p25_jamie_howieson_and_john_swallow_black_creekThe Capital One BlackCreek Summer Music Festival is presenting a fantastic and diverse series of concerts, featuring stars from the worlds of classical music and opera, jazz, Broadway, gospel, country and mainstream pop. All concerts will be presented at the Rexall Centre at 1 Shoreham Drive on the York University Campus. Given that this facility was designed primarily for staging major tennis competitions, it’s not unreasonable to wonder just what the sound quality will be like for the average concert goer. It was with these questions in mind that I met with John Swallow, of Swallow Acoustic Consultants Ltd. (www.swallowacoustic.ca), and Jamie Howieson, Production and Technical Manager of the Rexall Centre.

John was quick to point out that the round, bowl shape of the venue, as well as its size, is very similar to the classical amphitheatres of Greek and Roman times – some of which are still used today for concerts with great success. The lack of a roof eliminates a major source of acoustic interference: the reflected sound from above which arrives after the direct sound from the stage, degrading the clarity and muddying the sound.

p25_rendering_of_blackcreek_venueThe process of optimizing the concert sound began with a simple test of a sound system set up by Jamie in the basic, untreated arena. Encouraged by what was heard, John went on to perform a full acoustic analysis to identify any specific problem areas requiring treatment. These turned out to be vertical wall surfaces reflecting sound which could be heard as an interfering echo by someone sitting in the house, easily managed with sound absorbing materials so that the only sound perceived by an audience member will be the sound emanating from the stage, free of any interference. The final step was to design the sound system to provide even coverage for every seat in the house.

The stage will be housed in a massive structure located at one end of the playing surface, with its front edge located roughly at the service line of the tennis court. Since the venue was designed to provide uninterrupted sight lines from all seats to the entire playing surface, it follows that every audience member will have an unobstructed view of the performers. Those sitting closest to the stage will be hearing the direct sound from the performers primarily. At greater distances, the sound reinforcement system will come into play so that every seat in the house will experience a comparable volume level so that everyone, wherever they are sitting, will hear clear, evenly balanced sound, that is not unreasonably loud.

The majority of seats are within 45 metres (150 feet) of the front of the stage and the distance to the furthest seat in the top bleachers, is 68 metres (223 feet). These dimensions are comparable with the typical “performer to audience” distances found in a Broadway theatre, so the concert experience is going to be very intimate. John goes on to say, “The idea of intimacy and thousands of people would seem to be at odds with one another … [however] it’s much more intimate than anyone would imagine and that’s because that tennis court surface is actually very small.” This is in a venue that can seat upwards of 12,000 people.

Jamie sums it up: “The combination of a sound design that’s designed for the venue, that isn’t going in and out every day (like every other touring show), is a huge benefit, and when you combine that with an acoustic design that is tailored for the venue – it’s going to give our listeners a seamless event. Close your eyes, no sound system.”

“I’m excited. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I think John and I have come up with a great solution … With a combination of the acoustic design AND the audio design, we’re really confident that this is going to be a great experience for people.”

The opening concert of the BlackCreek Summer Music Festival will feature Plácido Domingo with special guest soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky, Saturday, June 4 at 8:00pm.

Information about other concerts in the series can be
found in the pages of The WholeNote magazine as well as online at www.blackcreekfestival.com.

Frank Lockwood is an audio recording engineer and producer, specializing in classical and acoustic music for over twenty years.  In the 90s, he wrote a series of articles for The WholeNote detailing the acoustics of various concert venues throughout the Toronto area. More information can be found online at www.LockwoodARS.com.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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