PUB: Formal name: public house – a building with a bar and one or more public rooms licensed for the sale and consumption of alcoholic drink, often also providing light meals. (Source: dictionary.com)

56aThis is the essence of Opera Bob’s Public House: the two year brain child of two good friends and myself. Located in the town whose hockey team is first to the golf course, with a soccer team masquerading as a football club, a basketball team whose constant rebuilding makes the TTC’s Sheppard line look like the road to the promised land, and a baseball team that, at least, keeps us hoping for another “touch them all Joe”! A town, in other words, where sport fans could use a drink.

In Hog’s Hipsterville, OB’s attempts to maintain the tradition of its name: a public place. A place where the neighbourhood Dad can take a break and catch the game of puck on the reality box, men of the letters of the law can toss back a half dozen after a long day of negotiations, the co-ed softball team can celebrate their shellacking, and the 905ers can see how the real spend their Friday nights; not standing in line for a sweaty basement bash.

As we spend every free moment posting on our walls, reading tweety’s latest squeak, waiting for our next message on our I-phone, I-pad, I-have no life, let us not forget the simpler and slower days of yore when human communication was done with the voice, the glaze, the shake of a head and the tap on the shoulder. Traditions are entrenched in our human condition for good reason. Just as opera was the rock music of its time (not the tuxedo wearing, champagne sipping we attribute to it), a bar is a solid wood counter, a bar man and taps of beer. Not a granite landing, with Hollywood star-in-waiting pouring you a martini from your choice of sixteen vodkas.

If opera is the highest form of human expression, combining all forms of art,  the pub must be the culmination of human disentanglement: the perfect place to vent, relax, let loose, argue, sit in solitary observance of our social machinations, or a place to drink the fruits of monkish labour.

Come down to the Public House; just off the Ossington strip on the road leading to the sleeper town of the steel Hammer. A place to be you, it’s a place where all are welcome (even plaid-shirt, tight jean, silly hat wearing, and match.com date varieties). Toss back a microbrew as Neil sings the line “Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were,” or a live group of ragtag culprits blasts through their songs much like the fat soprano busted through an aria of Joe Green’s at La Scala. Ponder deep questions: should a ball park dog only be consumed in the friendly confines or may it be done watching the great pastime on tv? How do you condimate yours while watching our boys in baby blue? The profundity persists…

Toronto-born operatic bass Robert Pomakov is currently working at the Metropolitan Opera on Rigoletto and Il Trovatore and makes his next local appearance in the COC’s new production of Rigoletto in the fall.

58__justthe_spot_heliconian_photo_andrew_fare58_justthespot_alisonmelville__by_menglin_gaoPart of rural Toronto when it was built in 1875, the Heliconian Hall is located near the south end of Hazelton Avenue, situated amongst galleries, upscale offices and private homes in what’s now known as Yorkville. It’s the home of the Heliconian Club, an organization founded in 1909 for professional women in the arts and one of the oldest associations of its kind in Canada.

For me, it’s a delightful and unpretentious little oasis in a surrounding sea of consumer excess, and an intimate concert hall which I have known since I was a kid. I played my first “non-compulsory” solo recital there, blissfully free from the pressure of university grading, and have made music there many more times since. I also recently became a member of the Heliconian Club and appreciate the opportunity it provides to connect and interact with women artists of various disciplines, backgrounds, ages, and perspectives on the creative life.

The current building opened in 1876 as the Olivet Congregational Church, and became the church hall and Sunday school in 1890 when a larger adjacent building was erected. In 1921, it was sold to the Painters Union and renamed Hazelton Hall when acquired by the Heliconian Club in 1923. Original elements of the Carpenter Gothic board-and-batten church have been restored to their former glory, including a Victorian rose window above the entrance, a majestic oak and brick wood-burning fireplace, vaulted ceiling and wooden rafters. The Hall has been appointed a National Historical Site, and the Lonely Planet website lists it as #213 of 540 places to visit in Toronto!

The current building also has a modest but well-appointed kitchen, a small bar and a patio at the rear, which is a convivial touch for summertime events. But perhaps what makes the Heliconian most appealing to musicians is its stellar acoustic and its intimate feel. With every seat occupied there’s room for 120, and the stage rises just a foot above the main floor, so there’s little chance of establishing that “us versus them” feeling that many performance venues still seem to evoke. It’s a great place for chamber music, and it’s easy to get to – two reasons why the revivified Baroque Music beside the Grange’s occasional concerts take place there. The hall is available for anyone to rent, at a very reasonable rate. An added bonus is that there’s almost always an art exhibit on display in the main space for concertgoers to explore.

BMBG’s previous home was the Church of St. George the Martyr, another historic building which predates the Heliconian Hall by about 40 years. These days, though, the multifaceted activities of the Music Gallery mean that the concert dates we’d like are often not available there. So we needed to find another venue for our concerts. The solution was truly a no-brainer: the historic and cozy atmosphere of the Heliconian Hall is perfect for our purposes, and the sound is fabulous. It’s a pleasure to play there. It feels very much like home.

BMBG’s upcoming Heliconian Hall concert The Coffeehouse Collective: Sociable music, Baroque-style is Friday March 4 at 8pm.

knox_college_-_clsWHEN I FURIOSI WAS in its toddler years, it staggered around the city looking for a place to set up its playpen. With a small but growing audience, this was a tricky search. Large venues seemed empty with our crowd, and tiny places made our somewhat unrestrained baroque ensemble feel like we were invading the audience’s personal space. Yes, chamber music is meant to be intimate, but no one wants to feel like the performers or audience can smell sweat.

After trying a few spots around town, we landed on Knox College Chapel. Tucked away in King’s College Circle, Knox College is the Presbyterian theology school of the University of Toronto. It boasts an address on St George Street, making it very easy to find and access, but the chapel itself is on the King’s end of the building.

It seats (tightly) about 150 people, and is a treat to the eye and ear. The intimate acoustic allows for chamber music to be performed with ease, but the chancel is distant enough from the pews to circumvent any odour problems. We always found the Knox staff friendly and there are enough toilets in the building to make for a short intermission.

The décor is spectacular – high vaulted ceilings with gothic wood, stone and glass panels. The passageway leading from St George to the chapel also leaves the traveler with a Hogwarts-esque feeling. Aside from the beauty and communion of the setting, Knox College Chapel contains two organs of note. The organ in the chancel is a modified Cassavant built in 1915, and the gallery organ is a Wolff tuned to a 5th comma meantone. All this is hidden in one of the best-kept secret concert venues in the city.

I Furiosi lasted happily in this space until early adolescence, at which point it had to seek larger accommodations. The glass doors at the entrance to the chapel still reverberate with the “BRAVO” yelled by one memorably drunken audience member, who stormed out, apparently overcome.

Although we are now in our adult digs and we do our own laundry and remember to have showers, we sometimes miss the early days with our friends at Knox. This is still the perfect spot for an up-and-coming chamber group. The acoustic is particularly beautiful for early music. Highly recommended for ensembles with impeccable personal hygiene.

2208-Remembering-Banner.jpg2208-Remembering.jpgAt The WholeNote we knew the late Bill McQueen as a founding member and forever champion of the Counterpoint Community Orchestra, based out of the 519 Church St. Community Centre in Toronto. Bill played clarinet and served in various capacities as a board member and chairperson from 1987 to 2016. Counterpoint Community Orchestra’s regular classified ad, encouraging musicians of all kinds to join the orchestra, was updated by Bill in person only a few weeks before he died. He appeared in our office, late on a winter afternoon, to make sure the ad was all in order, and chatted with me about the upcoming December concert. Then he was gone. And he will be missed.

McQueen was deeply committed to Counterpoint’s continuity not only as an inclusive community orchestra, but one which emerged from and is still giving back to the LGBTQ community. He was also the guy sitting at the back with the sweet clarinet, doggedly patient about taking the time to get things right, with a warm smile and a great sense of humour, who liked to think up entertaining names and themes for concerts.

McQueen’s life touched and changed the lives of so many that it’s very hard to know where to begin, other than at the beginning. He was born in Alva, Oklahoma, into a family of musical people. After high school, he moved to New York City where he earned a B.A. in humanities from the City University of New York. A person of profoundly humane politics he left the USA and its war with Vietnam in 1969 and moved to Canada, first to Montreal and then to Toronto where he earned an M.A. in adult education and learning from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T. He worked in New York City as a radio program host for about ten years and later at the Globe and Mail inToronto.

He was the editor, for several years, of the Canadian Association for Studies in Adult Education journal and worked to engage students and academics in that field in the promotion of democratic citizenship and lifelong learning. McQueen’s personal lifelong musical activities are a testament to the way he led by example.

He was a community organizer and tireless advocate for social justice. He worked as an adult educator, also as a consultant for small to large corporations on including people with disabilities – not just in hiring practices but in the company culture. He co-founded Fireweed Media Productions whose work gave rise to The Disability Network, a groundbreaking series that ran on CBC Television from 1990 to 1997.

Author, former journalist and broadcast producer, Cynthia Reyes, wrote on her website in A Strong Voice, Silent Now: “Most of Bill’s work was voluntary. He was a musician, and belonged to his beloved symphony, but there’s an impressive list of other voluntary initiatives…many of them focused on getting people with disabilities employed in the media, or changing the way the media portrays them.” Read more about this aspect of Bill McQueen’s life, including Reyes’ personal account of how he helped her at a time of great need, at cynthiareyes.com.

Bill McQueen passed away suddenly in February 2017 from a brain hemorrhage – a complication of his health conditions. Bill is survived by his longtime partner Bon Posavanh; his brother, Jim McQueen, and Jim’s wife Beth Wolf; his niece Kathy McQueen; and his nephew James McQueen. And by his orchestra.

 Jack Buell

2205 Remembering Hamilton 1“Darling, there’s a market for everything!”  Whether in reference to an obscure Massenet opera or his specially designed outfits from Northbound Leather, Stuart more than proved the point during his 87 years on planet Earth.

Hello Bohème! was my official introduction to Stuart Hamilton. I had of course heard of him but had never experienced the force of his personality firsthand. Stuart had dreamed up a potted version of the Puccini masterpiece for Theatre in the Dell, one of Toronto’s then-flourishing cabaret hotspots. We’re talking 1973, dimly lit second-floor rooms, cheap wine and suspect Italian food. Roxolana Roslak and Michael Burgess and Lynn Blaser and Avo Kittask were the two pairs of lovers. The remainder of the cast was me…filling in for the chorus, sugar daddy Alcindoro, Parpignol and the children’s chorus. Stuart, though, was the big star. He had been hailed as a comedian and pianist in Beyond the Fringe and his name is what drew in the crowds. Night after night for over five months, he’d sit at the rickety old spinet playing a tune or two from La Bohème, the phone on the piano would ring and he’d answer with a lilting “Hello… Bohème… you’re going to see Bohème? Darling, you’ll love it…!” And away we’d go on his guided tour through the life and death of poor doomed Mimi. Who knows…the surprisingly robust market for Hello Bohème! may have planted the seed for his big idea.

And that was Opera in Concert.

Stuart believed passionately in the wealth of talent to be found right here in Toronto and despaired that so many fine young singers felt they had to go to New York or Europe to get ahead. His other passion was French opera. So, why not a concert series showcasing rarely heard French opera performed by rarely heard Canadian singers? That first season (1974/75), Thomas’ Hamlet, Massenet’s Thaïs and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict hit the boards of the Jane Mallett Theatre and the rest is history. What history does not reveal is that Stuart coached all the singers for free and never took a salary as founder, artistic director and pianist for Opera in Concert. As it turned out, the market for less familiar operatic fare – French and not-so-French! - was significant and soon enough the series was expanded to four operas, some performed with orchestra.

My partner Guillermo (Bill) Silva-Marin and I were in that first OIC season; Bill was Hamlet and I was Marcellus, the guy who sees the ghost and disappears never to be heard from again. The full story can be found in Stuart’s memoir, Opening Windows: Confessions of a Canadian Vocal Coach. Over the years, Bill and I appeared for Opera in Concert numerous times and Stuart became a valued coach, mentor and, most importantly, a great friend.

Stuart was born in Regina at the dawn of the Great Depression, third son of a lawyer and his North Dakota-born wife, and brother to two sisters, Dorothy and Patricia. His first brush with fame came in 1939 when he was greatly applauded for his skating routine, performed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. The ten-year-old’s performance was notable for remarkable spins and his bumblebee costume. Growing up, the prairie boy practised piano, joined the high school drama club and listened fanatically to the Met’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera broadcast. By 1947, the call of neon and concrete had become too great and he moved to Toronto to seek his fortune. During his salad days, he was an usher at the Eaton Auditorium, conducted Broadway shows in Buffalo, gave recitals in New York and London, taught at the Hamilton Conservatory, toured with Lois Marshall and Maureen Forrester and occasionally conducted for June Kowalchuk’s early version of Opera Hamilton.

The piano was Stuart’s principal means of musical expression and he maintained a fractious relationship with those 88 keys right up until the end. His forte was French high romanticism and composers such as Mozart and Bach rather intimidated him. Nevertheless and because “Darling, I’ll do anything to make a buck,” he and a trio of his singer friends turned up on the Brunch with Bach series at Harbourfront. To his great surprise, The Globe and Mail critic praised his Bach style in lavish fashion and gave everybody a good review. Stuart’s response was something on the order of “What does he know, I left out half the notes!”

2205 Remembering Hamilton 2Never anybody’s idea of a homebody, Stuart was a great traveller and he did not stay in dumps. “Leave me alone, I’m a rich millionaire” is another of the lines his close friends remember, a zinger he’d deliver whenever anyone questioned his fondness for the George V in Paris or invite buddies to dinner at La Tour d’Argent. During one memorable trip to San Juan, he checked into and out of three first rate hotels: El Convento, Normandie and the renowned Condado Beach Hotel. The Condado was particularly trying because each night he was serenaded by a choir of Puerto Rican frogs…coquis. They are thumb-sized little buggers, but Pavarotti had nothing on them when it came to volume. According to Stuart their cry was a piercing minor ninth (co-QUI) and it drove him mad!

Looking back at his multi-faceted career, one wonders how he found time to do it all and still keep up his daily coaching schedule, which over the years included a who’s who of Canada’s vocal elite…and some of the rest of us! Quizmaster of CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera from 1982 till 2007, he also appeared regularly as a panelist, and occasional guest quizmaster, on the Met’s broadcasts from Lincoln Center. He was the first music director of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, an in-demand lecturer and adjudicator for competitions such as the George London and Sullivan Foundation Awards, Mexico’s Oralia Dominguez Competition, the CBC Young Performers’ Competition and Bathroom Divas, while in his later years, countless young singers benefitted from his wise counsel as a recital adjudicator for the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Stuart was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 1984, won the Toronto Arts Award in 1989, received the Governor General’s Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Confederation in 1992, the first Ruby Award from Opera Canada in 2000 and the Beckmesser Award from the Los Angeles Opera in 2004. Dalhousie University awarded him an honourary doctorate in 2008 and he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

My last memories of Stuartissimo, as so many of us called him, were positive ones. Even though he became increasingly fragile due to the effects of prostate cancer, he was alert and energized when the subject was opera. I went over one Saturday afternoon last December and he wouldn’t be interrupted…Manon Lescaut was on. After the opera, he made some incisive comments about the development of Puccini’s genius, from the boyish Le Villi through to Manon Lescaut and the triumph of La Bohème; then he let me know that it was naptime. A couple of days later, Bill and I were invited for Christmas dinner, which he himself was determined to cook! This turned into a hilarious and somewhat chaotic affair featuring turkey, mashed potatoes and rutabagas; Dorothy later told me that they forgot to serve the coleslaw and Apple Betty.

And now he is gone.

Much will be written, many stories will be told and we will all cherish the memory of a man whose life was dedicated to music.

A Memorial for Stuart Hamilton will be held at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on Sunday,March 5, 2017 at 3pm. Admission is free. Please call the St. Lawrence Centre Box Office at 416-366-7723 to reserve a seat. Those wishing to honour Stuart’s memory are invited to make a contribution to the Stuart Hamilton Memorial Fund for Emerging Artists.

Henry Ingram, a reformed tenor, is Managing Director of Dean Artists Management and Director of the Concerts Division.  

Back to top