27b_aitkenClosely guarded secrets lead to thrills and, alas, spills. In this case, the Canada Council’s announcement that Robert Aitken is the recipient of this year’s $50,000 Walter Carsen Prize came too late in October for us to give the news its due in this issue of the magazine!

 I did get in a forty-five minute phone interview with Bob (keeping him from the task at hand - packing his bags for a whirlwind three weeks in Manila, then China). But the fruits of that interview will have to wait for another occasion.

 I am glad therefore that we can offer you, here on our website, a repeat of Pamela Margles’ wide-ranging December 2008 interview with the multifaceted Mr Aitken, to bridge the gap.

 That interview offers all kinds of clues as to why in announcing this year’s Carsen the committee described him as “a masterly force in the world of contemporary Canadian music, demonstrating for over half a century a tireless commitment to its development, performance and promotion in every corner of the globe.” “As a flutist, composer, interpreter and teacher,” they said, “he is a distinguished innovator and continues to exert a strong influence on upcoming generations.”

 The eight-year old Walter Carsen Prize is awarded annually on a fouryear cycle (dance, theatre, dance, music), so this is only the second time that music has come into the spotlight. R. Murray Schafer was the winner, the last time around. Kudos to the Council for setting the bar as high this time round.  Future recipients will find themselves in distinguished company.

 

“Make new friends, but keep the old.

One is silver and the other gold”

So go the words of a song more than a few of you will know, and might even have sung, as a canon, perhaps – silvery threads of melody weaving their magic in the flickering gold of a campfire’s light, round and round. “Make new …. make new …. make…new…”, “gold ... gold ... gold.” In such moments of collective creation and re-creation is a lifelong love of music born.

“Bumps” is the word that editor Colin Eatock chooses in this month’s Opener, on page 6, to describe the process of gently nudging you, esteemed reader, toward events we’d like you to notice. “Ten bumps” is his ambitious title, and indeed he delivers ten – spread judiciously throughout the upcoming season.

So what the heck. Here’s my two cents worth on the bumpy theme: ladies and gentlemen, direct your attention, if you will, to Row J, seat 11, Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre, April 8, 2010, at, let’s say, 9.15pm. That’s me sitting there, perhaps reading the always interesting programme notes, but mostly just waiting for the single work in the second half of the evening’s concert to start.

For the audience at the evening’s Music Toronto concert, the featured performers are indeed old friends. The Tokyo String Quartet has been coming to Music Toronto almost every year since 1974 (albeit with some changes in personnel). Even for subscribers who haven’t been around that long, there’s a heightened sense of connection with the ensemble, because this is the fourth concert of six, over a three year period, encompassing the entire Beethoven string quartet cycle.

So, April 8, 2010 at 9.15, in seat J11, I will sit awaiting the moment when the disquieting opening notes of Beethoven’s ninth string quartet (the Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No.3 the last of the three named Rasumovsky) start to spread like smoky gold into the attentive air.

That moment, when it arrives, will be a “bump” of a different kind for me – the kind that I’m told time-travellers experience, touching down. You see, on April 10 2010, it will be exactly 33 years and 333 days since the start of the most significant two weeks of my musical life. And on the final night of that two weeks (May 10-21 1976) I sat, same hall, roughly same spot, while another eminent string quartet, alas long silenced, wrapped the tendrils of those same uncompromising chords around my much younger heart.

It wasn’t called the Jane Mallett Theatre in those days, it was the Town Hall. And the series was not called Music Toronto, it was called Music at the Centre. It was the year of the Montreal Olympics, so the Amadeus String Quartet’s six-concert-in-two-weeks performance of the entire 17 quartet cycle was predictably described in Olympian terms. And the cycle was performed not in the order Beethoven wrote the quartets (which is what the Tokyo is doing) but in a mesmerizing mixture of early, middle and late quartets in each programme. And this work, the third Rasumovsky, was, as I mentioned, the very final work in the final concert of the two weeks.

If you’d asked me, I’d have argued till the cows came home for the final opus of the cycle to be one of the late quartets – probably the Grosse Fugue. I had loved some Beethoven from my teens, especially the Emperor, and the Waldstein Sonata. But barely a year before this time, in my early twenties, I had been introduced to his late quartets, and my sense of music’s power – to express the inexpressible – had been changed forever.

So my assumption back in 1976, I suppose, would have been that the older Beethoven would have been as dismissive of his younger self as I then was. The third Rasumovsky, May 21, 1976, changed that for me. From its smoky opening to the unfussy simplicity of its close, it was all-encompassing, early and late, old and new.

I was new to town. But since that day, that concert series in that hall has stood for me as a hallmark of chamber music as it should be experienced – the right size hall for the audience’s attentiveness to be a palpable part of things, and above all, as the years roll by, a sense of curatorial connectedness, of continuity and change.

Now I am sitting looking at the Music Toronto (“Music at the Centre”) season brochure for 1981 – their tenth anniversary season: listed under piano recitals we have Anton Kuerti, Arthur Ozolins, Andras Schiff, Alfred Brendel, Jean-Philippe Collard , Emanuel Ax. “Aha,” you say, “in those days they could afford to bring in the truly greats.” But if you say so, you are missing a fundamental point. To give but one example: Andras Schiff, in this brochure’s words is “the young Hungarian virtuoso.” And the Sunday “Introductions” series that year asks audiences to take a chance on such unknowns (to us anyway)as Peter Oundjian, Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver, and Catherine Robbin.

New friends and old, a lobby where people recognize, nod and greet, a sense of history, continuity and adventure, for presenter, artists, and audience alike – these are the things that a chamber series with a pedigree, in a truly chamber-sized venue, continues to offer.

Like everyone around here, I’m getting a bit giddy as excitement over the new Koerner Hall mounts.

So, welcome, new friend. But, on that night I have a date with someone I’ve known a long time.

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David Perlman, publisher

Sometimes the complex mathematics of power is almost indistinguishable from the simple arithmetic of age. Take the Canadian Opera Company for example.


The COC was shepherded to safe haven in its House for All Seasons by the indefatigable Richard Bradshaw bearing the double burden of General Director and Music Director heroically up the hill. His passing sent shock waves of loss that still reverberate.


The COC started the process of filling the organizational void with the appointment as General Director of Alexander Neef in June 2008. Hiring a new Music Director, the 34-year old Neef announced, would be top priority. January 7, at the COC’s 09/10 season launch, Neef announced “proudly” that the search was over. Johannes Debus, also 34 years old, would be the COC’s new Music Director, commencing with the 2009 season, with tenure till 2012/13.

27_neff_and_debus

So, thirty four plus thirty four equals sixty plus.

Read more: Post-Script: February 09

Cetacea, performing at Ratio in 2014. Photo c/o Ratio.Hugh’s Room, the Matador and the Music Gallery, just three of Toronto’s smaller-scale spaces dedicated to music performance of various kinds, have all been in the news. For one reason or another, they’ve all been struggling to keep their doors open, to re-open after a hiatus, or – in the case of the Music Gallery – are scrambling to find alternative performance venues after being forced for the time being to unexpectedly vacate their current location.

Now Ratio, another treasured small venue, has announced its own “Decreation,” winding up its operations with four final concerts. Run by a cadre of artists, musicians and dancers, another player in Toronto’s constantly evolving intimate music venue landscape is turning off its lights for the last time.

Booked for June 2, 3, 4, and 10, Ratio’s final concerts feature returning local as well as visiting musicians – a blend it has maintained from the outset. While some of the concerts will have already happened when you read this, it is worth investigating Ratio as a case study of just one place for “alternative” music presentation in our city. Supported by audiences small in number though significant in passionate commitment to their music of choice, the importance of such venues as valuable cultural incubators is too often overlooked by the mainstream.

Ratio opened with a bang in the winter of 2014. Just months later, the venue surfaced on the city’s cultural map with an honourable mention in blogTO’s Top 10 intimate concert venues in Toronto. In its December 4, 2014 story, blogTO reported that “tucked in a second floor apartment above a variety store at 283 College in Kensington Market, the venue has kept busy, often hosting multiple events per week from live concerts to film screenings to art pop ups, all or nearly all with an experimental bent that the bar scene is often hostile to.”

During its three-year run, Ratio proved to be a big tent adventure. The multidisciplinary creative minds who lived there were mirrored in the diverse bookings that filled it. Despite being run on the thinnest of shoestrings, its genre-rich music programming nevertheless included ambient, free improvisation, drone, sound art, new music, abstract electronic music, wayward pop, rock and folk projects. It also presented a few select non-Western musicians.

Ratio’s story links with larger community concerns around the availability and viability of Toronto’s alternate music (and other performing art) venues, public places we enjoy experiencing live music in – and ones which seem to be under mounting threat. It’s also about the broader music scene: local and visiting musicians, their audiences, as well as the people behind the scenes who finance, program and run such small venues. Their devoted work is seldom parlayed into substantial income – yet as Ratio’s track record illustrates, it can yield significant dividends to the communities they serve.

In late May I spoke to Nick Storring, a cellist, composer, music journalist and one of Ratio’s resident programmers, to explore what made it tick. Storring recounted Ratio’s backstory. “A bunch of us – seven people actually – wanted to create an artists’ colony,” he said. “We eventually found that [for all its successes] it also had its challenges.”

“It’s also significant to note that it was a live-work space,” Storring added. “Part of the mystique of the space was that the audience actually entered a home. The seating was approximately 50 to more than 60 people on any given night, an intimate, inviting space.”

“We wanted two large categories of listeners intersecting at Ratio – both [those comfortable with concert music conventions] and those with less exposure to those conventions, and frankly were weirded out by it. The presence of both brought a lot of [positive symbiotic] complexity into the fold,” he said.

I asked about Ratios’ mission over its three years. “We wanted a space where high quality listening was central, but which was also relaxed…a community gathering place,” said Storring. “I feel we made a contribution to the tangible community of local and international exploratory music scenes. It was inclusive in the sense of age, genre, scene, and gender – it wasn’t just a ‘boys’ club’.

“As a practitioner of exploratory music I know people performing that music are thirsty for places to play. Some of our programming was generated via social media [and also publicised there]. For example, the Toronto première of American composer and innovative improvising pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn came about as a conversation on Ratio’s Facebook page.”

Does it not sound similar to the role of the Music Gallery, when it first set up shop in 1976 on 30 St. Patrick St. as the home of the CCMC, two generations ago? “There’s definitely a similarity in intent I think, except that we actually lived in the [Ratio] space,” replied Storring.

“In addition to music, we also had a few gallery shows and interdisciplinary performances,” he added. “The Mystic Arts Collective events coordinated by J.D. Pipher are an example. Dancers also used the space. Kathak dancer Deepti Gupta rehearsed at Ratio, and Dance: Made in Canada launched one of its seasons here.” However, Ratio remained primarily a music venue, indicative of the vibrancy of Toronto’s underground music scenes.

By all outward appearances the place was humming – so why the Decreation? “The space turned out to be prohibitive to run,” said Storring. “The rents in the neighbourhood are constantly rising. It’s just not sustainable to run an arts living/presenting space today [in the city core]. In retrospect, it was very much a labour of love.”

What can audiences expect to hear in Ratio’s final Decreation concert, on June 10?

“We wanted to cover a broad scope of music [in our final series], and present music that was important to us. Much of it we have featured before,” said Storring. More information on the June 10 concert, which features Chik White, Slow Attack Ensemble, A Pure Apparatus, and Fleshtone Aura, can be found on the Facebook event page.

Ratio’s presentation track record shows an unwavering support for a far-reaching range of live music, patronised by exploration-hungry audiences. As of this month, it is passing on that torch.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Univox in rehearsal. Photo by the author.Dallas Bergen conducts big – really big. His grand gestures and huge sweeping movements carry right off the stage. He even hops and swings around the front of the choir, gesturing generously to convey his message. Univox, the choir in front of him, giggles and laughs, but mostly, they follow along. When stray tempi appear every so often, they are guided back on track with the metronomic snapping of a finger – Bergen is there, ready to help them keep moving forward.  

There’s a huge multitude of choirs in Toronto. Even after writing about choirs for two years and being involved in the choral community for a decade, I’m still surprised at the many choirs that I continue to learn about. Univox is one of the many choirs that make up the diverse fabric of our city’s music scene, and my favorite part? They’re non-auditioned. Bergen says that “it is great to create cleanly polished ensembles with trained and experienced voices, but group singing at a high level shouldn’t be exclusive.” Univox is 12 years old with about 70 singers. There is also a sister choir in the organization, Florivox, a women’s chorus conducted by Joshua Tamayo.

I happen to be a firm believer in non-auditioned choirs. As an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, I was unable to access the Faculty of Music’s choirs, which were focused on the Faculty’s own students and were a daunting challenge to join. A host of other choirs existed throughout campus but none created the type of environment I was looking for, a community of more than just singing. Univox chorister Ryan Kelln feels similarly about a greater purpose for a musical community. “Univox is different for me because it is trying to be more than just a place to sing,” he says. “The choir is run by the members, we are involved in the local community, and work with local charities and host non-singing events for members.” Their partner for this weekend’s concert is the Toronto Wildlife Centre.   

Bergen spends a lot of time working on technique and educating the ensemble. The choir starts off rehearsal with arpeggios. Different phonations are proffered by Bergen to get them warmed up: “wee wee”, then “oo oo”. He spends time singing on the “ng” phonic, one that will be helpful for the French songs of the program. “Working with untrained voices and individuals who don't have proficiency in the language of music puts more need on the conductor to teach all of this – or inspire the singers to learn it,” says Bergen, “in addition to getting to the heart of the music. I appreciate the reward of accomplishment, having them take a masterwork like a Bach motet from a horrendous first read to a well-executed and inspired performance.” The music only improves as the singing improves and Bergen recognizes the importance of teaching technique to get there.

The upcoming Univox concert, “Promises, Purpose, Presence,” focuses on the myriad themes of spring, Easter and Passover. The most unique offering for their concert is Le Chant des Oyseaux by Clément Janequin. From 1529, this is polyphonic music but not sacred – creating the effects of birds with onomatopoeia, repeating sounds and fun rhythms. There are “trrs”, “vrrs”, and “qrrs” evoking cymbals, “cou cou’s”, and an overall fun feeling. Bergen eggs the choir on throughout, asking for them to feel and emote the music as a “cacophony of birds.”

When I ask Bergen about composers he likes to program, Sydney Guillaume comes up. The choir is performing his Ego Sum. A Haitian-American composer, Guillaume mostly writes choral music. He’s especially fond of using the poetry of his father, Gabriel T. Guillaume. Ego Sum is one of his more gentle, interior songs, bringing the listener and singer to contemplate the individual and the greater universe. Known more widely for his Creole- and African-influenced music, Guillaume shows with Ego Sum that he is equally at home composing chorales.

The poetry of Guillaume Sr. fits well into the overall approach of the choir. The tension of being greater than just the whole, and the complicated identities we have as individuals, come into play very clearly in a musical ensemble. “The choir is filled with old and new friends who get to blend their voices together to, quite literally, make a whole greater than the sum of the parts,” says Kelln. “[The choir] succeeds because of the combined efforts of everyone and the support and acceptance required to get there.” It means that the poetry – “Ego sum, ego sum…I am that I am…but me, I am just a man” – provides a wonderful textual journey for the choir.

The song finishes with a beautiful setting of “Merci, Merci seigneur” (“Thank you, thank you Lord”). There’s a dissonant chord before a resolution at the end. The choir doesn’t quite hit it. Bergen has a constant smile on his face, even when the choir goes awry. He hops on the piano to correct the notes as the choir backs up a few bars. They go back through, and the baritones lead this gorgeous close before the choir decrescendos to null. Good stuff.

Univox presents Promises, Purpose, Presence, conducted by Dallas Bergen on March 25, 2017 at 8pm, at Christ Church Deer Park, Toronto. For details, visit our listings or http://univoxchoir.org/

Follow Brian Chang on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

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