Margaret Bárdos in Music für das Ende - Blake HannahsonNearly 35 years after Claude Vivier’s abrupt death, something about his musical spirit is in the ether.

Claude VivierIn Vivier’s opera Kopernikus, a child named Agni, recently deceased, is revisited by what Vivier calls several “mystical figures borrowed from stories” – characters such as Merlin, Lewis Carroll, the Queen of the Night, a witch, a blind prophet – all of whom presumably would have been part of the child’s dream repertoire while alive. As she enters the afterlife, these characters gravitate around her, and she becomes the axis around which they revolve – she becomes, as Copernicus’s great discovery did, a new “centre of the universe.” Now, in the wake of a landmark performance of Kopernikus at the Banff Centre this summer by Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, a wave of Vivier’s music is about to pass through Toronto – such that Vivier himself is about to become, much like Agni, the main character in his own drama.

Along with Against the Grain’s production of Kopernikus at Banff, several other local groups will be presenting his music this season. On October 15, Esprit Orchestra will open their season with the Toronto premiere of his large orchestral work Siddartha. There will also be two performances of his string ensemble piece Zipangu: first with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in a show hosted by Soundstreams on October 16, and second in a concert co-presented by New Music Concerts and the RCM’s 21C Festival in the spring. Perhaps most unusually, from October 27 to November 4, Soundstreams is mounting a production called Musik für das Ende, a three-part theatre presentation of Vivier’s music based around his piece of the same name.

There’s no particular reason why these performances are all happening now – and when pressed, the various players involved all insist it’s a coincidence. But it seems less like chance and more like a convergence of like-minded feeling, around a man who many in Toronto’s new music community regarded as a mentor and a friend.

Vivier’s own life was a remarkable one. Born in 1948 in Montreal of unknown parents, Vivier was adopted at the age of three and brought up for the priesthood, before leaving the seminary and devoting his life to composition. Studying in Quebec and abroad – most notably in Germany with Karlheinz Stockhausen – Vivier’s works mirrored his personal life, always circling back to themes of death, ritual, loss, and a wild, sensual understanding of beauty. In a final disturbing parallel, his body was found in his Paris apartment in 1983 after picking up a young man at a local bar – murdered at the age of 34.

Vivier remains one of Canada’s best-known composers, but his works aren’t as frequently performed as one might expect – which makes this present-day convergence around him difficult to explain. Perhaps it’s because on the one hand, his work feels big – slow-moving, mythical soundworlds that have the spectre of death in them. Something about Vivier’s music still reads as monumental: Kopernikus was chosen as the piece to herald a new era of arts programming at the Banff Centre, Musik für das Ende is the keystone of Soundstreams’ 35th anniversary season, and Siddartha, on a concert for which Esprit (also turning 35) has enlisted 93 performers, is in that sense one of the biggest works that the orchestra has ever done.

But at the same time, there’s more to his music than that. Among the individuals involved in the upcoming concert programs of his music, those who knew him personally describe a singular, thoughtful, sometimes reckless man, with a type of music-making that was uniquely his own; those who know him only from his music say the same. Something about Vivier’s music, especially the music he created later in his life, is so independently crafted that it still sounds wholly inhabited by his voice. Something about his work, and the vibrant life that he drew from to create it, feels for many – even over three decades since his death – incredibly intimate, and intensely alive.

Alexina LouieComposer Alexina Louie clearly remembers the blow of Vivier’s death. “I was in Brussels having a premiere of a piece,” she recalls. “I had run into Claude on a street in Montreal, and he was excited because he’d just gotten a Canada Council grant to go to Paris to write. I’d said I was going to be in Brussels at that time and he said, ‘Well, why don’t we meet up [in Paris]? Just give me a call.’ So I was calling him from Brussels and the phone never made a connection. And that was the weekend that he died.”

She also remembers his friendship – visiting him whenever she was in Montreal, and him doing the same in Toronto. “We would talk about music – he had very strong ideas about what constituted good music and bad music, and of course we had little tussles about things,” she says. “But he was a very special person. [And] his tragic death hit our community really hard.”

Thinking back on his life and music, Louie describes a composer who was relentless – someone who stuck to his convictions, no matter what. “He took a lot of criticism for his music,” she explains. “It shifted from this European take to this soundworld that was uniquely his own, based on one melody line with colours that were built around it. Compared to what was going on in European art music at that time it was very simple…[But] now, all of these decades later, it’s that music that he wrote, that is so fascinating, exotic, unusual, that is now being embraced.”

“Not everyone likes Claude’s music,” she adds. “But it’s so strong, you can tell it’s his voice when you hear it.”

One of Louie’s major compositions from the year of Vivier’s death – a large ensemble piece titled Music for a Thousand Autumns, commissioned by Montreal’s Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) – was written, in part, for him. “I wrote two pieces [that year] that were quite important to me at that time,” says Louie. “One was Music for a Thousand Autumns; one was O Magnum Mysterium – in Memoriam Glenn Gould. And these premature deaths really made me reflect a lot about what it takes to be a creative artist. Because – it’s my experience anyway – that it takes every ounce of your being to create a piece that you feel worthy. And both of them did that. They lived life like that.

“I had just moved back to Canada in 1980, and I received a commission from Serge Garant [at SMCQ],” she continues. “I was working with these ideas of eternity and what lives on after the death of a person – and also the fear of writing a piece for Montreal, which at that time was a city where an outsider was not necessarily always embraced warmly. There’s a theme in the piece, Music for a Thousand Autumns, that I connect with Claude. It’s a very simple theme, and it’s got colouration around it, and it’s my call to Claude. I’m calling out to Claude: ‘I need inspiration for your town – I want to write a good piece, I want to write a worthy piece.’ I wrote it with him in mind.”

Louie’s partner Alex Pauk, the founder and director of Esprit Orchestra, was also a close friend of Vivier’s. Louie describes the climate in which she, Pauk and Vivier all came of age: one where no composers had immediate institutional support, and where they were all used to channelling their own determination to succeed. Pauk was president of the Canadian League of Composers at a time when Canadian orchestral music wasn’t being heard on Canadian stages, Louie explains. That was a big part of why he started Esprit. In those first years, without an administrative team or the resources one might expect from an orchestral leader, Esprit was based out of the living room of Pauk and Louie’s home.

In Esprit’s concert on October 15, titled “Eternal Light,” Vivier’s Siddartha is slotted between the music of two other composers. Compositionally, they seem to embody Vivier’s own past and future. Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), a work that combines elements of orchestral composition with Balinese gamelan, seems a predecessor to the fervour for Asian (particularly Indonesian) music prevalent during Vivier’s time. The other piece is a 2016 work titled Spacious Euphony by Christopher Goddard – a doctoral student at McGill studying under a colleague of Vivier’s, John Rea.

Esprit gave its first public concert in August of 1983, just months after Vivier’s death. In the years that followed, Esprit played plenty of Vivier’s music, but never Siddartha – for which now, Louie says, the timing is right.

“Alex knew he wanted to do this piece for a long time,” Louie says. “And it just never happened. But because it’s the 35th anniversary of Esprit, he said, ‘This is the time to actually do it.’”

“Because Alex found Claude’s music compelling, and worthy,” she adds. “And it just felt right.”

Lawrence Cherney - photo by Trevor HaldenbyLawrence Cherney, artistic director of Soundstreams, never knew Vivier personally – but from the moment he first saw his music years ago, he knew that it was something special. “Somehow, I had been given a copy of the manuscript of [Music für das Ende],” he says. “It was literally written in his hand. And every once in a while for a year or two, I’d pull this thing out and think, ‘What have we got here?’

“We began to think about producing it then,” he adds. “But quite honestly, in those early days, I think we had no idea what this was. For me, it was just an intuition that there was something.”

The production this month, created by Soundstreams around Vivier’s music, is in three parts. The first, featuring Québécois actor Alex Ivanovici, is an original monologue inspired by Vivier’s letters. The final section is the title piece: Ivanovici alongside ten singers in a staged version of Music für das Ende. And in the centre will be a performance of the uncanny, eight-minute work Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) – the last piece of music Vivier ever wrote.

“There’s this very eerie connection between what he wrote [and his life],” says Cherney. “Always this flirtation with life and death and beyond.”

This particular Soundstreams production has been a long time in the making – seven or eight years of planning, with rehearsals that have been going since August. “It’s immersive theatre, in a way that we’ve never really done before,” Cherney says. “I’m very proud of the things that we’ve done over the years and it isn’t about better or worse, but this is definitely different.”

Cherney describes how Musik für das Ende is structured: highly precisely, but with a lot that depends on interpretation. It was crafting that interpretation and developing it with the cast that proved to be one of the company’s biggest challenges. “It takes place in this twilight between theatre and music and opera...and it’s not any one of those, and yet it’s every one of them,” he says. “In terms of what a vocal ensemble can do, there’s a tremendous freedom in that.

“All that I can say about this is that I feel a little bit like what biographers must feel,” says Cherney. “The more I found out about this work, and about Claude, the more mysterious and the more intriguing it got. It’s not that I got close to him personally, but in a sense that mystery around the piece, and the depth of interpretation that we had, amplified as time went on.

“In a way, [Vivier’s music] keeps receding,” he says. “Every time we think we’re getting closer, there’s another horizon there. I think that’s a good sign.”

Rehearsal of Musik für das EndeThe title page of Vivier’s manuscript for Musik für das Ende bears a dedication, written in German, to “die Leute die heute sterben werden” (the people who will die today). “Living in the midst of beings destined for death I have often reflected upon this,” Vivier writes. “Instinctively I see these beings no longer in life but in death. In my dreams I was living more and more the strange ceremony of beings who vanish for ever, who become an ‘infinite moment’ in the eternal silence.”

If you trace the coming performances of Vivier’s music throughout the year, what you seem to get is a series of moments that are suspended in time. This fall at the Soundstreams season opener on October 16, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra will collaborate with Indigenous choreographer Michael Greyeyes on a new interpretation of Vivier’s Zipangu. Later this season, Zipangu will be reprised by New Music Concerts, the group that first commissioned it in 1980, alongside a new work by Brian Harman that was inspired by it. For Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, Esprit Orchestra’s performance of Siddartha on October 15 feels like a bridge between the past and the future, and a way of treasuring the memory of a friend. And for the second Soundstreams production of the season, Musik für das Ende from October 28 to November 4, Lawrence Cherney and his team have been forced to confront these ideas of legacy and immortality onstage, dredging up the past in ways they hadn’t expected.

In the days before his unexpected death, Vivier’s work Do you believe in the immortality of the soul? was concerned with asking about life, and about the permanence of the loss he saw all around him. In his music, he seemed to be searching for a way to not vanish after death, and to move from silence towards a new type of sound. It would seem like he’s found it.

Benjamin Grosvenor - courtesy Patrick Allen: operaomnia.co.ukBenjamin Grosvenor has an uncanny knack of getting to the essence of any piece he plays. Add to that a burnished tone (he is one of the supreme colourists performing today) and impeccable, unfettered, seemingly effortless technique and you have one of the best pianists on the current concert stage.

Grosvenor is a unique creator of sound, worlds within worlds, attentive and nuanced; a riveting performer with keen musical insights. In the public eye for more than half of his life, the 25-year-old returns to the Jane Mallett Theatre November 7 for his third Music Toronto appearance since March 2014. The following email exchange took place in mid-September and focuses on that upcoming recital.

WN: You became the youngest-ever winner of the keyboard section of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition when you were 11. How life-changing an event was that?

BG: I think the competition cemented in my mind the idea that I would like to be a pianist. It was a great experience at the time, in particular the final which gave me the opportunity to play with a professional orchestra for the first time. The attention it brought began my career, although in those early years I did not give many concerts as naturally I needed the space for schooling and simply to grow as a musician.

Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child? Who were the first performers you fell in love with?

The first composer I really fell in love with was Chopin, and the first piece I played that I felt a significant connection with was by him - one of his waltzes. The first performers who had an attraction for me were those that I saw playing live (Stephen Hough and Evgeny Kissin, for example) as well as Argerich, Horowitz and Lipatti, who were artists whose recordings we had in the house. It was only in my early teens that I began to listen more widely to other pianists and musicians and discovered many other names both current and historical, becoming fascinated by artists such as Cortot, Feinberg, Schnabel and others.

You said in a 2013 YouTube webcast that your attraction to composers like Chopin, Beethoven and Bach initially came from listening to recordings by pianists from the first half of the 20th century. Are you still inspired by these giants of the piano? What has been inspiring you recently?

I still find these pianists to be a source of inspiration - I was recently listening once again to some of Cortot’s Schumann recordings which are a marvel. I find these days though that I have less time for listening than I would like, and particularly not enough time to attend live concerts. Something I often relish about playing with orchestra is the opportunity to hear the second half of the program.

Our previous email exchange was prior to your 2015 Toronto concert with its Baroque rearview-mirror quality. Your program consisted of most of the pieces you recorded shortly thereafter for your Homages CD. I’d like to focus on your upcoming Music Toronto recital, beginning with Mozart’s Sonata No.13 in B-flat Major, K333 “Linz.” What in Mozart speaks to you in general? And what in the “Linz” sonata in particular?

There is a distilled quality to Mozart’s music - it has such purity and directness of emotion. But it is not just gilded, elegant music, rather music that teems with energy, complexity and life, with such a range of character and emotion. He had an extraordinary gift for juxtaposing diverse ideas and elements in ways that seem natural and effortless, and it is music always filled with the surprising and the unexpected.  

The piano sonatas are fascinating works to play in that there is such vivid characterization of the material. His ingenious uses of textures make the most of the instrument’s limitations, and the music seems so often to refer to other timbres and instrumental combinations. With one instrument responsible here for the whole dialogue, the writing is even more varied than that of the piano concerti (where the piano only needs to be a piano!) and though written in a pianistic context, one can imagine wind solos, quartets and tuttis. The Linz sonata is a great example of this. The outer movements have a tremendous sense of nervous energy and joie de vivre, both rich in thematic material and character. The last movement seems - with its written-in cadenzas and apparent solos/tuttis -  almost like a piano concerto without orchestra. The slow movement is incredibly tender and lyrical, with wind serenades and string quartets, and has a particularly unsettling and affecting middle section.

Brahms’ Four Pieces for Piano, Op.119 are so contemplative, eloquent and emotionally rich. Clara Schumann famously described the first as a “grey pearl, veiled and very precious.” How would you characterize them?

They are four singular and contrasted works. The first has a sense of sadness and resignation, with a large amount of dissonance, particularly in the opening bars which give the piece from the start a particularly searching and doubting atmosphere. The second is agitated in the outer sections, with a luminous waltz in the middle, all based on the same material. The third intermezzo is light-hearted and humorous, and the Rhapsody is largely defiant and joyous, though it ends with darkness and agitation in the tonic minor.

Brett Dean conceived his Hommage à Brahms as three interludes to be played interspersed between the Op.119 Piano Pieces. What moved you to take the audience on that journey?

I worked with Brett as a conductor in Australia when we did Mozart K466 together. I was at that point considering programming Op.119 when he sent me these pieces, written for Emanuel Ax. I thought it was very effective as a set, with the pieces providing illuminating contrasts to the Brahms works, and that it was fascinating to have this juxtaposition of old and new.

The second half of the recital begins with a piano arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Did you discover it through George Copeland’s 1918 recording? Is it a variant of Leonard Borwick’s arrangement? What attracted you to it?

I had been interested in playing some more Debussy, and a friend pointed me in the direction of the Copeland recording which I thought was very effective in capturing the spirit and essence of the piece. There is an interesting quote from Copeland about his transcription: “I spoke to [Debussy] of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano – music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. This has always seems to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.”

 However, examining the scores of the original and these two transcriptions, I came to the view that Copeland was a little sketchy in places, almost as if a reminiscence of the work; Borwick better preserved compelling subtleties in these passages. What I have ended up playing is mostly Borwick, with a few touches of Copeland and of my own.

I find it intriguing that the original version of the Debussy was written in 1894, just a year after the Brahms Op.119, and that the final two works on your program, Berg’s Sonata Op.1 and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, were both written in 1908. How did you decide on the repertoire for the Toronto concert?

This was part of the idea for the construction for the program. Indeed, with the Mozart as a kind of preface, there are four seminal works here that were written within two decades, and I think it fascinating to hear them together.  The Debussy, with its whole-tone scales and unstable tonality, is the bridge in that sense. Indeed, Pierre Boulez called it the beginning of modern music.  

What drew you to the Berg sonata?

I have loved Berg’s music since playing some of his early songs during my studies at the Royal Academy. I had also had a good experience getting to know his violin concerto by reading it through with a friend who was preparing it. I love this rich and dense harmonic world, with its tonal ambiguity, whole-tone scales and chromaticism. It is an emotive work, dramatic and uneasy, with a sense of tension that stretches from the first cadence until the final coda when the tonic triad is finally reinstated.

Gaspard has been a staple of yours for many years and it appears on your first Decca CD (2012). What fascinates you about it?

Gaspard contains some of the most evocative music written for the piano. In playing this music, you feel somewhat like a painter, with so many colours at your disposal, but it is perhaps above all about invoking atmosphere – casting a spell. The poems by Bertrand always add a particular fire to the imagination. I think my favourite piece of the set remains Le Gibet, which is so hypnotic and awe-inspiring. There is one phrase in particular in the middle of the piece which I never cease to find deeply moving, where – among all this that seems larger than the individual – suddenly there emerges this sense of personal vulnerability, and of incredible sadness.

I’ve read that you find the stage to be liberating. Please elaborate.

Performing onstage can feel liberating, but I think performances feel very different from occasion to occasion. I would say the form of music making I find most consistently liberating is chamber music.  You are making music with others - all striving for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts - yet the intimate scale means that it is a true partnership of equals. It can be entirely magical!

Lands End Ensemble - photo by Bo HuangIt was a pleasant, late summer sunny day, and I was having a nice, relaxed conversation with composer Elisha Denburg, at the Canadian Music Centre on St. Joseph St. in downtown Toronto.

Denburg serves as the general manager of the Canadian League of Composers (CLC). We were reflecting on the coming uptick in CLC activity towards the end of October, as the pre-eminent annual international contemporary music festival, the ISCM World New Music Days, approaches, returning to Canada for the first time since 1984, and to Vancouver for the very first time.

The CLC is home to the Canadian Section of an international organization, the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM), which sponsors this contemporary music festival each year in a different country. The stated purpose of the festival is to “present music from each of our members, showcasing the incredible diversity of musical practice in our time.”

Elisha DenburgIn the course of our conversation, Denburg reminded me that the previous time the ISCM festival was in Canada, in 1984, it was not the CLC, but rather the now defunct Canadian Music Council (1946–1990) that hosted the Canadian Section of the ISCM, and thus the festival. His observation triggered a flood of memories for me, as I vividly recalled participating in that earlier edition of the festival, both as a broadcaster with CBC Radio, and as a composer/performer with the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE).

The 1984 ISCM festival had been a grand event, held over 13 days, with concerts presented in both Toronto (September 21 to 28) and Montreal (September 28 to October 3). Many of the concerts were recorded for broadcast on CBC’s English and French language radio services, including those heard on Two New Hours, the national network new music series I had created in 1978.

Over the course of the festival, a great number of new and recently composed works by internationally recognized composers were performed, including those by Canadians such as Serge Arcuri, John Burke, Brian Cherney, Micheline Coulombe St.-Marcoux, Denis Gougeon, Alex Pauk, John Rea and many others. Esprit Contemporaine (now Esprit Orchestra), only in its second season, gave the world premiere of one of Cherney’s most important works, Into the Distant Stillness, as well as the Canadian premiere of Ritratto by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. Toronto’s New Music Concerts presented the Canadian premiere of Laboratorium by French composer Vinko Globokar. The CEE presented the Canadian premieres of two outstanding electronic compositions, Klang by British composer Jonty Harrison and Love in the Asylum by American Michael McNabb, as well as repertoire works by the members of the ensemble: David Grimes, Larry Lake, Jim Montgomery and me. And of course, there were dozens more concerts with compositions from nearly 50 different countries.

It was not my first World New Music Days. I had also been to the 1983 ISCM festival, which had been held in Århus, Denmark. Steen Frederiksen, the head of music for Danish Radio had contracted to broadcast the entire festival on the Danish national radio network. He noted that there were an unusually large number of Canadian compositions in the programming that year, and persuaded CBC Radio Music to send me and members of my Two New Hours team to produce CBC broadcasts from Århus. Being at the Århus festival also served to prepare us for the 1984 ISCM festival in Toronto and Montreal, which had already been confirmed back in 1981.

The new concert hall in Århus had opened just the year before, and at that time was the largest in Scandinavia. We made several Two New Hours broadcasts there, and were able to include major interviews with such notable Danish composers as Per Nørgård, Bo Holton and Bent Sørensen, as well as with visiting composers from other countries. In the course of making this series of broadcasts we came to appreciate the magnitude of the organizational effort such a festival entails.

In 1990 a funding crisis forced the Canadian Music Council to fold, and the designation of Canadian Section of the ISCM was transferred to the CLC. Nineteen years later the idea to host the ISCM festival in Canada was rekindled. “I had the initial idea to do this, while talking with ISCM Canadian Section president André Ristic in June 2009, sitting outside a house in Vancouver after a reception,” Winnipeg composer Jim Hiscott told me. “I had just been elected as vice president of the Canadian Section, and was thinking about how great it would be to have the festival in Vancouver. Many new music groups are in the city and province, and there’s a different aesthetic and cultural range than in most European communities. We both started developing it immediately.”

The CLC made its bid to present the 2017 edition of the festival in 2014, in partnership with the Vancouver series Music on Main and its artistic director, David Pay. The pitch was accepted, and the process of organizing and producing the concerts in Vancouver began. The first Canadian edition of the ISCM festival in 33 years will take place November 2 to 8, with more than 30 concerts and events in a number of popular Vancouver venues. The Vancouver team shortened the festival title, calling it simply ISCM2017.

Which brings us back to the CLC office and my conversation with Elisha Denburg. Near the end of October, Denburg will travel to Vancouver to set up and host the Festival Hub, a centre for festival information which will act as a space that provides opportunity for artists, delegates and audience members to connect, network, share resources and refresh between concerts. The Festival Hub will be in a space know as The Post at 750, which houses the offices of Music on Main near the CBC Vancouver building on Hamilton St., and close to many of the concert venues. There will be concerts at The Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts, Christ Church Cathedral, the Orpheum, The Annex, the Roundhouse, UBC School of Music, Vancouver Playhouse and the Vancouver Public Library.

There will be many programming highlights during ISCM2017, as can be expected in a festival this large. Artistic director David Pay was successful in attracting a number of touring groups, including the National Arts Centre Orchestra and music director Alexander Shelley; the Ensemble contemporaine de Montréal; the Aventa Ensemble; Land’s End Ensemble; the Bozzini Quartet; and the Victoria Symphony, as well as a number of internationally recognized soloists. Add to these the many local Vancouver ensembles, such as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Hard Rubber Orchestra, the Turning Point Ensemble, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Elektra Women’s Choir, musica intima, the Emily Carr String Quartet, the Standing Wave Ensemble and many more, and you realize that this is an event of enormous scale and potential impact on new music in Canada.

There are too many concerts to single out a fair selection of significant works to be performed. Having said this, I will confess that, on my personal wish list, I’m eager to hear violinist Andréa Tyniec give the world premiere of Evta, Ana Sokolović’s violin concerto, with ECM+; as well as Land’s End Ensemble performing Omar Daniel’s compelling Trio No. 2; and a late-night, free concert in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library’s downtown branch, featuring the spatially deployed Redshift Vertical Orchestra, with surround sound performances of music by seven Canadian composers – Jordan Nobles, Lisa Cay Miller, Alfredo Santa Ana, Rita Ueda, James Maxwell, Tim Brady and Benton Roark.

(None of this, of course, can happen without significant resources, and the ISCM2017 team acknowledges the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, Creative BC and the Government of BC, the City of Vancouver and the SOCAN Foundation as its major funders.)

If you’re able to be in Vancouver the first week of November, it’s an opportunity to hear some of the best new concert music in the world. As of this writing, two of the concerts have been cleared for what the festival team are calling viewing events. See the ISCM website for up-to-date information. There will also be a documentary of the entire festival, scheduled for release later in November.

Artword ArtbarArtword, as a name for what Judith Sandiford and Ron Weihs have always wanted to do, had its roots, as Artword Theatre, in Toronto’s King/Portland area – where, as my memory serves, it got overtaken by what gets called progress. So when we were contacted by Chris Ferguson, curator of Hamilton’s Steel City Jazz Festival, celebrating its fifth year from October 24 through 29 at Artword Artbar in the rapidly gentrifying James St. N. area of Hamilton, it felt like a good time to reach out to Weihs, for a little bit of looking back and looking ahead.

WN: Are there things in your present location that remind you of what you recognized “back then” starting up at King/Portland?

Ron Weihs: When Artword Theatre started, the King/Portland area was in a very depressed state. We began in what was essentially an abandoned, empty building. The building, and an adjacent building, were bought for a very low price. The new owners encouraged us to stay as tenants and helped us with practical and financial support in developing our theatre. We were also helped greatly by the city’s “Two Kings” policy, which encouraged development in King-Parliament and King-Bathurst by removing many of the zoning restrictions. We were surprised that it was easier than we expected to get approvals to do an extensive renovation.

The revitalization of the area went faster than we expected, and we certainly contributed to this! We knew all along we would not be there forever, that the building would be sold when the market went high enough. We were amazed how quickly the area was transformed, though. Our building was sold to a condo developer. We had four months to leave, but it really came down to eight days, because of commitments we had made. We cleared out as much as we could manage and packed it all in a 48-foot trailer.

Although we were sad, we were not resentful. We understood that “Two Kings” was designed to bring real estate investment into the area. The overheated real estate market was inevitable, as was the fact that this prime location would become unaffordable for us. It was that wonderful early revitalization phase when new ideas are springing up, artists are moving in, and people are discovering how much fun urban life can be. It would be lovely if it could stay that way, but it hardly ever does.

What’s different this time?

For us personally? When we came to Hamilton, we were determined that this time we would buy a building. Prices were low, and the downtown was in desperate need of revitalization. The city was specifically encouraging development along James Street, formerly the hub of the downtown, but fallen on hard times. Although we looked very hard, we couldn’t find a potential theatre, but we did find a lovely sports bar for sale just off James Street, a turn-key operation with everything we needed – glasses, cutlery, fully-equipped kitchen. We decided that Hamilton didn’t actually need a theatre, it needed an Artbar! And Artword needed a home, a laboratory, a haven for artists and musicians, and a laboratory to develop and showcase our own theatre work.

Do you end up involuntarily contributing to the gentrification problem the same way all again?

The gentrification of James Street is accelerating just as it did in Toronto. The big question is whether condos will be allowed to take over, or the essential character of the street be maintained. The political and economic battles are being waged. The downtown councillors are good, but amalgamation means that politicians who have no stake in the downtown can determine its fate. Very much like Toronto. We expect to continue to enjoy the same wonderful revitalization phase as in Toronto, for a little while.

When we moved to Hamilton, we knew nothing of its cultural life. We thought that we would be bringing culture to the frontier. We were humbled and delighted to discover how wrong we were. We discovered a firmly established and vibrant cultural scene that has flourished for many years, basically outside that formal support and funding structures. Theatre, visual arts and music all have deep roots and wide participation. In particular, the music scene in Hamilton is remarkable. Hamilton and the Niagara region are home to original musicians in every genre. Mohawk College has a first-rate jazz program, and we were impressed with the calibre of the students. We were happy to provide a place for them to play, and watched them mature into notable musicians.

Does the city of Hamilton understand how easily, in terms of arts and culture, progress could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? I mean in terms of maintaining affordability for arts workers and their audiences?

The city is making a significant effort to understand the needs of artists, and to provide an encouraging environment in which they can flourish. They are proceeding cautiously, and in consultation with artists. I think this is wise.

And  Artword Artbar’s role?
Essentially, Artword Artbar is “by artists for artists.” We look on Artword Artbar as an oasis where performers, artists and people who appreciate these things can meet together in a respectful environment. We are known as a “listening room.” People come to hear the music. There is no television, no clatter, no chatter; just people watching and listening intently to performers communicating to them. It seems odd to us that this is unusual, but it seems that it is.

Advice for others?
Probably not. In creating this kind of place, you have to believe in what you’re doing, and stick with it. Don’t listen to all the advice you get about programming this, or that. You have to be able to hang in without obsessing about the bottom line every week; it will take longer than you think. It helps to be a “Mom and Pop” operation, so that you can get through the lean times. And keep things simple. You don’t have to do everything, just a few things really well.

It was Chris and Linda Ferguson who got in touch with us about Steel City Jazz Festival’s relationship with you.

The Steel City Jazz Festival reflects our philosophy. It was started by Chris Ferguson just because he thought Hamilton needed a jazz festival. He did it on a shoestring, largely by himself with a few friends. When we found out what he was creating, and that he didn’t have either deep pockets or a support system, we offered Artword Artbar as a venue at no cost. We just sell beer, and the Festival keeps the box office. (This is our policy for musicians as well.) Judith [Sandiford] also offers advice and organizational help. We like the festival because it provides a mix of local and outside musicians, and a variety of flavours of jazz.

Postscript: Steel City Jazz Festival director Chris Ferguson offers this: “Listening to music at Artbar is such a pleasure. The bar has a really classic ‘jazz-club’ atmosphere, from the packed seating and round cocktail tables to the in-house grand piano. You feel so close to the musicians because you literally are, but this produces some of the most intense musical experiences.”

The Steel City Jazz Festival runs from October 24 through October 29, 2017. Most performances will be at Artword Artbar at 15 Colbourne St., in the James St. N. area. Tickets will be available at the venues or online in advance via Bruha and Ticketfly.

Kelly Marie Murphy - Alan Dean PhotographyPart of the life of being a composer is filling out grant applications and submitting proposals. Living with the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of all this work is part of the lifestyle. So imagine the feeling when you find out you just won a major prize, a $50,000 prize – the largest one available for Canadian composers. This was the experience that Ottawa-based composer Kelly-Marie Murphy had recently when she got the phone call from the Azrieli Foundation informing her she had been chosen as the winner of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music. Murphy was recently in Toronto attending the rehearsals and world premiere performance of her work Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on September 22 and 23, so I was able to sit down with her and talk about this exciting new development in her life.

To enter the competition, composers are required to submit a proposal as to what they would write if they received the prize. The only requirement is that the piece of music is to reflect Jewish culture in some way. Murphy began by asking friends and associates for ideas. Her daughter’s singing teacher suggested she look at Sephardic music, and once she began listening to the music that originated from the cultural mix of Jewish, Arabic and Spanish cultures from the Iberian Peninsula during medieval times, she was hooked. She loved the expressive quality of the music, the ornamentation, and the pitch bending similar to that in blues and slide guitar music, which she also has a passion for. After the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, the music also travelled with them, picking up influences from Morocco, Argentina, Turkey and Bulgaria for example. The question of how music changes in different contexts is what fascinates Murphy. The wonderful thing about winning this prize, Murphy says, is that it’s an “open invitation to explore the music of this culture, and to make it into something new and different with my own understanding. This is what makes me grow.”

As part of the process, she is consulting with music scholars who are experts in the field of Sephardic music traditions. One such person is Toronto-based Judith Cohen, who has carried out extensive fieldwork and research among Sephardic Jews in the Mediterranean, Portugal and Spain. Murphy sees her role not as a collector of sources however, but rather preparing herself to allow these musical influences to become part of her consciousness and eventually become part of her sound. Early on in her life as a composer, it was the music of Stravinsky and Bartók that really woke her up to different possibilities. She allowed the essence of that music to mix with jazz, bebop, and slide guitar influences to create her own expression. “Influences are a wonderful thing,” she says. “I like to bring it all in, let it steep, live with it and see what happens.”

She acknowledges that working with materials from cultures outside one’s own is a hot topic of debate in the cultural community. However, she states “I’m not appropriating, I am acknowledging and learning something and isn’t that a good thing? I’m learning about a culture I wouldn’t have known about.” The open invitation from the Azrieli Foundation is a perfect opportunity for this type of exploration. It also gives composers such as Murphy a chance to keep her orchestral writing skills in shape, which she admits is a challenge these days with limited opportunities to take on writing a lengthy work for orchestral forces. Murphy’s completed composition will be a 20-minute double concerto for cello and harp, premiering October 15, 2018 in Montreal and featuring the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

This has turned out to be a golden year for Murphy, as she is the winner of two other composition awards – the Maria Anna Mozart Award from Symphony Nova Scotia, as well as being selected by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto as their annual commissioned composer. For the WMCT commission, Murphy will compose a piece for eight cellos for a performance on May 3, 2018 at Toronto’s Walter Hall. This piece will be inspired by a story of painter Jackson Pollock who “went off the rails” during a Thanksgiving dinner, sending food and dishes flying. His wife’s response was simply: “Coffee will be served in the living room.” Murphy is intrigued by the dramatic and emotional possibilities of this scene, and will use the various combinations of duets, solos and quartets amongst the eight cellists to play out the tensions and dynamics suggested by this story.

Murphy’s curiosity and sense of musical adventure can be summarized by this question she poses: “If you don’t explore, don’t connect outside of yourself and your own experience, how can you move on? Wouldn’t you just keep creating the same sound?”

Canadian Electronic Ensemble

It’s a new look for the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, which can proudly boast of being the oldest continuous live-electronic group in the world. Formed in 1971 by David Jaeger, Larry Lake, Jim Montgomery and David Grimes, the CEE is gearing up for “New Look CEE,” their October 13 concert at the Canadian Music Centre. This concert marks their new configuration as a quintet, with the addition of David Sutherland to the current ensemble membership made up of founders Jaeger and Montgomery, Paul Stillwell (who joined in 1995) and John Kameel Farah (who joined in 2011) – fellow current member Rose Bolton is not playing in the October 13 concert.

In the early days when it wasn’t so easy to use synthesizers in live performance, members of the group would design and build their own instruments. Performing concerts of their own music as well as works by other composers became their focus, with their first Canadian tour happening in 1976. Other activities in the 1970s included being consultants for a sound synthesis project at the University of Toronto, as well as coordinating a research project on the work of electronic music pioneer Hugh Le Caine. Browsing through their website, one gets a strong impression of life as a pioneering electronic music ensemble, and all the rich experiences and professional associations that were had.

With improvisation being their standard mode of performance, the instrumentation is varied, using both old and new analog instruments, laptops, acoustic instruments, found sound and field recordings. So what will the new look sound like? Impossible to know at this point, but the group is excited to welcome Sutherland aboard. He brings expertise from both the digital and analog worlds, including a mastery of the EMS Synthi AKS (the iconic 70s analog synth). Definitely worth checking out this enduring ensemble whose activities span four and a half decades.

Spectrum Music

Heavyweights Brass BandOn the other end of building ensemble legacies, Spectrum Music continues its energetic agenda of bringing audiences a series of themed concerts that combine diverse traditions and intriguing cultural issues. This collective of composers and curators came together in 2010 with a mission to celebrate difference, inclusivity and community. Their October 28 concert is organized around the topic of legends and lore, combining mythologies about the lost city of Atlantis, Dutch folklore about the mermaid and stories of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. The Heavyweights Brass Band are the featured performers in this concert, which aims to bring jazz, classical and pop audiences together.

Worthy Mentions

Flipping through the pages of this month’s issue of The WholeNote, the reader will no doubt notice the abundance of events celebrating the music of Claude Vivier, an important Québécois voice who left behind an enduring body of musical works after his untimely death in 1983. I just happened to be in Montreal studying composition at McGill University during that year, and this devastating news shook the musical community there profoundly. Fortunately, his powerful and compelling music lives on, and the month of October will be an excellent opportunity to hear and experience the magic of his musical imagination with concerts by both Esprit Orchestra and Soundstreams.

Finally, an important reminder of two events I wrote about in my September column – the Music Gallery’s X Avant XII Festival (October 11 to 15), organized around the theme of Resistance, and New Music Concerts’ first program of the season featuring the Meitar Ensemble from Tel Aviv (October 22). The X Avant festival offers a variety of approaches and soundworlds created by artists who seek to combat the various threats currently facing the world – from oppressive regimes (including the USA) to climate disasters. Check out the listings for a full menu of what is on the agenda for this hot and cutting-edge festival. The Meitar Ensemble is a virtuoso group dedicated to commissioning and performing new works. Five players from their core membership will be visiting Toronto to perform compositions by Philippe Leroux, Ofer Pelz, Ruben Seroussi and Uri Kochavi. This concert will be a great chance to hear some leading-edge music by stellar performers.

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