This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics programme.

John Storgards conducts The Planets with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.On the evening of January 25, I walked one lap around Roy Thomson Hall’s circular theatre lobby before ascending to my mezzanine seat, and felt the world starting to spin. Attending a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, I questioned whether the pieces on the program would work together – a composition by a 20th-century Russian-born composer, a new Canadian work, and a widely-known orchestral masterwork – but under the expert leadership of guest conductor John Storgårds, they did. Common dynamics and dispositions threaded together feelings of mystery and triumph, and recurring arpeggiated motifs created circular orbs of sound that seemed to spin themselves right out to space. Storgårds’ energizing style, and ability to draw out these common threads, made this one of the most exciting orchestral concerts I have ever seen.

The concert opened with the Canadian premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s recently rediscovered Funeral Song, which he wrote in honour of his deceased mentor, Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was thought lost for years until musicologist Natalia Braginskaya and librarian Irina Sidorenko unearthed it in 2015 from the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory archives in St. Petersburg. It began almost inaudibly, with rapid wavering notes from the basses that denoted a sense of tantalizing horror. Storgårds thrust his baton in the air, ordering the strings into stammering phrases. I originally anticipated a nostalgic mood for music in remembrance of the dead, but was surprised to experience an eerie tone that almost signified a fear of death – magnificent enough to reach beyond the piece’s 12-minute length.

There was a short transition on the stage before JUNO-nominated John Estacio’s Trumpet Concerto, featuring TSO Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless as the soloist. The three movements took inspiration from Greek mythology – particularly Poseidon’s son Triton, whose conch shell was used as a trumpet to control the ocean waters.

The first movement, “Triton’s Trumpet,” reminded me of a coastline thunderstorm, with the trumpet and orchestra ruthlessly battling. The strings sounded like gusts of wind hitting cliffs, while the trumpet – the determined bird – dodged dynamic bursts of percussive lightning. At one point, McCandless put his trumpet mute in as if to indicate that he was finally being overcome, but this was short-lived. He played so frequently that he often wiped the condensation on his upper lip. After a climactic finish, the audience hesitated to clap, until he spoke up, saying: “It was really hard work!”

The following “Ballad” movement sounded, in contrast, like the morning after a storm, while the final “Rondo” movement had a quicker tempo and triumphant trumpet lines. With an abrupt ending to the concerto, McCandless hit a final note, as if a ribbon of hope was being pulled out of his horn. The act ended with a heartfelt embrace between him and Storgårds.

After the intermission, the hall was buzzing with excitement over the impending planetary phenomenon. Composed by Gustav Holst from 1914 to 1916, The Planets is his most popular work, with seven movements inspired by seven different planets.

The first – “Mars, The Bringer of War” – is believed to have a connection to the First World War with its cold resonance. The high-energy pace was dictated by the strings’ bouncing bows, with Storgårds literally jumping into phrases. This movement in particular shares similarities with Star Wars’ “Imperial March” – and in fact, Holst was a big inspiration for John Williams when composing for the film.

The second movement phased from night to day. “Venus, The Bringer of Peace” was calm and collected, while the harp delicately fluttered overtop smooth and quietly executed harmonies. This paved the way nicely for “Mercury, The Winged Messenger” – which, for the smallest and fastest-spinning planet, proved to be an act of swift call-and-response with a sudden finish.

The brass section came back in full force for the majestic “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity.” Here, their warm tones made me feel the safest I had felt all night. A gentle beast – the sound of the biggest planet – this movement was triumphant and celebratory, with playful tambourines reminiscent of happy movie music.

“Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age” was a bit of an odd movement. With two wavering notes that slowly repeated throughout, I was reminded of an ancient grandfather clock, ticking ever so slowly enough to lull me into a trance. Following this, the start of “Uranus, The Magician” was like an elephant parade entering the circus. Storgårds worked hard to keep up with the varying tempo, and began to look like a magician himself as he cast the cymbal crashes. At one point, the bass and cello players seemed almost to headbang in time, and I wanted to put up my devil horns – rock on!

The final movement – “Neptune, The Mystic,” inspired by the farthest known planet at the time – capitalized on the mysterious nature of space. The side stage door eerily opened to a wormhole of darkness. The phosphorescent tone and pace seemed to slowly create a glowing orb of light sparkling with magical dust. Coming from the darkness offstage were the voices of the Elmer Iseler Singers, who mesmerized patrons with haunting phrases until the door slowly shut and their voices diminished into near-silence.

The expertly curated program and Storgårds’ elaborate conducting style deserved the explosive standing ovation. It was a night that felt larger than life, and looking down at the full-size orchestra, the higher elevated seats proved to be the best place to hear the orchestra’s sound. I left the performance feeling as though I could take on the strength of any planet.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Holst The Planets” from January 25 to 27, 2018 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Arianna Benincasa has a lifelong passion for all things music and currently works at an audio post-production and recording studio. With a dedication to sharing her many concert experiences, she now is in pursuit of starting her own music blog. It is her goal to continually support the arts and culture communities in Toronto.

This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics programme.

Andrew McCandless (trumpet) plays Estacio's Trumpet Concerto, with the TSO under John Storgards. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Music, one suspects, could take an audience travelling through time and space. It captures sentiment, it encases zeitgeist, and it embodies so much truth for those who are passionate about it. On the evening of January 25, when I settled in for “Holst The Planets” at Roy Thomson Hall, the musician-laden stage seemed to me like a full-fledged starship bridge. Within two hours’ time, a mundane life could be decanted and fermented; the imagination could be set free to relish every moment in the past, present and future.

Under the baton of Finnish conductor John Storgårds, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) took its audience on a celestial journey, which included three orchestral works: Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song for Orchestra, Op. 5., John Estacio’s stunning Trumpet Concerto and the titular Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

It started with the Canadian premiere of the 12-minute Funeral Song. For 106 years the piece had been lost, after its first and only performance in 1909. After years of searching, the sheet music was miraculously rediscovered in the archives of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

“There is not one living person who had this music performed…” said Valery Gergiev, who conducted its modern premiere in 2016. Despite the vicissitudes of the past century, the music itself remains intact, free of dust or rust: it opens with the murmuring double bass, soon joined by dark tones in the brass and woodwinds. Solemnly heavy, it reveals Stravinsky’s sorrow – that of a student’s towards his beloved teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s, death. The strings amplify his lament, sustained by the lowest instruments of the orchestra, with piercing flutes afloat overtop. At one point, a tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov’s chromaticism starts to weave in and out; Storgårds handles it with subtlety, as if he is speaking in the language of music with the two Russian maestros. During the standing ovation following the piece, Storgårds held the full score in his hand and saluted the audience, and I saw in him and the orchestra a sincere fulfillment at having retrieved the lost gem – an expression almost like faith.

John Estacio’s newly-composed Trumpet Concerto, featuring TSO Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless, followed. The first movement, “Triton’s Trumpet,” begins with a misty sea of strings, in which the opening ascending trumpet melody stirs up the brutal waves of a storm. McCandless captures all of these changes in texture, with a rendition that possesses some romantic softness. In an introductory online video about the piece, McCandless says of the second movement “Ballad”, “…it reminds me of the kind of music that might be playing as you sit in the planetarium on your back, gazing at the ceiling to see the stars.” The last movement, “Rondo”, with flashbacks of the first, is vigorous and vivid – like a Flamenco fan being flicked open and shut, with notes running along the folds.

Then Holst’s The Planets takes off. Written to capture the astrological character of the planets, this suite can be considered a precursor to cinematic sci-fi music composition. With Storgårds’ precision and tastefulness, “Mars, The Bringer of War” is full of vital force and energy. The strings, playing col legno (using the wooden part of the bow to strike the string), bring a crisp clarity to the menacing opening. The fanfare soon follows, and ignites a jumping flame. Then in the second movement, “Venus, The Bringer of Peace,” all the musicians quickly immerse themselves in supreme tranquility and sweetness. The contrast is beautifully executed by the violins, harps and flutes; their voices are scattered throughout the delicate orchestration.

Playfulness is prominent in “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” where an ostinato cascades between different instruments to create a light-hearted atmosphere. Storgårds’ interpretation of “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity” is on the slow side – likely only slightly faster than Eugene Ormandy’s 1977 rendition with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Majestic and powerful, it is the earworm that perpetually encourages one to explore outer space, or in a sense, the realm of gods.

In “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age” and “Uranus, The Magician,” it is as if one can hear time being compressed, warped and distorted, particularly with the metallic touches from the harps, brass and percussion. The ethereal women’s choir at the end of “Neptune, The Mystic” that concludes the suite – here sung offstage by the Elmer Iseler Singers – resembles a black hole devouring all of the instrumental power. I was left spellbound.

One interesting thing to note was the etiquette for clapping. After McCandless gave a sublime performance of the first movement, the audience was eager but somewhat hesitant to applaud (due to the conventional “no clapping between movements”) – and he gestured as if to say “go ahead.” Later, some excited audience members burst into applause between movements of The Planets, but were hissed at by some others who obviously considered it a faux-pas.

In researching this further, I found a riveting special report on applause by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. He made note of a conversation with pianist Emanuel Ax, where Ax said, “I think that if there were no ‘rules’ about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always.”

I came away happily concluding that the TSO is attracting people with new ears, such that it continues to be a starship taking new passengers on unprecedented adventures. Classical music, to trained ears, is intriguingly about forms, concepts and styles, on the conscious level; subconsciously, to everyone, going to a concert is an inexpressible act of love. Norms and traditions are constantly changing – but from the intricate sections of folded time and place where music lies, one can always find moments to enjoy.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Holst The Planets” from January 25 to 27, 2018 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Wei Shen studied management and finance at the University of Toronto. Passionate about literature, classical music and visual arts, she is launching her career as a film director.

I can no longer remember whether I saw this particular Russian circus live at Maple Leaf Gardens or only on TV. I do not remember its name, or the name of its star clown. But I clearly remember his ginger cat.

It was the late 70s. And it was an unforgettable cat. It did back flips, jumping through hoops; it would balance on two paws, front or back, on the hand or head of the clown, and from that position launch itself into all kinds of spectacular tricks.

As I say, I cannot remember the name of the famous circus, or of its famous clown, or of the unforgettable ginger cat. But I can remember, as if it were yesterday, the sinking moment, during the act, at which I realized that the only “trick” the cat was actually performing was to make itself entirely rigid with paws stretched out front and back, like a furry baton with two forked handles, which the clown could then balance or toss in all kinds of ways.

I can’t say it was a life-changing moment. But it was a moment of insight. Namely this: that the only way to get a cat to do tricks, is to scare it rigid and then do most of the work yourself.

There is, of course another way of having it appear that a cat is doing tricks. (It also works with grandchildren.) It entails honing your ability to predict what the cat has decided to do anyway. Then, just before it does the thing it was going to do anyway, you make it sound as if it was your idea. “George, jump on the table! George, scratch the sofa!” That kind of thing.

People, like the circus clown, who acquire the skill of scaring other living things into rigid compliance tend to do very well in positions of power, at least until the rules change.

People who acquire the skill of predicting what was about to happen anyway and then make it sound as though they made it happen become revered authorities instead. At least until they start believing their own shtick, at which point they too become clowns.

So here’s the question du jour: When the announced trick is not making a cat jump backwards through a hoop, but rather “making our town into a real music city” which of these clowns would you rather trust?

Tracking change

Tracking change, if done right, is an unspectacular affair (whether it be in the realm of concert protocols or musical trends; or in social norms, governing where and what one may smoke; or in what constitutes cruelty to animals or consent). Before you can track change in something, you first have to spend time just tracking the thing, whether it is changing or not.

Perhaps the greatest value of our work here at The WholeNote over the past 23 years will turn out to be that we provided in our listings a consistent, factual, detailed account of the live musical performance within our watershed in our readers’ chosen areas of interest.

Once baseline factual data exists, it then becomes possible to see what changes are actually taking place, or even to predict with some reasonable chance of success, where the musical cat will jump next.

Not Jumping the Rails

In the lives of the musical organizations we keep track of, there come moments of danger and opportunity, requiring clarity of thought. The most predictably risky of these seem to relate to what arts councils call “succession planning” especially in cases where an ensemble or presenter’s identity has become, over time, interwoven with the vision and skills of its artistic leadership. The fascinating thing is how many different successful responses there can be to the challenge.

In this regard there was a memorable moment at the recent Tafelmusik “Safe Haven” concert. One of the company’s core violinists had injured a wrist, and former music director Jeanne Lamon had stepped in at the last moment, joyfully playing in the ranks while the ensemble tore into one of the finest programs in their history. I can only imagine what it felt like for her, during the standing ovation at the end of the show, to know that, in no small part because of her own foresight and consummate professionalism in managing her own exit, the ensemble is still well and truly on track.

It takes a different kind of resolve to say “This thing has had its time. Let’s just let it go.” Last season we saw the Talisker Players, under Mary McGeer’s leadership, decide, right at the beginning of that season to announce that it would be their last. Ahead of this season Toronto Masque Theatre’s Larry Beckwith made a similar announcement – TMT’s 15th and final season is now well under way, with much more celebration than gloom on display, it should be said.

(Beckwith was here at The WholeNote for a podcast interview recently, so you can look forward to much more on the topic of TMT shortly.)

After the final Talisker concert of their farewell season, a music lover who had never been to one of their concerts before, glared at me and said “That was fantastic. How come I never heard of them before?”

So here is a completely shameless plug for TMT’s upcoming show, which runs February 8 to 10 at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, one of the many intimate cabaret-style shows TMT has taken there over the years. Titled “The Peasant Cantata and All the Diamonds,” in typical TMT fashion this show features music all the way from J. S. Bach to contemporary cabaret.

The rest of their season is going to be a lovely long goodbye! Don’t miss it.

Bryan Holt (left) and Amahl Arulanandam. Photo by Alice Hong.When I visit Toronto cellists Amahl Arulanandam and Bryan Holt in rehearsal, the first thing that I get is a warning. 

“We’re already talking over each other,” they say, laughing. “You’re going to have to just look at
one of us. Or point.”

It’s a testament to the type of eagerness – the kind of warmth and energy – that they bring to their music. As much as they are colleagues, Arulanandam and Holt – together, cello duo VC2 – are clearly friends. They also clearly care, in a very earnest way, about what they do.

And it’s an enthusiasm that’s catching. Since its founding in 2015, VC2 has performed across the country and internationally, including appearances last year at the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Festival, Ottawa Chamberfest and the soundSCAPE Festival in Maccagno, Italy. This month, they’ll be playing a duo program on February 2 at designer Rosemarie Umetsu’s Yamaha Recital Space in Toronto, before taking the program on a two-week tour to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland with Debut Atlantic. Once they’re back in Toronto, they’ll play another duo set March 2 at the Music Gallery at 918 Bathurst, in a double bill with violin/percussion group Duo Holz. And following that, they head (slightly) eastward again, to reprise their tour program on March 18 at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Belleville, Ontario.

The program for the tour, and for the February 2 concert preceding it, is based around the idea of Beethoven. More accurately, it zeroes in on three cellist-composers of Beethoven’s time – Anton Kraft, Bernhard Romberg and Jean-Louis Duport – who operated in Beethoven’s inner circle, and whose music influenced Beethoven’s own. They’ve also commissioned five new works, from five modern-day Canadian cellist-composers, that take Beethoven’s five cello sonatas as their inspiration.

Arulanandam and Holt pride themselves on what they call a “multi-genre” performance practice. Both having studied under Matt Haimovitz at McGill and with Shauna Rolston in Toronto, they’re now voracious musical generalists: chamber musicians, but also new music specialists, and between them, fans of jazz, world music and heavy metal.

Here, it all comes to the fore: classical masterworks by Beethoven paired with the lesser-known music of his contemporaries, plus new music by five cellists – Fjola Evans, Hunter Coblentz, Raphael Weinroth-Browne, Matt Brubeck and Andrew Downing – whose influences span far beyond that scope. It’s a series of constellations that together form an image of Beethoven and his friends as inventors and innovators – and of this present-day group of cellists as modern incarnations of the same.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Let’s talk about your upcoming show, “Beethoven’s Cellists.” How did that idea start?

Arulanandam: Part of it had to do with Bryan’s doctoral thesis research on cello pedagogy. He came across the names of these cellists who all were very deeply linked to Beethoven.

Holt: All these guys who were around Beethoven weren’t only phenomenal cellists, they also were inventors of a kind. Romberg, who was one of Beethoven’s earliest colleagues, is actually the whole reason why the cello’s fingerboard has this sort of divot in it for the C-string to vibrate.

A: There were a bunch of actual equipment innovations that they came up with. The modern bow that we use was invented right around that time; Beethoven would’ve first come across it with Romberg.

I was reading recently about how that bow really influenced Beethoven’s cello writing. If you look at his first two cello sonatas, you’ll see a lot of long slurs and phrases that, with old-style Baroque or transitional bows, wouldn’t really have been possible. And so he would’ve met these cellists with all this new equipment, and started really exploring extremes of colour and dynamic range for the cello in a way that composers hadn’t done before.

H: I think that’s what made him such a great composer, in the end. Because Beethoven’s all about experimentation, and contrast. In Opus 1, he’s already experimenting with extremes. And by Opus 5, he’s already “Beethoven.”

Amahl Arulanandam (left) and Bryan Holt. Photo by Alice Hong.How did you first present the idea to Debut Atlantic?

A: We applied to Debut Atlantic two years ago – two seasons in advance, for them.

H: And it was very much just a skeleton [at the time]. We’d identified these composers [from Beethoven’s time], and we decided that we were going to commission cellists to write new works. But we hadn’t assigned pieces to individual people. So over the last couple of years we sort of figured out how that was going to go. And we scheduled the concert at Atelier Umetsu over a year ago, because we knew we were going to have the tour and that this was going to be the big jumping-off point.

What really struck me about the program for the tour was that it seems like a perfect microcosm of how you describe yourselves as a duo – taking these classic masterworks and finding the contemporary parallels.

A: That’s what we were going for. A lot of our MO as a duo – and even individually – is sort of reinventing the old. Because that stuff is still great. There’s a lot of amazing music being made now that has nothing to do with any of that, but I don’t think it takes away from how important and necessary music [like Romberg’s] was. They were breaking new ground in that time. They helped Beethoven break new ground. And we felt like the people we commissioned are people who are also constantly pushing boundaries in terms of the cello. They’re all doing their own thing; they’re all completely different.

How did you settle on those five composers? Were you just looking for Canadian composer-slash-cellists, and that ends up being a short list?

A: There are more than you would think!

H: It still wasn’t a super long list. But with all of them we had a history, or at least one of us did. Fjola Evans and I went to high school together and had the same teacher. And then Hunter Coblentz – Amahl’s known him since he was little.

A: Hunter came to mind immediately because we had played a duo of his that he wrote – one of the first non-pop tunes that we ever did. And we picked Raphael because we loved his music, and because he and I both really connect [because of our interest] in metal. The second Beethoven sonata is like – really, really, heavy metal. Like it’s metal before metal. And Raphael was the first guy that sort of jumped out when we were thinking about that sonata.

H: And then with Andrew and Matt, we both worked with them in the jazz context. I think we both had lessons with Andrew at some point. And we’ve both taken lessons with Matt Brubeck, to learn how to improvise on the cello.

Amahl Arulanandam (left) and Bryan Holt. Photo by Alice Hong.Have you two been playing together for a long time?

A: We’ve known each other for a long time, and we’ve played together in other contexts, other chamber ensembles and cello ensembles. But we’d never really played together as a duo. A few years ago, Bryan got contacted by a friend of a friend who was an event planner and was looking for a cello duo to do some Michael Jackson and Guns N’ Roses, that kind of stuff. So we got together and did that. And it was fun. And did a few more of those, and realized “Hey, we work well together in this context. Let’s see what else is out there.”

We started off as a cover band, and then–

H: –We’re still a cover band.

A: –We’re still a cover band. Just of different stuff.

How has your process changed over the last couple of years of playing and rehearsing together?

H: I think we’ve become a lot more efficient at rehearsing. It was a little too much like best friends hanging out, at the beginning. And [we’ve become] better at delegating tasks between the two of us. We’ve figured out each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

A: With rehearsing – it just gets more efficient each time. The last few rehearsals we’ve had, we’ve kind of just gone with it, and before we realized it, two and a half hours had gone by. We’re now more able to separate the business and being friends...and we can get things done. Quicker.

After the Music Gallery, what’s next?

A: We’ve thrown all of our focus at this right now. But we also have these germs of ideas that we need to put into motion. We’re hoping to go into the studio in April and record all five of these commissioned works. We want to put those down and release an album.

H: There are also a few commissions [in the works], and some possibilities of projects with dance as well. And there are other cellist-composers [who we plan to work with]. We’ve been in touch with a couple others, whose names I won’t reveal – but there are a lot of possibilities. This is only the beginning.

VC2 presents “Beethoven’s Cellists” on February 2 at the Yamaha Recital Space at Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu, Toronto, followed by a two-week tour in Atlantic Canada.
For tour dates, visit

Sara Constant is a flutist and music writer, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be reached at

Laila Biali“Humber at 50: A Celebration Through Music” took place on the evening of January 17 at the RCM’s Koerner Hall, just under 20 kilometres east of Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus, which houses their Creative and Performing Arts school.

The choice to host the event at Koerner Hall was wise, for multiple reasons. The first: Koerner, with a capacity of 1135, was almost completely full, with current Humber students, faculty, staff and alumni comprising a significant portion of the audience. The second: from each level of Koerner’s lobby, attendees had a clear view of the CN Tower, which was lit up in Humber’s blue and gold colours. Not immediately visible, but equally illuminated, was the Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square, which was visited during the day by Mayor Tory for a photo op with the Humber Hawk, the college’s mascot.

Although the event was a celebration – through music – of the 50th anniversary of Humber College as a whole, it also served as a de facto celebration of Humber’s music program, which was established in 1972, following the founding of the college by a mere five years. This predates the beginning of jazz courses at the University of Toronto, which were first introduced in the 1979/1980 academic year. With the exception of special guest artist Kurt Elling – who, in fairness, has worked and performed with Humber students in the past, as part of the school’s annual artist-in-residence initiative – the evening’s performers were all faculty and alumni of the music program. Moreover, eight of the program’s 14 pieces were either arranged or composed by faculty and alumni.

The proceedings were emceed by Garvia Bailey, host of JAZZFM.91’s Good Morning, Toronto, and the performances were structured in roughly chronological stylistic order. The first half of the concert was played by the Humber Faculty Big Band, led by Denny Christianson, the director of the music program, and began with Arlen and Mercer’s 1942 hit That Old Black Magic. Arranged by trombonist Al Kay – who was in attendance, although unable to play, due to an injury – the song featured trumpeter John MacLeod, who was amongst Humber’s early graduates in the mid 1970s, and Ted Quinlan, head of the Guitar Department. Next up was Duke Ellington’s Fantazm, arranged by John LaBarbera, with an excellent performance by Pat LaBarbera, whose soprano sax was balanced and exciting both in his treatment of the melody and in his solo, and by Nancy Walker, whose self-possessed, evocative playing was particularly well-suited to the eerie solo piano section in the arrangement’s middle section.

Following the beautiful 3/4 Calendula – composed by, and featuring, tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald – special guest vocalist Kurt Elling joined the big band for the remaining four songs of the set, beginning with Mike Abene’s decidedly Lydian treatment of Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out. Elling is a confident, natural performer, whose easy command of the stage drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd when he started singing the standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, which featured a bluesy, muted cornet solo from MacLeod, and an athletic guitar solo from Quinlan. I Like The Sunrise – another Abene arrangement, with lyrics by Elling – paired Elling with Brian O’Kane, in a winning turn on flugelhorn. The set ended with Tutti for Cootie,  a swinging, medium-tempo piece that switched between minor and major, and served as a showcase for the talents of bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Larnell Lewis.

Elling – Grammy-winning, DownBeat Critics’ Poll-topping, Obama Administration White House-performing – is a star, and maintains a far-reaching international tour schedule. It is a testament to the calibre of the Humber Faculty Big Band, and to Elling himself, that his appearance in the first set felt like a real collaboration, and never, as can sometimes be the case in such situations, like a hired gun going through the motions. As mentioned above, Elling has a history with the program, and both he and the band exemplified a dedication to excellence, a generosity of spirit, and an engaging sense of fun that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

After a brief intermission, the second half of the concert commenced with Rik Emmett (of Triumph and later solo fame) and Dave Dunlop performing their instrumental piece Red Hot. Emmett and Dunlop have been frequent collaborators, and the two have performed as the duo Strung-Out Troubadours since their eponymous debut album was released in 2006. Emmett introduced the next song – Triumph’s popular 1981 hit Magic Power – by opining, to ample cheers, that the Humber faculty has always stood for the “magic power of the music.” Following Emmett and Dunlop, singer-pianist Laila Biali took the stage to perform her funky, odd-metre original Upside Down, with the help of Lewis, bassist Rich Brown and the horn section of Colleen Allen, Shirantha Beddage, Brian O’Kane and Kelsley Grant. Elling and Pat LaBarbera returned to the stage to join Biali for Randy Bachman’s Undun, on which LaBarbera took, perhaps, his most compelling solo of the evening.

rinsethealgorithm at The Rex (from left): Larnell Lewis (drums), Luis Deniz (alto sax), Robi Botos (piano) and Rich Brown (electric bass)Rich Brown’s rinsethealgorithm were up next, taking the stage to perform Brown’s melancholy Promessa, on which the bandleader-bassist took a beautiful, compelling solo. Brown is a masterful player, with a rare combination of great tone, time, melodic sense, and tastefully deployed chops, and it is fitting that rinsethealgorithm – a band lovingly emulated by Toronto jazz students in practise rooms for well over ten years now – had a place of prominence on the bill. Forward Motion, their second song, showcased the remarkable talents of saxophonist Luis Deniz and pianist Jeremy Ledbetter, in addition to a thrilling drum solo by Larnell Lewis. Lewis – a recent Grammy winner with the American band Snarky Puppy, Humber alumnus, and current faculty member – is a joy to listen to, and, it should be noted, was on stage for 12 of the evening’s 14 songs, sounding just as comfortable playing big band swing as he did playing rinsethealgorithm’s fusion-forward repertoire.

It should be noted that Humber has four distinct music programs: a BMus in Jazz and Commercial Music, a Certificate in Jazz Performance, a Graduate Certificate in Music Business and a Graduate Certificate in Music Composition. Enrolled in these four programs are approximately 400 students, whose training, provided by “a faculty of 17 full-time and 80 part-time teachers,” includes “performance, production, songwriting and composition in jazz, pop, R&B, Latin and world music.” It is imperative for a good music program to foster both individual talents and to create a productive, healthy community in which these talents can thrive; the success of the former cannot, generally, exist without the health of the latter. In this regard, Humber seems to be performing admirably: as 2016 JUNO Award-winning alumna Allison Au puts it, Humber succeeded in providing her with “an incredible network of musical mentors and peers,” and gave her “the tools and confidence to find [her] own voice in both composition and performance.”

In addition to its postsecondary music program, Humber’s School of Creative and Performing Arts operates the Community Music School, founded in 1980, and “originally established to offer children and youth an alternative form of music education to traditional classical lessons.” The Community Music School is a rarity in the Canadian educational landscape; while analogous programs exist within the classical world, such as the RCM’s Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists, pre-college mentorship opportunities for students interested in jazz and commercial music – beyond, of course, private lessons – are somewhat limited. These opportunities are typically found in high school band programs, or in ensembles associated with music festivals, such as the National Youth Jazz Combo and the Conn-Selmer Centerstage Jazz Band (MusicFest Canada), or the TD Jazz Youth Summit at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. (The JAZZFM.91 Youth Big Band, a free weekly program for qualifying students, is also an important group.) But the Community Music School, which, for senior students, has weekly private lessons, faculty-guided small ensembles and instruction on improvisation, provides the kind of scaled-down college environment that prepares students for success in post-secondary music-program studies.

Programming an event like Humber at 50 is challenging, as administrators must balance artistic concerns with the necessity to showcase a representative cross-section of institutional talent. While the Humber Faculty Big Band played the full first set, the second-set acts – Rik Emmett, Laila Biali, and rinsethealgorithm – played two songs each before passing the baton, detracting (probably inevitably) from the concert’s momentum. And yet, as the concert progressed, the importance of the programmatic variety became clear.

Neil Young’s Heart of Gold was billed as the “Grand Finale” – a kind of built-in encore, as Bailey reminded the audience during the standing ovation that followed – and with Biali, Elling, Brown, Lewis, Emmett and the horn section of LaBarbera, Allen and Beddage, it served as an intergenerational, genre-fusing representation of the music program as a whole. While the description may seem like a cliché, the Humber music program really does give every indication that its strength lies in its diversity: by giving students both a solid grounding in tradition and the encouragement to create new works, the school has created a strong community of musicians who are doing great things.

As the concert drew to a close, it became clear that there was another important benefit of hosting the celebration at Koerner Hall: the central location, amongst older institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto, and the Royal Conservatory itself, served as an apt reminder that Humber College – at a comparatively young 50 years – has achieved remarkable success in a relatively short amount of time.


Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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