Bernard Turgeon (centre) as Louis Riel, in the 1967 premiere of Louis Riel.The opera Louis Riel is maybe one of the most unabashedly ‘Canadian’-branded works to ever hit our classical music scene. But it also sheds light on a systemic, nationwide problem: just how little many Canadians know about our own national history. With Louis Riel coming to the COC next month, there’s an opportunity to change that.

Written in 1967 and revisited this year by the COC, Harry Somers’ Louis Riel draws on so many parts of national(ist) history—especially in light of the sesquicentennial—that it’s only natural for side projects about the meaning behind the work to pop up in the city. The opera’s huge cast of Confederation-era characters and conflicts can make it a difficult one to understand—and like any modern nation, Canada’s history gets complicated and messy pretty quickly, if you look at it closely enough. For many music educators in Toronto, Louis Riel serves as an apt moment for concert-goers to take that complex, closer look.

Réa Beaumont: One of those educators is Dr. Réa Beaumont, a pianist, researcher and writer specializing in Canadian music. Beaumont is teaching a course at the Royal Conservatory later this month as part of its Music Appreciation series, titled “Canadian Composers: Harry Somers' Louis Riel”. It’s the second time this course has run at the RCM, but with the opera starting its run at the COC in just over a month, the timing now is perfect.

“The course will be an in-depth look at the music, characters, and historical events that inspired the opera, and it will feature special guests who were involved in the original 1967 production,” says Beaumont. “The course also includes a free ticket to the Canadian Opera Company’s dress rehearsal, which is a terrific opportunity to see how things work 'behind the scenes.’“

Beaumont adds that the course will also delve deeper into the study of Somers himself, and his place in the history of Canadian music. “A lot of people know the Louis Riel opera and not that much about Harry Somers,” she says. “He was a prolific composer, he studied with John Weinzweig, he was an Order of Canada recipient—and he was a core member of that group of composers that was writing in the 1950s: Pentland, Weinzweig, Coulthard, Archer. They were a force to be reckoned with in Canadian music.

“That generation of mid-twentieth century composers, they really had such a battle to move forward and take music into the twentieth century in Canada. They formed the Canadian Music Centre, and the Canadian League of Composers...Really, they’re the founders of Canadian music as we know it today.”

Ultimately, Beaumont hopes that audiences will be able to listen to this opera in 2017 and take away an interest in Canadian history, and an understanding of how the national tensions Riel and Sir John A. MacDonald faced in the nineteenth century are still at play today.

“I hope also that people are inspired to do their own research into the history and keep an open mind,” she says. “It would a tremendous achievement if people could see the opera and learn about this—for their takeaway to be that Canada has a history that we should all know about and keep discussing, so that we can move forward.”

The course “Canadian Composers: Harry Somers' Louis Riel” runs Thursday nights at the RCM from March 23 to April 13. Beaumont will also be giving a free introductory lecture about the opera on March 20 at 7pm, at the Toronto Reference Library. For details on both of these programs, visit and, respectively.

Riel Opera Talk: Another similar initiative is a new podcast out of the University of Toronto, called Riel Opera Talk. Hosted by U of T musicology grad students Sarah Koval and Taryn Jackson, the podcast is a weekly series exploring different facets of the opera, with industry experts, musicians and scholars. Hosted on Soundcloud and via U of T’s Institute for Canadian Music (, the show rides the rising popularity of podcasts to take an in-depth look at some of Louis Riel’s more complicated aspects, in an online, serial format.

“I have been interested in this opera for a long time, and when I found out that U of T was funding student initiatives for research around Canada's 150 celebrations, I jumped at the chance to learn more about this opera,” says Jackson, whose work at U of T includes teaching a tutorial for a course on the music of North America. “I proposed the podcast as a project, and now here we are.” Koval, whose own research focuses in part on opera, immediately got on board.

So far, they’ve done three episodes (with the most recent released this morning on Wednesday, March 15), covering conversations with Métis scholar Adam Gaudry, as well as members of the cast and crew of the original Louis Riel production from 1967. Next up in their series will be an exploration of Louis Riel’s position within Canadian music history, as well as a discussion around the COC’s take on what Koval and Jackson are calling “Canada’s nationalizing opera”.

“This is one of the few operas on a Canadian historical topic that has received many performances,” Jackson and Koval explain. “We call it ‘nationalizing’ because it contributes to the nationalist agenda of Canadian historical milestones, such as the centennial celebrations of 1967 and the upcoming sesquicentennial celebrations this year—[though] the opera itself neither strikes us as nationalizing or nationalist because it is quite complex and dark, definitely not celebratory. This is one of the things that makes its use in these national events so interesting.”

The podcast, like Beaumont’s course, contributes to an emerging body of local scholarship around Louis Riel—one that promises that when audiences do see the opera next month, they’ll be listening closely.

“We hope [our listeners] get even more excited to see the opera than they already are, and that they embrace the changes to the production that are underway,” say Jackson and Koval. “We hope people listen to our podcast as a way of understanding the challenges this opera posed in 1967 and continues to pose today. Finally, we think this podcast provides a great behind-the-scenes adventure into the making of an opera, especially a work that is not part of the operatic canon.”

The podcast Riel Opera Talk is available online on Soundcloud, via Twitter at @RielOperaTalk, and at, with new episodes released weekly. For details on the COC production of Louis Riel, visit

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

Pin It

NOW’s panel talk on Monday. Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana.The Silver Dollar Room on Spadina, set to close this May.The atrium at 192 Spadina is filled to capacity. There are 200 of us, and we’re about to hear a panel talk hosted by NOW Magazine called “Vanishing Venues”, on the slew of recent music venue closures in Toronto. Following their cover story of the same name earlier this month, NOW organized the talk on Monday, March 13, as a community discussion on the future of Toronto’s music venues—and for an event like this, I’ve never seen a space so full.

Maybe so many people turned up because it’s a topic that hits home. Since the beginning of 2017 alone, seven music venues in Toronto (Hugh’s Room, Soybomb, the Hoxton, the Central, the Silver Dollar, Holy Oak and Harlem) have announced their closure—and this week’s announcement from the Hard Rock Cafe now brings that total up to eight. As the NOW article states, it’s a trend that is quickly being labelled as a crisis.

“It is a crisis, absolutely,” said Spencer Sutherland, in Carla Gillis’ original NOW article. Sutherland is owner of Nocturne, chairman of the Queen St. West BIA and member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council, and a member of Monday’s panel. “In London, UK, they declared it a crisis when they found out that 35 venues had closed over a period of eight years. We’re a city one-fifth the size and we’ve had three times that many close.”

The panel on Monday night, hosted by NOW assistant entertainment editor Kevin Ritchie at the Centre for Social Innovation on Spadina, included Sutherland alongside TiKA Simone (musician and founder of #BAREGYAL party series and The Known Unknown), Shaun Bowring (owner of the Garrison, the Baby G and Transmit Presents), Anthony Greenberg (a senior planner at SvN Architects + Planners), and Erin Benjamin, executive director of Music Canada Live.

NOW’s panel talk on Monday. Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana.Clear from the beginning was a sense of frustration with the city decision-makers, and an awareness of a disconnect between how we like to think of Toronto, and how we have actually managed its growth. Whatever happened to the hype at city hall about making Toronto a ‘Music City’? And what does it mean when all of a city’s music-makers can no longer afford to live and work there? As one panelist said, “music has been one of our greatest cultural exports to the world, and it has been for a long time—and yet we treat it like disposable tissue.”

Some of the stories brought up in the conversation were shocking. According to Sutherland on Monday, there is no licensing class for live music venues in Toronto, with all clubs and concert venues registered under restaurant licenses; noise bylaws put live music in the same category as public noise like loud construction and leaf blowers; and city hall has no official registry of where in the city live music is taking place. It all sets up an infrastructure where it’s easy to delegitimize venue owners and musicians as rightful members of the city economy—and it means that, when conflicts between music venues and other neighbourhood bodies arise, the musicians legally have no legs to stand on.

In other cases, the stories—at least for some—were not so surprising. In conversation, TiKA focused the discussion on the accessibility of the city’s music spaces and decision-making bodies, and the lack of access granted to underprivileged groups—among them women, young people, people from lower-income neighbourhoods, and people of colour. “We’re supposed to be a cultural hub,” she said, “but a lot of the people who are in these spaces are old, tired, unwilling, and afraid of diversity. I’m not surprised by what's happening.”

TiKA pointed out specifics: a lack of education in low-income neighbourhoods on how to access government assistance; an acceptance by the city of gentrification processes that push entire communities out of the downtown core; and a lack of knowledge among the city’s decision-making officials about the current moment in music, and the state of things on the ground floor.

“Toronto is supposed to be known for cultural diversity,” she added. “It should look like that.”

The conversation kept coming back to these questions of access—and indeed, access seems to lie at the root of this problem. How can artists and concertgoers reach city hall, and advocate for what they do in ways that don’t fall on deaf ears? How can music venues access government protection from the types of urban growth that make it difficult to sustain cultural spaces? How can music professionals make the industry a welcoming one for communities that are regularly marginalized and disregarded? And how to do all of that within a system that makes it all so difficult?

As Erin Benjamin said on Monday, “When we [people who are passionate about music in Toronto] really start to dig into the numbers and really tell our story, I think we’ll see things start to change.”

TiKA put it even more succinctly: “We can’t keep doing this dance.”

They’re right. It’s getting harder and harder to afford living in this city as an arts worker, as a young person, or as a member of a marginalized community. It’s also tiring to be told to mobilize and speak up, when many have already been doing that—and when in the face of big business and slow city hall progress, those things don’t seem to be working. As one audience member said on Monday, “it’s about privileged and underprivileged people”—and overwhelmingly, musicians and the people whose work supports them seem to fall on the latter end of that spectrum.

But while the situation may seem dire, Monday night did offer one glimmer of optimism: that people in Toronto, and many different kinds of people at that, are talking about this and getting frustrated. They’re tackling difficult subjects, and trying to find new ways to do this challenging work.

A city like Toronto needs physical meeting-places and cultural workspaces to thrive, and to continue being the type of city where people actually want to live. So perhaps the struggle is not so much about “keeping our venues from disappearing”, but rather, how to make Toronto into the kind of city where many different types of artists—and many different kinds of people, not just the residentially-minded and the rich—feel welcome. Frustrating conversations like this one are just one of the ways to start.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

Pin It

2206-BBB-Classical 1.jpg"Not Reconciled: The Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet” is a retrospective of 31 films by the singular filmmaking duo that takes hold at TIFF Bell Lightbox March 3 with the screening of a new 35mm print of Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. Whether or not you’re familiar with the austere dissociation of the filmmakers’ style, this black and white 1967 film is essential viewing for any music lover. Compulsively watchable, it’s of key historical importance on two counts. As a portrait of J.S. Bach, it’s a focused biography zoning in on the last decades of his life, from the end of his stint working for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen to his time in Leipzig as cantor of St. Thomas Church (1723-1750). And as a 50-year-old film in which Bach is portrayed by harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt and the music is directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with musicians from his Concentus Musicus Wien, it’s also a record of a period-instrument movement that was then in its infancy.

The film is awash in music, all inspired by Bach’s love of, and devotion to, God. Almost the entire film consists of excerpts from 24 of Bach’s works – it’s a total immersion experience largely because most of the excerpts are each several minutes long. The bewigged Bach and musicians perform in period costume in the very places where the compositions were first played. The Straubs’ rigorous aesthetic reinforces this effect by selecting a camera position with a striking perspective and letting their unmoving camera soak up the moving image; they concentrate our attention on the music.

The film is narrated in a matter-of-fact manner by Bach’s second wife, a singer he married in 1721 after the death of his first wife. She gives a bare outline of Bach’s early years, touching on his organ prowess and the famous 250-mile walk he took from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear his idol Buxtehude play, but once she introduces herself events flow according to the pulse of time. For the most part the music follows in chronological order beginning with a sizable excerpt from the middle of the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.5, the first great keyboard concerto and arguably the zenith of his time in Köthen. The camera placement is over the right shoulder of Bach as we watch Leonhardt play his double-keyboard harpsichord unfettered.

Just as Bach is about to take up his post in Leipzig, we’re treated to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt in lovely performance of the first movement adagio from the Sonata No.2 for viola da gamba and harpsichord BWV 1028. Then it’s a seamless parade of cantatas (embracing many instrumental passages, Bach conducting from the keyboard) with the Magnificat, St. Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor included, all integral to the narrative. Only a smattering of keyboard works interrupt the flow, notably the opening of the magisterial Prelude in B Minor for Organ BWV 544. Later, the camera actively moves in on Leonhardt for an intimate snippet of the Clavier-Übung organ chorale. He explains how his left hand plays written notes (basso continuo) while the right hand plays in consonance and dissonance; and that the music is for the glory of God.

Camera placement is critical. For example, in the Cantata BWV 198, written for the funeral of Queen Christiane, the vantage point is from the instrumental side focused on the lute, with Bach at left in front of the choir. Occasionally there will be a cut to a close-up of a singer or instrumentalist; even a view of the thick scores black with the density of notes. Despite the lack of camera movement, there is a variety of perspective, often at an angle, which adds to our involvement. The filmmakers also point us to original documents, contracts and the like. They are careful to point out the economics of Bach’s daily life and his concerns with his working conditions as he navigates his relationship to his employers.

The other major musical component of the retrospective, is the screening March 12 of the Straubs’ film of Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron (1974), shot in a Roman amphitheatre with the Austrian Radio Choir and Austria Radio Symphony Orchestra (recorded in Vienna), along with the 1972 short film Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene (which uses text by Schoenberg and Brecht to condemn anti-Semitism). Preceding the films will be a 15- to 20-minute live performance of five extracts from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire as well as Claude Vivier’s Hymnen an die Nacht presented by Against the Grain Theatre with soprano Adanya Dunn and collaborative pianist Topher Mokrzewski.

2206-BBB-Classical 2.jpgAssociates of the TSO. Now in their 45th season, the Associates of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra continue their current series March 6 with “Classics of Vienna Meet Voices of Britain.” TSO oboist Sarah Lewis is joined by Eri Kosaka, violin, Diane Leung, viola, and Emmaneulle Beaulieu Bergeron, cello, in Mozart’s effervescent Oboe Quartet K370, Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings Op.2 (written when the composer was 19 and featuring a singing oboe line). Beethoven’s splendid Trio Op.9 No.1 opens the concert.

On February 13, I heard their second concert of the season, “Paris en mille notes,” a delightful evening of chamber music in the friendly confines of Jeanne Lamon Hall. The distinctive Gallic-flavoured program began with a lively look at Stravinsky’s Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat. Stravinsky’s septet consisted of violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, double bass and percussion, a larger number of players than the Associates usually bring to a concert. The enthusiastic audience, who appeared to be made up of the proverbial “seven to seventy,” took up most of the seats on the main floor and seemed to energize the players.

Stravinsky’s score, which takes advantage of its instruments’ unique instrumental colour, was suitably raucous and lively with memorable violin playing by TSO assistant concertmaster Etsuko Kimura (as it should be given the story of a violinist-soldier who sells his instrument to the devil), the sweet bassoon of Fraser Jackson and buffoonery from the brass.

Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, which followed, acted as a palate cleanser after the Stravinsky’s exoticism, creating a wonderful sense of space with long flute lines and wide intervals that felt very French, all delivered with aplomb by Leonie Wall and collaborative pianist Monique de Margerie.

After intermission the duo joined the septet plus another percussionist for Jackson’s clever chamber arrangement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major which was being performed for the first time. With similar instrumentation as the Stravinsky, the concerto began in wind-band style before moving into its languorous piano theme with piccolo backing. Conductor Ryan Haskins brought a subtle baton to Ravel’s jazz touches, providing a good steady groove for the second movement’s lovely theme, while de Margerie’s intimate solo piano playing was well-suited to the chamber format.

Kudos to the musicians and their contagious spirit. It augurs well for the rest of the season to come. Following the March 6 concert previously mentioned, their season continues May 29 with a transcription of Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin arranged for violin and viola and Beethoven’s String Trio in E-flat Major Op.3. June 5, it’s music for piano trio by Haydn, Luedeke, Piazzolla and Brahms.

2206-BBB-Classical 3.jpgDmitry Masleev. Following in the footsteps of the 13 first-place winners of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, the Siberian-born Dmitry Masleev joins such legends as Van Cliburn (1958), Vladimir Ashkenazy (1962) and Grigory Sokolov (1966) and most recently Denis Matsuev (1998), Ayako Uehara (2002) and Daniil Trifonov (2011). His Koerner Hall recital March 22 includes works he played in Round 1 of that competition (two of Rachmaninoff’s Études Tableaux Op.39 and Beethoven’s Sonata Op.81a “Les Adieux”) and Liszt’s Totentanz from Round 2. Four Scarlatti sonatas, additional Rachmaninoff pieces and Prokofiev’s Sonata No.2 in D Minor Op.14 complete his ambitious program.

In response to a question I emailed him shortly before we went to press, Masleev told me that his musical hero is Sergey Rachmaninoff. “He was not only a genius composer whose music inspires all classical music lovers, but he was also a brilliant pianist,” he said. “Thank God we have lots of his recordings available and can listen to them.

“He has his own style of performing,” the 28-year-old said. “You will always be amazed by his precise touch, deep forte and piano, and of course, just incredible technique. His music combines deep meaning that touches your heart, a variety of harmonies, just unbelievable beautiful melodies. There is a quality in it that will find a response from any person in the audience.

Daniil Trifonov. Coincidentally, the previous Tchaikovsky winner, Daniil Trifonov (having just turned 26) returns to Koerner Hall just six days after Masleev, March 28 in a recital devoted to Schumann, Shostakovich and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. The concert is sold out but a few rush tickets will be available 90 minutes prior to the performance. When he was 23, Trifonov gave a masterclass/interview at Mazzoleni Hall one evening in January 2015. He mentioned Rachmaninoff, Friedman, Horowitz, Hofmann and Michelangeli among pianists from the past who inspired him. He said then that the two hours before a concert is a period of intense concentration and that “somehow warming up for me is more mental [than physical].”


Mar 4: Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra principal trumpet Michael Fedyshyn joins violinist Bethany Bergman, cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Angela Park as 5 at the First presents music by Biber, Barnes, Ewazen and Piazzolla.

Mar 4: Academy Concert Series presents “A Frankly Fabulous Foray,” piano quintets by Franck and Fauré (See what they did there!), two lush chamber works. OSM principal second violin Alexander Read, HPO second violinist and Windermere String Quartet first violinist Elizabeth Loewen Andrews, TSM 2016 fellow Emily Eng, viola, Academy Concert Series artistic director Kerri McGonigle, cello, and Leanne Regehr, piano, bring the works to life.

Mar 5: Trio Con Brio Copenhagen’s concert, presented by Chamber Music Hamilton, includes Schubert’s uncommonly beautiful Piano Trio in B-flat Major Op.99.

Mar 5, 7 and 9: The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society presents the Aviv String Quartet performing Mozart’s great last ten quartets. Mar 21 and 23: Movses Pogossian honours Bach’s birthday by playing his six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin in the KWCMS music room. Mar 22: Peter Vinograde, who played the first solo recital in that music room in 1980, returns to play Bach, Beethoven and Peter Mennin. Apr 2, 4, 5, 7 and 9: Another major programming coup for KWCMS: the Lafayette String Quartet playing the complete Shostakovich string quartets.

Mar 5: It’s cloning time as Mooredale presents Paganini Competition prizewinner In Mo Yang at Walter Hall, while RCM presents the inimitable Sir András Schiff at Koerner Hall, and Roy Thomson Hall presents Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, recent Grammy winners for Best Orchestral Performance. All concerts will take place Sunday afternoon at three o’clock.

Mar 7: GGS scholarship student Charissa Vandikas plays Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninoff in a free noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Apr 4: Another COC free noontime concert features Mark Fewer in solo violin works by Bach, Ysaÿe and Chris Paul Harman. Apr 5: Rossina Grieco, a native of Southern California and winner of the GGS Ihnatowycz Prize in Piano, fills the Bradshaw Ampitheatre with Liszt’s iconic Sonata in B Minor in her free concert.

Mar 9: The relatively new Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch brings their chamber music bona fides to the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto for what promises to be a memorable afternoon of music by Rachmaninoff, Schumann and Shostakovich.

Mar 10: The celebrated duo pianists, Anagnoson and Kinton, continue their 40th anniversary season with a concert at Brock University in St. Catharines.

Mar 16: Music Toronto presents the Philharmonic Quartett Berlin (made up exclusively of members of the Berliner Philharmoniker) in a classic program of late Haydn, early Beethoven and middle Schumann.

Mar 18: TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow is the soloist in Brahms’ lyrical Violin Concerto with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bradley Thachuk, at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

Mar 19: Four days before his Music Toronto recital, Marc-André Hamelin performs at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston. The all-sonata program is anchored in the first half by Beethoven’s fervid Appassionata Sonata and in the second by Chopin’s dark Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor “The Funeral March.”

Mar 23: One-time protégé of the great Arthur Rubinstein, Janina Fialkowska brings her pianistic sensibility to an all-Chopin recital at the Aurora Cultural Centre.

Mar 27: The U of T Faculty of Music presents the dedicated and dependable Gryphon Trio performing Beethoven’s buoyant Piano Trio Op.11, Dinuk Wijeratne’s Love Triangle and Brahms’ romantic signpost, the Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor Op.25. Currently artists-in-residence at the faculty, the Gryphon is joined by guest violist Ethan Filner for the Brahms.

Apr 1: The indefatigable Angela Park joins Canadian Sinfonietta’s first violinist, Joyce Lai, and first cellist, András Weber, for an evening of chamber music by Rachmaninoff, Handel-Halvorsen and An-Lun Huang.

Apr 1, 2: Tokyo-born, Montreal-raised Karen Gomyo brings her superb musicianship to Beethoven’s splendid Violin Concerto. Young American, Robert Trevino, also conducts the TSO in the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka rooted in Russian folklore and melody. Apr 6, 7: TSO favourite Thomas Dausgaard returns to conduct Deryck Cooke’s version of Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No.10; TSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson is the soloist in Schumann’s ravishing Cello Concerto in A Minor Op.129, the opening work on the program.

Apr 2: Pianist Anton Nel, fresh from two masterclasses on March 31, performs Mozart and Schumann in a free concert (tickets required; available from March 2) in Mazzoleni Hall.

Apr 7: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts presents pianist Jon Kimura Parker in a fascinating program comprised of Beethoven’s formidable Appassionata Sonata, Ravel’s shimmering Jeux d’eau, Alexina Louie’s Scenes from a Jade Terrace and two movie-themed pastiches by William Hirtz: Bernard Herrmann Fantasy and Fantasy on the Wizard of Oz.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Pin It

Springing Sweetly into Summer: It takes a fair bit to make me smile during the dog days of the March magazine production cycle. Nowhere is the pain of the fact that February is three days shorter than some months more sharply felt than right now - the last 48 hours before going to press.

But one smile got wrung out of me earlier today, while giving our annual “Orange Pages” summer music education special section (it starts on page 58) a quick last look before press time.

It’s not a section that lays claim to being comprehensive. February would need 280 days for that to happen. It’s more like a geologist’s rock sample - a rough crystal refracting the light of just how much opportunity there is out there for music lovers wanting, in the words of the little intro to this year’s section, “to engage in summer music making … when the restraints of our regular schedules have been lifted.”

I’ll confess that reading the section itself is always a bit of a bitter-sweet thing for me. No matter when in the year we publish it, it always feels as though it’s either too early or too late - either “How on earth do you expect me to plan that far ahead?” or “I wish I had known about that months ago!”

But however practical or wistful the read-through, I always come away from skimming through the 35-or-so profiles in it with a sense of vicarious pleasure. And on this occasion, with a sweetly accidental moment of amusement.

All the entries in the section are structured in a similar way, offering an anecdotal description in the provider’s own words of what the opportunity is all about, preceded by nuts-and-bolts information about the what, where and when of it all, and for whom it’s intended.

It was one of those “who it’s for” descriptors that did it! (I won’t tell you which profile it was in - you’ll have to find it yourself.) “All ages 10 to 90!” it said.

Maybe it’s just that my funny bone is tingling from too-long days of leaning on my elbows during this all-too-short production cycle, or just that, as all regular readers of this Opener will both know by now, my sense of humour is a bit aslant at the best of times!  But I read “All ages 10 to 90!” and the picture jumped immediately to my mind of one particular columnist reading it and sputtering in indignation “What the hell do you mean I’m too old for that!?”

Slight as this little story may be, it speaks to a good kind of complexity, in my view of the world we live in. Namely this: that almost anything one says, especially in fun,  can be taken differently than one intended. “All ages, 10 to 90” is clearly intended as a way of speaking playfully to the broad inclusiveness of the offering.  It takes a darkly perverse view of things to interpret it as a deliberately ageist attempt to exclude nonagenarians from the joys of campfire life. (Hmm maybe there’s a charter challenge there somewhere. Any nine-year-olds with awesome finger-pickin’ chops want to join in?)

It’s a bit of a stretch to argue that the above anecdote serves as a reminder of how endless (and sometimes painfully rewarding) the process is of reinventing our language and re-examining our assumptions, musical and political.

Happily (if not necessarily comfortably), this sesquicentennial year offers the opportunity for the same kind of soul-searching on a much grander and more fundamental scale.  

Tiptoeing the Sesquicentennial Party Line: The Toronto Consort’s “Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters” (February 3 and 4 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre) got February off to a flying start for me. It was an early, and welcome, indication that the 2017  sesquicentennial arts bandwagon will have room, alongside the enthusiastic flag-wavers, for those who choose to look at 1867 critically, as a relatively recent milestone in a much longer, and not unequivocally celebratory, journey.

As an idea for a concert program, “Kanatha/Canada” had its roots, in the fall of 2013, in the work that constitutes the entire second half of the concert, composer John Beckwith’s Wendake/Huronia, a roughly 30-minute work, in six movements, reflecting on Wendat culture from pre-European contact to the present day and ending with a prayer for reconciliation between the two cultures.

As Beckwith himself described it in an article in The WholeNote in summer 2015, “late in 2013, John French, director of the Brookside Music Association in Midland, invited [me] to compose a piece to be performed in July 2015, marking the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Samuel de Champlain and a few fellow adventurers from France to the ‘Mer douce’ or ‘Fresh-water sea’—today’s Lake Huron. I said yes.”

In its original form the work was performed by a chamber choir drawn from local choirs, a pair of First Nations drummers, Shirley Hay and Marilyn George, an alto soloist (Laura Pudwell) and a narrator (Theodore Baerg), accompanied by the Toronto Consort. It toured Georgian Bay communities including Midland, Parry Sound (as part of the Festival of the Sound), Barrie, Meaford and others.

In the February 3 and 4 version, performed to a packed Trinity-St. Paul’s, almost the same forces were assembled. The most notable change was that the role of narrator/singer was taken by Georges Sioui, described in the concert program as a “Huron-Wendat … polyglot, poet, essayist, songwriter and world-renowned speaker on the history, philosophy, spirituality and education of Aboriginal peoples.” Sioui had played a seminal role in the gestation of the project; this performance brought his voice into the foreground.

Composer Beckwith had found Sioui as a resource early on; in fact, the fifth movement in the work, Lamentation 1642, “an angry lament” was based on a paper Sioui had given in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, recalling the life-patterns of Wendats in the years 992, 1492, and 1642 [the sesquicentennial of Columbus’ “discovery” of North America].  “His picture of the state of Huronia a century and a half after Columbus affected me deeply,” Beckwith writes. “When I interviewed Sioui in Ottawa, he generously gave me permission to set this ‘lament’ as my fifth panel.” Sioui also advised Beckwith not to end there. “He thought the angry lament should be followed by more optimistic sentiments, reflecting today’s efforts towards reconciliation.”

The work traverses aeons: a prologue suggesting “pre-contact” evinced by percussion imitating the sound of snowshoes while individual voices shout out, as in a roll call, the names of various Wendat clans; a second movement, set in a European-sounding contrapuntal choral style, revolving around a “poetic epigraph written by a fan” at the front of the second edition (1632) of Champlain’s published account of his travels; third and fourth panels evoking, respectively, canoeing and the Wendat “Feast of Souls”; second last, Sioui’s “angry lament”; and finally a movement titled To the Future based on an intensely moving recent poem of Sioui’s (2013), written in English but spoken here in French, in which the narrator dandles his infant nephew and asks the baby boy’s understanding for referring to child as “grandfather” because in so doing the narrator is transported to a childhood in which an optimistic future could more readily be seen.

Most interesting (in the context of this particular essay) has been watching the development of the Toronto Consort’s role (with artistic director David Fallis at the helm) in the evolution of the piece from its origins at the 2015 Brookside Festival till now. It’s not hard to see why an ensemble specializing in authentic performance of early music would have been the logical musical choice for a project examining a 400-year old moment in time. But without Fallis’ fierce curatorial intelligence, their role could have remained a kind of period window-dressing.

In this February’s concert, Beckwith’s half-hour long Wendake/Huronia has morphed from being a stand-alone work into the second half of a fully articulated concert program. The first half, anchored  by First Nations drummers Shirley Hay and Marilyn George and by vocal artist Jeremy Dutcher (who was interviewed here by Sara Constant last month), is built around the 1701 “Great Peace” of Montreal in which in the words of historian Gilles Havard: “In the heat of the summer of 1701 hundreds of Native people paddled their birchbark canoes down the Ottawa River … [an] impressive flotilla made up of delegations from many nations of the Great Lakes region … and from other directions … In total about 1,300 Native delegates, representing 39 nations, would gather in the little colonial town … to participate in a general peace conference.”

As with Wendake/Huronia, the treatment of the “Great Peace” story is nuanced and layered, enriched by singer/drummers Hay and George’s deep-rooted knowledge of First Nations lore and Dutcher’s ongoing explorations “part composition, part musical ethnography and part linguistic reclamation” of his Wolostoq Maliseet (Saint John river basin) heritage. As a whole, the program immerses the audience in the ongoing complexities of contact between Canada’s Indigenous and Settler peoples. It is all the more powerful for the way it animates the Consort’s usual repertoire, which is all too often at risk of being seen as nothing more than a sentimental rendering of artfully encased museum pieces from a bygone age.

There was nothing sentimental about this particular exercise in time travel. A healthy reminder as the coming months of Sesquicentennial-themed offerings come to a boil.

Interlude: The night of July 4, 1975, I slept on the floor of the Greyhound bus station in State College, Pennsylvania. The night before I had slept on a Boeing 707 en route between what was then called Jan Smuts Airport and JFK in New York. My arrival at JFK was carefully timed: it was the first day of the US Bicentennial Year, and I was in possession of a $200, unlimited-travel, two-month bus pass, effective July 4, 1975, that I was about to make good use of.  (I was seven weeks away from arriving in Toronto to stay.) There’s something to be said for ’centennial bandwagons.

The night of July 5 1975 I was back on the floor of the State College bus station again, having spent July 5 waiting fruitlessly, on the steps of the Altoona Town Hall, for a local bus that, according to Greyhound bus dispatch, would take me to Jamestown, PA. But when it arrived it was going to Johnstown, PA. So took the only other bus coming through, and slunk back to State College again.

Time travellers take note: There were worse places to be than the Altoona Town Hall steps, on July 5 1975. The Phillies and Pirates both won (against the Mets and Cubs respectively) having both lost the previous day - the Phillies in a heartbreaker. So the alarmingly large town drunk who spent much of the day keeping me company on the steps, transistor radio to his ear, was in a good mood. ….

Now, where was I? Ah yes, the State College, Pennsylvania bus station. That is where this story is headed next.

2206-Opener.jpgTafelmusik at the Crossroads: Even for an ensemble accustomed to packing their bags and moving from one thing to another really quickly, Tafelmusik is in the middle of a three-month stretch requiring remarkable agility.

Consider the fact that, by the time you read this, within the month of February alone (28 days), the organization will have: announced the appointment of a new music director; presented 12 local performances of four different programs at five different venues; held a very effective invite-only season launch concert at an off-the-beaten-track venue (patching in their new music director Elisa Citterio by video); and launched a US tour that will take one of their most successful all-memorized thematic programs, Alison Mackay’s “Bach’s Circle of Creation” on a 12-day, eight-city US tour.

The tour will be mostly by bus. And it will take them, among other places, to (drum roll please!) State College, Pennsylvania, where at 7.30pm on March 2, the second stop of the tour, they will perform the “Circle of Creation” program in the Schwab Auditorium at Penn State University. Maybe I’ll go see that one, for old times’ sake. Although I am quite possibly getting too old to intentionally sleep in bus stations.

Elisa Citterio: Of all the headspinning details hinted in the previous description of Tafel on the move, the one with likely the most significant long-term implications is the hiring of Citterio as music director. Attesting to the care taken in finding someone to replace the irreplaceable Lamon, we as audience, and the players, have had several opportunities (November 2015, and February and September 2016) to get to know her as violinist and conductor.  Her 2016/17 September season-opening Koerner Hall appearance was fascinating. In a program that included, among other things, Handel’s Water Music, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.4 in D and excerpts from Rameau’s Les indes galantes it was clear from the get-go that there was some very intense musical conversation going on between the conductor and the orchestra. She led from the first violin, as is the orchestra’s custom, and so intent was she on maintaining the connection with the players, turned three-quarters away from the audience, that from the back of the house, there were moments of almost feeling excluded. “Wait till she realizes that that bunch of smart cookies [the players] can read her back as easily as they can read her face! She’s going to be something really special” my concert companion remarked.

I, for one, can’t wait.

We get one more chance to hear and see Citterio at work this season (early May) and then in September it’s “chocks away!” as a newly minted Tafelmusik takes flight.

Alison Mackay:  Running a close second to Citterio’s appointment as significant Tafelmusik news has to be the seemingly inexhaustible flow of thematic programs from the mind of longtime Tafel bassist Alison Mackay. Her latest, “Visions and Voyages: Canada 1663-1763” will be over by the time you read this. (I’m off to see it as soon as I finish this piece!) Like the Toronto Consort’s “Kanatha/Canada” discussed earlier, it places the sesquicentennial theme in the context of a much earlier timeline. I’ll be surprised if it’s any less rigorous  in its framing of the issues than its Consort counterpart.

As mentioned, an earlier Mackay program “Bach’s Circle of Creation” hits the road for a US tour February 28. And, no surprise, there’s a new one in the works for the 2017/18 season. Titled “Safe Haven,” it “explores the musical ideas of baroque Europe’s refugee artists ... portraying the influence of migration on the musical life of Europe and exploring how the movement of refugees changed and enriched the economy and culture of major cities.

Mackay’s programs increasingly demonstrate a committed and almost uncanny knack to to tap into history truthfully so that an audience comes away, by analogy, with a clearer understanding of issues of our time. (“Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffeehouse” last spring was a perfect case in point.) 

Coda: The Time-Traveller’s Toothbrush

“The only thing I really need to do before a concert is to brush my teeth. I cannot sing with dirty teeth. … But otherwise, a little warmup, some nice clothes, a bit of lipstick … I’m good to go.”

The speaker is alto powerhouse Laura Pudwell, longtime Toronto Consort member, quoted in the program for “Kanatha/Canada” discussed earlier. As for this ink-stained wretch, though, hopping around from topic to topic, all the while pretending at cohesion, the counterpart of the Pudwell pre-performance toothbrush is of course a catchy headline. Trust me.

David Perlman can be reached at

Pin It

For the first time in the history of Centrediscs, the small but significant record label operated by the Canadian Music Centre (CMC), two of its recent recordings have current JUNO nominations in two different categories. Dark Star Requiem by composer Andrew Staniland and poet Jill Battson is nominated in both the Best Classical Recording, Vocal or Choral and in the Best Classical Composition categories. Christos Hatzis’ full-length ballet, Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation, is nominated in both the Best Classical Composition and Best Classical Recording, Large Ensemble or Soloist(s) with Large Ensemble Accompaniment. This is a significant milestone for Centrediscs, a label created in 1983 by then CMC Executive Director John Miller. “The idea of Centrediscs was originally proposed by my predecessor, John Peter Lee Roberts,” Miller told me, “but it fell to me to make it work.”

2206- Feat - CBC1.jpg

Miller certainly found ingenious ways to nurture the new recording label. He formed a working group, of which I was a member, to advise on the mechanics and technical aspects of running a label. Harold Redekopp was Head of CBC Radio Music at the time and he and Miller agreed that the Radio Music Department would, up to a practical limit, provide production and technical personnel to make the recordings. And, in return for doing so, CBC music programs would have the right of first broadcast. This arrangement provided Two New Hours, the national network new music program I had created in 1978, additional new productions of recent performances of Canadian music to blend with the concert recordings that were the core of our broadcasts. In those first few years of Centrediscs we recorded soloists and ensembles who specialized in contemporary repertoire, like the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, clarinetist James Campbell, the Purcell String Quartet, violist Rivka Golani and Anton Kubalek. We made LPs of these artists playing the works of CMC Associate Composers, and soon added the first records devoted entirely to the music of a single Canadian composer. These included titles such as Vivier, music of Claude Vivier; RA, with excerpts of Murray Schafer’s night-long ritual; Louis Riel, the opera by Harry Somers, recorded at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC; and Chalumeau, chamber music of Harry Freedman. Many of these were later reissued on CD, and those original LPs are, in fact, now highly valued collectibles.

In 1986, Centrediscs released its first recording on CD, Impact, a production of performances by percussionist Beverley Johnston. In fact, Impact was manufactured in three media: CD, LP and audio cassette. The composers represented on it were Serge Arcuri, Gary Kulesha, Alexina Louie and Jean Piché, and the disc attracted rave reviews. In the Centrediscs catalogue, Impact is described as: “A tour de force of percussion and electroacoustic music, the disc has often been used by stereo component stores to demo new hi-fi lines, because of the high audiophile quality of the recording.” The performances were included more than a few times in Two New Hours programming and, on occasion, Jean Piché’s Steal the Thunder, the lead track in the album, served as the program’s opening theme. In 1989 the CMC decided to submit one of the tracks from Impact to the JUNOs in the recently created category of Best Classical Composition. It earned a nomination but didn’t win the JUNO. – Alexina Louie’s Songs of Paradise on CBC Records did. It was a remarkable statement as to how far the Centrediscs label had come in just a few years.

The JUNO category, Best Classical Composition, introduced in 1987, came about when representatives of classical labels, who formed a separate classical committee within the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), convinced CARAS that the category was needed to more completely represent the spectrum of music in Canada. Deborah MacCallum, hired by Harold Redekopp as manager of CBC Records in 1985, and Norman Miller of CBS Records Canada were the primary voices pushing for the creation of this new category. MacCallum told me that Daisy Falle, president of CARAS, wanted assurance that the category was sustainable. MacCallum needed only to point out the collaboration between Two New Hours and Centrediscs as evidence that the production of contemporary Canadian repertoire had increased and that this had strengthened the storehouse of recordings in this category. Interestingly enough, the very first JUNO for Classical Composition, awarded in 1987, went to the late Malcolm Forsyth, for his orchestral work, Atayoskewin, on CBC Records.

Centrediscs recordings continued to garner nominations in the new classical composition category, year after year. It wasn’t until 1991 that the CMC’s label would actually win a JUNO when Schafer Five, the Orford String Quartet performing five string quartets by Murray Schafer won not one, but two JUNOS: Best Canadian Classical Composition for Schafer’s String Quartet No. 5, and also Best Canadian Chamber Music recording for the set of five Schafer quartets. It was a rewarding way to finally break into the winners’ circle! And in fact, in this case, the recording was independently produced by the CMC, as the collaborative arrangement with CBC Radio Music had by then expired. Nonetheless, it was the same team, but working outside the CBC, of David “Stretch” Quinney and me who delivered the finished master to the CMC.

Another of my independent productions for Centrediscs won the Best Classical Composition JUNO in 2011, and this time it was another Schafer work, his Duo for Violin and Piano, in a recording with Duo Concertante, the husband and wife team of Nancy Dahn, violin, and Timothy Steeves, piano. The recording was produced at Glenn Gould Studio with engineer Dennis Patterson. In fact it was Schafer’s fourth JUNO in the Best Classical Composition category and his fifth overall. Schafer has won the most JUNOS to date in the classical composition category.

Centrediscs’ most recent JUNO came in 2012, when Patterson and I recorded the St. Lawrence String Quartet during their 20th anniversary tour. To celebrate the anniversary, the St. Lawrence commissioned five Canadian composers from different regions of Canada to create five new quartets which constituted their 2012 touring program. The live recording, made at the University of Toronto for broadcast on CBC Radio 2’s Sunday afternoon network classical music program, In Concert, was leased by Centrediscs from the CBC and mastered for CD release. Of the five newly commissioned string quartets, it was Nova Scotia composer Derek Charke’s Sepia Fragments that won the Best Classical Composition JUNO.

2206- Feat - CBC 2 and 3.jpgIn a curious coincidence harkening back to 1987, when CBC’s Deborah MacCallum and CBS’ Norman Miller championed the addition of the Best Classical Composition category, another classical category was also added that year: that of Best Classical Recording, Vocal or Choral. These two additions 30 years ago made it possible for Dark Star Requiem, by composer Andrew Staniland and poet Jill Battson to earn nominations in both those categories in 2017. Commissioned by the Luminato Festival and Tapestry New Opera, it premiered at the Luminato festival in 2010 at Koerner Hall, Toronto. Recording Engineer Steve Sweeney and I recorded Dark Star Requiem for broadcast on CBC Radio 2’s The Signal. The CMC subsequently leased the master from CBC Radio Archives for release on Centrediscs.

Composer Staniland explains the piece as follows: “Jill and I had the very best of circumstances to develop this work: take four incredible singers (Neema Bickersteth, Krisztina Szabó, Peter McGillivray, Marcus Nance), Canada’s foremost chamber ensemble, The Gryphon Trio, the legendary Elmer Iseler Singers, and percussionists Ryan Scott and Mark Duggan. Add a lengthy and meticulous development process spearheaded by Tapestry New Opera, and a premiere that would open Luminato, a world-class international festival. Such a constellation of circumstances is quite special. I am thrilled to be able to share this remarkable live recording through this release on Centrediscs.

Dark Star Requiem is in every way my most ambitious artistic endeavour to date. It is at once intended to be challenging and joyous, complex and beautiful. A sequence of 19 poems charting a short history of HIV/AIDS unfolds over the course of 14 movements. The poems vary stylistically from linked haikus, to ghazals, to praise poems and back to free verse. The musical movements are unified through a haunting melody and driving rhythm derived from the numbers attributed to HIV-1 and HIV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses: and In musical terms these numbers are interpreted in both melody and rhythm.

“It is difficult, from an artistic point of view, to approach a subject as multifaceted as AIDS with its myriad attendant themes including disinformation, illness, death, infection, sexual and social taboos, colonialism, fear and guilt – and still maintain a message of hope. My and Jill’s hope is that after listening to Dark Star Requiem you will leave inspired to contribute to the fight against AIDS in your own way. AIDS, despite outliving its own media fatigue, has killed over 25 million people. Forty million people worldwide live with the disease today.”

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Pin It

Back to top