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.

Director Joel Ivany lives in the King West neighbourhood of Toronto with soprano Miriam Khalil and OperaBaby Sammy. Some of his other passions and pastimes include cycling (he has biked across Canada), writing and reading.

Do you remember that childhood photo being taken?  I feel like I do. The photo was taken in Bala, Ontario, at the vacation home/cottage of my great Uncle Gogo and Auntie Lean. I want to say it was my Uncle Paul who took it.  I always remember him having his camera out.

Joel3 4yrrs BalaONWhen you look at the photo today, what do you most immediately think about? How much I loved going out on the boat and how easily the boat would race across the water.

If you could travel back through time and chat with the young person in that childhood photo, what would you would like to tell him? I'd like to tell him to listen to his parents.  They know what they're talking about.  I'd also like to tell him the world is a beautiful place with wonderful people.

What is your absolute earliest specific memory of hearing music?

My mom would sing (beautifully) Jesus Loves Me.

Were there other musicians in your childhood family? I have three siblings and my mom would have us put on small musicals and shows at church.  She also taught us all the piano.  So singing and piano were always there.

How about in your family today? My little brother and his four kids are all very musical.  My mom is the choir director at her church.  My Dad plays in the brass band at church.  They're all still fairly musically involved.

Where did listening to music, both formal and informal, fit into your life as a child? My mother would play the soundtrack to The Mission while she would clean the house on Saturdays.  That score has stuck in my mind and heart ever since. 

At church, on Sunday evenings, at the second service (yes, second service) they would always sing choruses and hear testimonies from the congregation.  This was always a special time where we sang and could hear from the other people in the church.

How about records, recorded music, radio?

Church.  It was all at church.  I didn't get my first cassette until I was about 8 or 9 – Rap Trax 3.

Did you sing, as a child? Yes.  It was always a part of who I was. I didn't know otherwise.

Did you play an instrument? And do you still?

I was taught the cornet and then graduated down the line to Euphonium and finally tuba (I had big lips).  I also was taught the piano and in high school learned the trombone and also the guitar.

What are your earliest recollections of making music with other people?

Certainly church youth choirs. Also Junior Band.  We'd have music camps in the summer where we'd meet kids from all over (our friends we only saw once a year) and break off into group lessons or other various bands and choirs.

What do you remember about a first music teacher? My first music teacher was my mother. Couldn't get allowance until we logged our time on the keys!

Can you suggest experiences from your childhood or teen years that helped to form your alacrity and appetite for staged works? I think having my mother put us in small shows when we were young definitely put the impulse in my subconscious.  

Joel5 5yrs TorontoWhat do you remember about a first experience making live theatre? I just remember acting as a kid in front of people and making them laugh. The fact that what you do or say can entertain someone is a very powerful realization.

Where did you attend high school?

I went to Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto (Go Panthers)

What did you do right after high school? I went to York University for two weeks before deciding to up my OAC's and get into a better program.

Do you remember the first time you directed something? In high school, we got into making movies for assignments.  If there was any kind of presentation required, we'd ask if we could make a movie.  I would write the story and direct the way we would shoot it.  It was always silly and always absurd.

Can you identify the point at which you began to think of yourself as a director? In university I directed a play in a one-act festival and won the prize for best director.  The following year I directed the musical Cabaret and the rest is history!

How/when did opera enter the picture for you?

It wasn't until university where I learned more about opera and was a supernumerary in a production at the COC.

Did you ever think you would do something else?

I came very close to being a youth pastor. 

Where does music fit into your personal/family life at home today? With a beautiful, almost two-year-old, there is a lot of kids songs.  A lot of children's theme music.

If you were driving ALONE and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose?

West Side Story...all the way.

Joel Ivany colourJoel Ivany was born in Penticton, BC. His family and moved around a lot – to Kelowna, and after that Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa. He is one of four children – he has an older sister and a younger sister and brother – and remembers watching and hearing musicals with them: The Sound of Music, OliverMary Poppins and Babes in Toyland.  Both of his parents, ordained minsters, worked with the Salvation Army, and Ivany’s early musical experiences included playing the cornet and eventually the tuba, going to music camps in the summer and singing in choirs all the way through high school.

The first opera he remembers watching was a video of La Bohème with Luciano Pavarotti, which took up three whole high school classes. The teenaged Ivany may not have felt much connection at the time, but it’s interesting how that opera re-emerged when as a young director, hungry to make stories with music resound in new ways, Ivany began to reimagine operas with his present-day company, Against the Grain Theatre.

Ivany has also directed for the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, Minnesota Opera, the Aventa Ensemble, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy, the U of T Opera Division, Wilfrid Laurier University, Music Niagara, Opera Nuova, Western University, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Banff Centre and Vancouver Opera

Ivany’s music degree is from Western University. Opera wasn’t much on his radar in university, although theatre and music theatre were strong interests But an opportunity to watch rehearsals of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (for the opening of the Four Seasons Centre)  had a big impact on his thinking about music and storytelling . After some apprenticing in Canada and Europe as a director he returned to Toronto  where an introduction to director and mentor, Michael Albano, led eventually to an artist diploma in Opera Directing at the U of T Opera School.

La Bohème, Against the Grain’s first production in 2011, was set and produced in a bar in Toronto – the Tranzac Club. They were real “starving artists” doing what they do in a place they could afford, for an audience of about 120 people. They could have a beer (or two) during the show, and afford it, because the opera ticket hadn’t emptied their pockets Today Ivany and Against the Grain continue to adapt and innovate, and bring operas with new librettos to courtyards, bars, wedding halls and other non-traditional venues. Last season  #Uncle John, inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni  was presented in Toronto at the Great Hall, and then at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival. Ivany then directed "Death and Desire," a double-bill mashup of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Messiaen’s Harawi which featured Stephen Hegedus and Krisztina Szabó, presented in a Toronto west-end galley.

Chris MacDonald and Joel Ivany (right) working on #UncleJohn at The Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Banff. PHOTO: BRENT CALISAgainst the Grain Theatre first shook up (or stirred) Handel’s Messiah in 2013 at a rock and roll hall called the Opera House, with a show that “walked the line between edgy and faithful”. It was all Handel all the time, but no tuxedos, no music stands, and a lot of surprises. Building on that creative and critical success, their 2015 Messiah will be barefoot, choreographed, costumed. and as a further departure will be in a theatre – Harbourfront Centre – produced in partnership with Massey  Hall.

In another departure from the conventional, Ivany will direct a semi-staged Mozart Requiem for the Toronto Symphony in January, conducted by Bernard Labadie. This project was workshopped last spring at the Canadian Stage Company with support from the TSO – see below for more details.

Think you don’t ever need to see another production of Carmen? You might want to reconsider in time to buy a ticket for Ivany’s mainstage directing debut with the Canadian Opera Company – in April and May, 2016. Doubtless the mezzo will still die at the end, but your journey at her side may be a ride like no other to date.

Meanwhile we can begin trying to imagine  Against The Grain’s upcoming #ALittleTooCozy. which is the third of their Mozart updates. Ivany’s new English libretto of Così fan tutte. reimagined as “a reality TV dating show.” was workshopped last summer at The Banff Centre. Coming to Toronto in spring 2016 to an as-yet-undisclosed Toronto venue …


Against the Grain Theatre’s Messiah (Dec 16 to 19) “This is not your grandma’s Messiah (but she would love it, so bring her).” Co-presented by Massey Hall at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. These performances of Handel’s intact score, performed costumed and choreographed, feature soloists Stephen Hegedus, Miriam Khalil, Owen McCausland and Andrea Ludwig. Directed by Joel Ivany and choreographed by Jennifer Nichols, with a 16-member chorus and chamber orchestra led by music director Christopher Mokrzewski.

Mozart Requiem (Jan 21 to 23) (Mozart/completed by Robert D. Levin) K626 has been re-imagined as a semi-staged theatrical event at Roy Thomson Hall. Bernard Labadie conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with Lydia Teuscher, soprano; Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano; Frédéric Antoun, tenor; Philippe Sly, bass-baritone; the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers. Directed by Joel Ivany.

The Canadian Opera Company production of Bizet’s Carmen (Apr 12 to May 15), Singing arguably some of opera’s most familiar and popular music, the double cast includes Clémentine Margaine and Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role, Russell Thomas / David Pomeroy as Don José, Christian Van Horn / Zachary Nelson as Escamillo and  Simone Osborne / Karine Boucher as Micaëla. Conducted by Paolo Carignani  and directed by Joel Ivany.


MysteryChild 2 Dec2015 CroppedWho is February’s Child?

This little girl is no shrinking violet,

and her first instrument no second fiddle.

First chair from the age of 21,

she’s equally at home

in our symphony,

in her trio and chamber collaborations

and solo works.

1939 (a rough time for humanity, a remarkable time for music).

Practicing at home in Nanjing

A hot summer day, circa 1990

JOHANNES DEBUS lives in Toronto and Berlin with Elissa Lee, Jonah and Noah. Some of his other passions and pastimes include riding the family Brompton, baking pancakes grandma-style, taking nonsense photos and trying to understand the intricate rules of baseball.

Johannes DebusSuppose you're chatting with a friendly fellow traveller. After they have told you about their career in pest control or medical imaging, they ask what you do for a living. How might you reply? Fascinating, guys, what you are doing! Myself, I'm working as a simple manufacturer, creating sound with my bare hands.

Johannes Debus studied conducting at the Hamburg Conservatory, but his career as an operatic conductor is the outcome of ten years with the Frankfurt Opera, where he began as a pianist, coach and assistant conductor, eventually becoming their resident conductor. Debus was appointed music director of the Canadian Opera Company in 2009 after an acclaimed debut conducting their 2008 production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace.

Recently for the COC he’s conducted Falstaff, Die Walküre, Bluebeard’s Castle / Erwartung. In the current season he’s conducting the world première of Canadian John Frederick Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe (onstage through Nov 7), Siegfried (Jan 23 to Feb 14) and  The Marriage of Figaro (Feb 4 to Feb 27). Beyond the COC here’s a current sampling of his agenda. In November he’ll conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the San Diego Symphony. In February he’ll conduct the Royal Conservatory Orchestra; in April The Cunning Little Vixen for the Frankfurt Opera; in May, The Marriage of Figaro for the Komische Oper in Berlin; and the Cleveland Orchestra at  the Blossom Festival this summer.

Debus’ TSO debut was part of their 2013 Mozart@257 – “Pure joy, driven like the wind.” (Robert Harris’ response in The Globe and Mail) Called upon to step in for James Levine at Tanglewood and for Sir Colin Davis at Symphony Hall, Debus conducts, internationally, repertoire of every kind.

~ Between opera houses and symphony halls one hopes he will find time for a little winter skating here in Ontario. ~

Debus as a childWhere were you born? Speyer am Rhein, in a lovely region called Palatinate, southwest of Germany, close to Alsace in France. I would like to call it the German Tuscany. I grew up in Speyer, and attended high school in Speyer.

And right after high school? I went to Hamburg to study conducting.

When you look at that childhood photo today, what do you think about? Happy childhood memories! I remember the wobbly feeling being on ice skates for the first time in my life. It was a lot of fun, though, enjoying really cold winters in such a way.

If you could travel back through time and meet that young person …? I might say: “Ask your mom to get you another hairstylist. What!? Your mom is your hairstylist?! Oops.”

I might ask: “Young man, could you imagine crossing the Atlantic one day and start living your dream in a place like Toronto?” The answer would have been a big question mark on my face, I suppose.

Your earliest specific memory of hearing music? My mom singing for me whilst changing my diapers. Now you can say, either I have a very good memory or I wore diapers significantly longer than others! She sang a beautiful German folksong with the following text: "Der Mai, der Mai, der lustige Mai..."

Other musicians in your childhood family? My parents didn’t play any musical instruments. They just loved music and loved passing that down to their kids. My father was an archivist and my mother was a librarian. We all got to sing, we all got to play the recorder (hooray) and we all learned other instruments. My younger brother is a fine jazz musician -- he is the really talented one.

Where did listening to music, fit into your life as a child? All sources to listen to music were important to me: the radio, even the TV at times, recordings in various (nowadays vintage) formats (MC, LP, CD). I remember the subscription concerts of the regional symphony orchestras, I remember lots of very fine concerts of renowned orchestras, ensembles and organists at the cathedral – memorable also just because of the 12 seconds reverberant sound, which gave certain pieces a slightly unusual soundscape.

But at the end it was all about being able to play music myself.

What is your first memory of making music yourself? Singing was in fact the first way to make music myself. I don't think there is a more elementary and better way to start.

Your first instrument? After maltreating everyone's ears with the unavoidable recorder, I continued with playing the piano. Don't know if it helped to reconcile those I might have offended with the recorder.

Other instruments? The most painful years of my early life – three years of violin lessons. I regret that I wasn't patient enough to continue. Instead I went on with the organ and played a lot in the local churches -- not the worst move, ask my piggy bank.

What are your earliest recollections of making music with other people? As elementary it is to sing, it is also an elementary experience to sing with others. I remember the great community and spirit we had in the choir when I was a young boy. It obviously also trains you to listen and in particular, to listen to others.

What do you remember about a first music teacher? I was lucky to have a few excellent teachers. But I remember one in particular for the legendary words in a rehearsal: "It sounds as if someone would pee on the Mona Lisa!"

How did conducting first become part of the picture? I loved to conduct the LP-player -- and didn't care if I made a fool of myself. Ask my siblings!

When did you first conduct for an audience? I can't remember precisely, must have been at the age of 15 or so, and probably choral music.

Can you suggest experiences from your childhood or teen years that helped to form your alacrity and appetite for staged works, opera in particular? Believe it or not: I didn't quite get it in my childhood. My Eureka Moment happened much later. I had to prepare a piece of music for the start of a course as part of my studies at Germany’s Hamburg Conservatory. I had to prepare La Traviata. When I sat down to play it, I had this moment of feeling this fantastic, fabulous range of emotions. That was the moment I was hooked. Now I'm an addict.

Do you remember when you began to think of yourself as a career musician? I was 17 by the time I felt it would be important -- to me at least – to give it a try to find my luck in music. Who knows, where and what I'd be today, if I would have failed.

Did you ever think you would do something else? I had a few other ideas -- pest control and medical imaging weren't part of that list, though. I was always fascinated by archeology, art history, classics etc.

Where does music fit into your family life at home today? Isn't family life an opera in itself?!

If you were driving alone and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose? Driving alone in the car? Hm, better no music. Imagine I would start conducting along... If you ask for recommendations for the lonely-cowboy-on-the-highway list: baroque music works astonishingly well for me, the Brandenburg Concertos for example. – great stuff to listen to, to whistle along and to keep you awake.


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!


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
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