a different kind of pleasure! But when I want to relax, I usually curl up with a book, or watch a movie.

UPCOMING The Talisker Players season opens October 27 and 28 with”Renovated Rhymes.”  We also have a number of engagements with choirs, in Toronto and farther afield – including, of course, a number of Messiahs as we get closer to Christmas.

New or recent recordings? We’re performing on an upcoming recording of the singer-songwriter Ian Thomas, in arrangements for string quartet by our cellist, Laura Jones. It’s a bit of a departure for us, and we’re looking forward to it!

CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR WINNERS! HERE’S WHAT THEY WON

Renovated Rhymes (Oct 27 and  28, at 8pm) is Talisker Players’ first concert of the 2015/16 season, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Mary McGeer says it’s a fun program inspired by playful wordsmiths like Ogden Nash and Dennis Lee, and featuring tenor James McLennan and baritone Doug MacNaughton – both terrific singers who are also great comic actors. Ross Manson is the evening’s actor/reader. There is a pre-concert talk at 7:15pm  For all the intriguing and entertaining program details visit taliskerplayers.ca.

WholeNote readers Bastien Woolf and Gwynn Arsenault each win a pair of tickets.

Music’s Children gratefully acknowledges Thom, Kay and Peter.

Errol Gay, with his mom, Bev, near Naramata, BC in 2012.Errol Gay lives in North York, Toronto, with Ann Cooper Gay and their beloved golden retriever, Patch. Some of his other pastimes include working out possible European train travel and solving not-too-difficult Sudoku and crossword puzzles.

Familie_Cooper-Gay.JPGMention Errol Gay to a group of musicians and you’ll get some warm smiles of recognition: ask each of them how they know him and you’ll get many different answers. In Paula Citron’s article in this issue (page 8) about his wife, Ann Cooper Gay, there are more details about his extraordinary life, including his association with the Canadian Children’s Opera Company.

Read more: May's Child - Errol Gay

2007-MC-Adult.jpgMervon Mehta is the Executive Director of Performing Arts for The Royal Conservatory, where he oversaw the September 2009 launch of Koerner Hall’s inaugural season. Today Mehta is responsible for programming Koerner Hall’s own classical, jazz, world music and pop concerts, and oversees all performances at the RCM TELUS Centre. Comfortable and engaging on stage, Mehta was an actor before he was an administrator, and appears on stage frequently as a narrator of orchestral works with a wide range of orchestras internationally.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Mehta grew up in Montreal. He is the son of conductor Zubin Mehta and soprano Carmen Lasky, and has a sister Zarina. The young family lived in Liverpool, Saskatoon and Philadelphia before Zubin Mehta became music director of the Montreal Symphony. Mervon Mehta’s parents divorced in 1964 and two years later Lasky married Zarin Mehta, Zubin Mehta’s brother.

Mehta “survived” Lower Canada College and left Montreal to attend Colgate University in upstate New York, later studying at The Neighbourhood Playhouse School in New York City. His work in theatre included two seasons at the Stratford Festival.

A more detailed account of Mehta’s career can be found in an interview with Paula Citron (The WholeNote, October 2013), available at thewholenote.com.

When someone asks what you do for a living? I tell them I am in the concert business. They get all excited. I them tell them I present classical, jazz and world music… they usually leave me alone.

Upcoming projects that excite you? The second edition of 21C Music Festival begins on May 20. I am very excited about the line-up that includes new music written for classical chamber ensembles by Canadian and international composers including some from the jazz, rock, hip-hop, flamenco and tango worlds.

Earliest memory of music? My mother’s singing. She is still at it!

Other musicians in your childhood family? My grandfather, Mehli Mehta, was a violinist, conductor and teacher who started the Bombay Symphony. My grandmother was an amateur pianist and music was their bond.  Every member of my immediate and extended family and all of their friends seemed to be in the music business. They were all very accomplished so I only heard the best music all the time. In my 20s I rebelled against music and went into theatre but, just like Michael Corleone, the family “pulled me back in.”

Growing up in Montreal our house was filled with musicians from the OSM, visiting soloists like Perlman, Zukerman, Barenboim, Vickers, Forester, Price and music business legends such as Pierre Beique and Sam Gesser. I was surrounded by the finest musicians and finest minds in the field. Somehow I learned lessons from them that I keep to this day. Foremost amongst these people was my uncle, Zarin Mehta, an accountant who took a sabbatical to run the Orchestre symphonie de Montréal in 1976 and never looked back.  His music management skills, his taste, his fiscal acuity are tops in our field. He is my mentor and we still talk at least once a week about artists, programs, fees and agents.

2007-MC-Child.jpg

Other music, growing up?  CHOM FM in Montreal; first album I received was Sgt. Pepper; first album I bought was Jesus Christ Superstar. I still know all of the words to both. I took piano and violin lessons as a kid and was equally inept at both. But I would buy records or hear tunes on the radio and try to play them on the piano.

A first music teacher? I do remember (and still keep in touch with) my teacher from grade 6 or 7, Jennifer Giles. She allowed me to play Beatles tunes and showed me that lessons could actually be fun.

When did you first perform for an audience? My real performing started in University in an a cappella choir and in music theatre (The Boyfriend, Brigadoon, Camelot etc).

Your appetite for the stage? My parents took me to see a wide variety of theatre and music. They opened up my ears and mind to enormous possibilities. The soundtrack in our house was a mix of Wagner operas, Sinatra, Fischer-Dieskau, Beau Domage, CCR, Supertramp and Oscar Peterson. When I moved to the U.S. for college I was exposed to things I really hadn’t heard in Montreal like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder – they rocked my world.

Curating and programming? I always had a penchant for both sides of the stage… while at Stratford I managed a weekly cabaret series and directed some workshops here in Toronto. When I moved to Chicago my first job was as assistant director of The Importance of Being Earnest at The Court Theatre; I learned a few things about lighting, union contracts etc.

Did you ever think your life’s work would be in some entirely other sphere? In university I was an International Relations/Russian major. I was certain I would end up serving as a Canadian ambassador someday.

Music in your own day-to-day home and family life now? Music is 24/7… my son shares my love of African and Latin music and also tells me who the new pop stars are.

 You can read an expanded version of this interview online at thewholenote.com.

CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR WINNERS!  HERE’S WHAT THEY WON

The Royal Conservatory Family Concerts are approximately 75 minutes long, and are as ideal for 6- to13-year-olds as they are for parents, grandparents and grown-up friends.

Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express (April 25, 8pm, Koerner Hall) explores the connections between traditional reggae and straight-ahead jazz, while also forging some new ones. Pianist Monty Alexander, originally from Kingston, Jamaica, shot to fame when Sinatra first heard him in a tiny club

A pair of tickets for RICHARD SMITH

Natalie Merchant (May 2, 2pm, Koerner Hall) is a singer-songwriter and former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep – a collection of classic children’s poetry adapted to original music in a range of styles –   inspired the creation of a hardcover picture book illustrated by Barbara McClintock, which includes a 19-track CD. Hear her band and a string ensemble bring them to life. This prize includes a pair of concert tickets and a signed copy of Leave Your Sleep.

The winner is LYNDA MOON

The Royal Conservatory’s  21C Music Festival presents

Off the Score (May 20, 8pm Koerner Hall) with ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker. They will join Met Opera violinist Yoon Kwon, bassist Marion Martinez and Electronic Valve Instrumentalist Judd Miller in a collaboration that concludes with the world premiere of Copeland’s Coincidence or Convergence?

A pair of tickets for JENNIFER LIU

Music’s Children gratefully acknowledges Carmen, Zarin, Zubin, Barbora, Fia, Ann, George and Beverly

NEW CONTEST! Who is May’s Child?

2007-MC-Contest.jpgConductor, composer, music librarian, trombonist, organist pianist, music educator.

Has “a very important date” at Harbourfront in May.

Also seen in these rabbit holes:
Canadian Opera Company, Toronto Symphony, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Charlottetown Festival, Hart House Orchestra, Orchestra Toronto, High Park Choirs, Canadian Children’s Opera Company (just to name a few).

Know our Mystery Child’s name? WIN PRIZES! Send your best guess by April 24 to musicschildren@thewholenote.com.

2006-Marchs_Child_-_Jean_Stillwell.jpgJean Stilwell’s international career as a concert artist and operatic and lyric theatre mezzo-soprano has taken her all over the world but she has a well-maintained artistic presence in Canada. Her warm rich voice is currently familiar to many as radio co-host of Good Day GTA: Classical Breakfast with Mike Duncan & Jean Stilwell (weekdays 5-10am on the New Classical 96.3FM).

Some readers will remember Stilwell from the 1980’s in Stratford Festival Gilbert & Sullivan productions – including alternating with Maureen Forrester as the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe. Her first major operatic role in Canada was Olga (Eugene Onegin with the Vancouver Opera) followed by her very first Carmen (Lucian Pintilie’s Expo 86 production).  Subsequent engagements to sing Carmen include more than a dozen different companies. In Ontario Stilwell has sung a wide range of roles with Opera Atelier, Ottawa’s Opera Lyra, the Canadian Opera Company, Opera in Concert and Tapestry New Opera, and made numerous guest appearances with orchestras. Her ongoing cabaret and small-stage collaborations – in particular those with long-time musical friend Patti Loach (pianist and writer) – round out what continues to be an adventurous career.

Read more: March’s Child | Jean Stilwell

Journalist Ulla Colgrass once referred to Larry Beckwith’s father, the composer John Beckwith, as “Canada’s Musical Polymath” (The Globe and Mail 01/10/98). It seems Larry’s destined to share the honour. “People used to ask if he was my son; now they ask if I’m his father” (John Beckwith, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer).

web image 1 MusicsChildren Larry Beckwith by TARA McMULLENSince 2003 Larry Beckwith’s Toronto Masque Theatre has given unique performances that wed music, theatre, dance and other performance disciplines in collaborations that continue to challenge and engage. The masques performed to date, and the salons relating to them, include baroque originals (Purcell, Monteverdi, Handel et al.) as well as new commissions by Canadian composers (Richardson, Rolfe, Daniel, Burry, Ho): fresh entertainments equally informed by the old and the new.

Toronto-born Beckwith’s immersion in music began in childhood, and after graduating from Jarvis Collegiate his undergraduate and graduate studies in violin and musicology at the University of Toronto were just part of a continuum that embraces choral music, baroque and contemporary music, theatre, radio, teaching and writing. Beckwith the baroque violinist studied with Jeanne Lamon and was a founding member of the Arbor Oak Trio and the Aradia Ensemble. Beckwith the tenor has sung regularly with Elora Festival Singers, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Exultate Chamber Singers, Tafelmusik Chamber Singers and Opera Atelier. Beckwith the conductor leads some main stage productions for Toronto Operetta Theatre.  He’s worked as a radio producer, sound designer, journalist, university sessional instructor and festival programmer. He currently teaches the strings program at the arts-intensive Unionville High School. The WholeNote’s choral columnist for several years, he continues to review CDs.

web image 2 Larry leading Acis   January, 2015Suppose a friendly fellow traveler asks what you do for a living? I’m lucky that what I do for a living and what I love are the same thing. I’m privileged to have a teaching position at an arts high school in Markham, blessed with resources and an environment conducive to great music making. The students are keen, bright and respectful and we have a huge amount of fun learning about and sharing music at a high level. I am also the artistic director of a successful multi-disciplinary arts organization that allows me to pursue my strong interest in programming and commissioning early and contemporary stage works that combine music, theatre and dance. In addition, I do as much freelance work as I can find time for, as a singer and a baroque violinist. 

web image 3 LB on violin age 8   not croppedDo you remember that childhood photo being taken? I can’t say that I do, but there was a lot of music making that went on in my father’s small study in the family home on Summerhill Gardens. How long ago that was! I almost can’t remember being that person, but I remember all the music we used to read through ... Bach, Mozart, Handel’s Messiah – with me playing the vocal lines on the violin – and, very vividly, the beautiful Schumann pieces for clarinet and piano. We had an arrangement of these for violin – I heard Itzhak Perlman play them recently at RTH.

Your earliest memories of hearing music? My mother used to sing to me – folk and nursery songs. My father was always playing the great piano repertoire, as well as composing at the piano. The piano was a constant in our house. My father played it whenever he had time, and my mother did, as well. Lots of variety in repertoire, but quite often Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann ... sonata movements and the lovely, small character pieces. That piano was on the second floor in my father’s study but the record player was in our living room. 

We had one of those record players that was also a piece of furniture, like a sideboard. I loved listening to recorded music. In fact, I have a vivid memory of getting up on Saturday mornings very early and putting on De Falla’s Three Cornered Hat ballet suite and pretending to conduct! Other favourite recordings included Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony in Rossini overtures, Heifetz playing the Beethoven violin concerto and a beautiful recording of mixed repertoire for solo trumpet, played by Maurice Andr. I think I wanted to be a trumpet player initially! 

web image 4 Larry Robin DadOf course, my siblings had growing interests in popular music, too. I remember early Beatles albums, Donovan, Cat Stevens, Lovin’ Spoonful and a great novelty LP I still own: George Formby and his ukulele! My older sister played cello, my elder brother played a whole host of instruments: violin, clarinet, piano, guitar. And the brother closest to me in age was a drummer.

Concerts and theatre? My school, Deer Park Junior Public, did a musical every year and I remember going to see my older siblings in Oliver! – loved the music. I was taken to concerts quite early on, including some pretty far-out contemporary music shows. When I was 10 or 11, we went to the 20th anniversary festival at Stratford and I heard the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal in recital. That had a big impact. On that same trip, the Canadian Brass premiered a piece of my father’s late at night, outside on one of the islands in the middle of the Avon River. That was cool. 

Both of my parents were equally passionate for music and theatre. My mother was a trained actress who later became a very fine stage director. My father acted in productions as a student and has continued to have a keen theatrical sense as a composer. Growing up, I went regularly to local theatre and opera productions. I also had a few experiences of trodding the boards as a teenager, one of which – an adaptation of The Snow Queen by Martin Hunter – involved a nice mix of music and drama.

Your first memory of yourself making music? Our kindergarten class at Deer Park sang Put on a happy face at a school concert. 

First instrument? Violin. I think I originally asked to play trumpet at school, but that wasn’t possible for some reason, so I did have the feeling of being stuck with the violin.  

What do you remember about your first music teacher? Don Wasilenko ... he was an

itinerant teacher with the Toronto School Board and he used to come to Deer Park twice a week from 8:15 to 8:45 in the morning. A few weeks into being in that class, he told me he would come a half-hour earlier if I wanted to have some private instruction. I jumped at the chance. He immediately lit a fire in me, not only for playing the violin, but for making chamber music. He and I would play duets and it was so much fun! He was a lovely man and a demanding, but encouraging teacher.

First experiences of making music with other people? The orchestra at Deer Park was pretty good, but in grade 5 or 6 I was chosen to participate in the All-City Orchestra, conducted by Jack Dow (Holy Doodle!). I can’t remember what we played – something by Dvořák or Tchaikovsky --  but it was thrilling and we performed at Massey Hall in the annual spring school show. More intimately, I started playing sonatas with my father at a very early age – and we continue to do so all these years later. He introduced me to all the great violin and piano repertoire, starting with Handel and Bach, through Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy ... and we would play fun arrangements, like The Blue Danube and the overture to Orpheus and the Underworld. For the whole time we lived together, we would often sit down after dinner and play. I am so fortunate to have had that experience and it taught me to be a great sight reader and an understanding of how music is put together.

When did you first sing for an audience? Apart from that kindergarten experience, I really didn’t sing until I was in university. I was encouraged by the organist William Wright, who taught me first year keyboard harmony, to join his United Church choir. So I did, and I learned a great deal of sacred repertoire, as well as singing the Christmas Oratorio and Magnificat of Bach. This was my first encounter with Palestrina, Byrd, Praetorius, Schutz ... wonderful. 

When did conducting become part of the picture? I conducted the Victoria College Chorus for two years when I got out of University. I knew nothing about conducting, really ... just went on instincts, but we had some good concerts. I didn’t conduct again really ‘till I started teaching school in 2004.

And teaching high school? In 2001, I took a one-year contract as the director of programming for the International Choral Festival, curated by the legendary impresario Nicholas Goldschmidt. Essentially I was Niki’s right-hand man, taking care of all the planning details for the festival. Our education outreach consultant was Dr. Lee Willingham and Lee and I became quite good friends over the course of that year. I was turning 40, doing about seven different jobs, including teaching, playing, singing, writing, etc ... and my kids were five and three. It was a busy time, and I wasn’t getting any younger! Lee convinced me that I’d be a good teacher and made a good case for the teacher’s life: I’d be able to have a steady job -- provide for my family -- and still do all the things I was passionate about. I still thank him for that advice. It was the right move for me to make at exactly the right time. I entered OISE in the fall of 2003 and at the end of that school year, the strings position at Unionville opened up and I was lucky enough to win the job. 

When did you first conduct for an audience? After those Vic Chorus concerts, I resumed conducting at the Unionville High School in 2004, conducting almost every day in class and rehearsal. There’s no better way to develop technique and strategies than in that environment. Trial and error! 

With Toronto Masque Theatre, I learned from our first commissioned work that leading contemporary music from the first violin is difficult. So, when we came to do our next commission, I bowed out of playing in favour of conducting and I think that worked nicely. That was James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido in 2007. I guess you could say that was my professional conducting debut and it went very well. 

Later, I had the supreme pleasure – and one of the most terrifying challenges of my life – to conduct my father’s opera Taptoo! – for Toronto Operetta Theatre. This opened up a new and fascinating world for me.

When did you begin to see yourself as a musician? I never thought I’d be anything else. From the time I fully understood the practicalities of making a living I made a pact with myself that my job would always have something to do with music. I wish I’d been more practical in setting goals for myself early on, but miraculously, one thing has led to another and I’ve been able to honour that pact. 

Did you ever think you would do something else? To be honest, a potentially fatal flaw in my make-up is the inability to look ahead too far. I can’t say that I ever had a career plan. I worked in the music library at the university for several years after my graduation and I enjoyed the work and could have continued, except that opportunities opened up at CBC Radio, where I worked for seven quite stressful but fascinating years. I could have gladly continued there, but was a victim of cutbacks. Thus began several pleasant, but uncertain years of short-term contracts and freelance work, which led to teaching and the formation of Toronto Masque Theatre. My experience has been that one thing always leads logically to something else and my being a sort of musical jack of all trades has made for an interesting ride!

Where does music fit into your family life today? Where it’s always been … at the very centre. My wife is a brilliant soprano, teacher and conductor and my daughters play various instruments and both sing beautifully. The four of us have a wonderful time playing and singing in concerts, going to concerts and making and listening to music at home. In a way, nothing has changed.

Growing up, I always felt I was in the shadow of my brilliant parents and supremely talented siblings. And now I’m so proud of my wife and children – I stand in awe of their innate capabilities and natural musical talents, and I have fun trying to keep up.

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