Welcome to this double edition of Choral Scene! By the time you get your hands on this magazine the holiday season will be well under way. Carols will get in your ear, festive sounds will echo out and bells will be a-ringing throughout the region. I hope you’ve got your concert tickets in hand. If not, hurry up and reserve your place in these amazing concerts before you’re disappointed. Balancing out the holiday season, I’m also going to highlight some interesting performances you should check out in the choral world into the new year. We’ll be back in February, just in time for Chinese New Year on February 16, 2018 – the Year of the Dog! But I’m going to highlight a few performances well beyond the date that you might want to circle in one of the seasonal calendars you will doubtless be acquiring in the coming weeks.

Stage Coughs

But first, from a chorister’s perspective, some thoughts on the dreaded cough and wintry illness for singers!

In November’s WholeNote, Vivien Fellegi wrote about major injuries and musicians and noted that 84 percent of musicians will have to deal with a significant injury affecting their ability to make music. If you ask any vocalist to name their performance terror, it usually involves being sick around performance time. Four years ago, during an especially illness-fraught Messiah run at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the flu and cold hit our soprano and bass soloists. Eventually, a sub for the bass needed to be called in to finish the run. Members of the choir were hit as well. Good performers put on a good show even when adverse conditions exist, but even then, there’s only so much one can do when your body is under bacterial or viral attack.

This past October, I got a pretty bad viral throat infection. It cleared, but the residual cough and throat irritation continued for a few weeks. The result was a lot of rehearsals spent sitting in the back, humming along as we began going through Suzanne Steele and Jeffrey Ryan’s Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. My voice returned in time for the Remembrance Day performances but there was coughing during the performance I just couldn’t control. A persistently irritated throat, diminished lung capacity, wonky musculature around the vibrating air and sudden bursts of coughing made it hard to rehearse and perform. It’s quite upsetting to find your instrument unreliable. Something is physically making your voice not work and it is quite distressing, because when it is your body, nothing can really make the healing process go faster than it takes.

And Audience Echoes

Let’s be clear though, illness sucks even if you aren’t a performer. If you’re in the audience, sometimes the tension of trying not to make a sound makes you uncomfortable to the point where you’re no longer enjoying the music and instead just trying to be silent. I know many of my colleagues feel very strongly about audience noises. Some barely notice, but some take great issue with coughs and shuffles and the noises that crowds of hundreds of people make just by existing.

For me, any good performer can do their job, even when there is noise; the aural presence of the audience adds an ambience to the overall process of performing. Performing without an audience is just glorified rehearsal. Real audiences are made of real people and they make noises. They react to the music and they respond in kind. Think about how the energy in the room changes when everyone stands for the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Messiah – there is a visceral, physical and emotional change in the room. You don’t have to be a music aficionado to notice it, or more importantly, to feel changed by it. I like when there’s an audience, especially a big one, and I think most performing arts organizations would prefer you’re there, even if a bit noisy.

So, into this season of coughs, hacks, sneezes and other wintry ailments we go. Be healthy and get your flu shot! And be kind to the singers in your life, especially if we Purell ourselves religiously and take precautions to stay away from potential illness. We’re worried sick about losing our voices!

The Governor General’s Messiah

The newly installed Governor General, Julie Payette, once sang in the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. She famously carried a recording of Tafelmusik’s Messiah with her into space. Her Excellency’s love of music will surely serve her well in her position as a grand patron of the arts in Canada.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir - Photo by Sian RichardsTafelmusik’s annual Messiah continues to provide a period interpretation in the inimitable Koerner Hall, December 12 to 16. Ivars Taurins leads the ensembles. Presenting one of the smaller Messiah performances annually, Tafelmusik also presents the largest Messiah in town with its annual “Sing-Along Messiah” at Massey Hall, where 2,700 fans join the orchestra and choir in a grand tradition under the baton of the great maestro himself, Herr Handel (aka. Ivars Taurins), December 17 at 2pm.

A Solid Choral Holiday at the TSO

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has an exceptionally choir-filled holiday season.

Home Alone in concert is being performed live with the Etobicoke School of the Arts Concert Choir, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, November 30 to December 2. This beloved movie is very much a holiday favourite and one of John Williams’ most magical scores. “Somewhere in my Memory,” nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, has become a choral classic for the season.

Then, joining the TSO for the first time, Resonance Youth Choir from Mississauga makes its debut in Roy Thomson Hall on December 10 at 3pm. Only in its second season, Bob Anderson’s choir will join Tha Spot Holiday Dancers and TSYO Concerto Competition winner, cellist Dale Yoon Ho Jeong. Sing-along classics Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and more are part of the program, as well as an excerpt from Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1. David Amado, music director of the Delaware Symphony and the Atlantic Music Festival, leads the groups. The main presentation will be live accompaniment of Howard Blake’s score to the holiday favourite film The Snowman.

No holiday season is complete without the TSO Pops Concert, featuring the Canadian Brass and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Holiday Chorus. Lucas Waldin conducts. The program December 12 and 13 looks magical, including bits from The Polar Express film, unique Canadian Brass arrangements like White Christmas, Go Tell it On the Mountain, The First Noël and carols arranged by TSO Pops conductor Stephen Reineke. (Waldin, who works with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, was most recently in Toronto conducting the hugely popular and totally-sold-out TSO Carly Rae Jepsen performance.)

Last but not least, the TSO and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presentation of Messiah promises to be as grand as ever. Matthew Halls, British early music specialist, takes the helm. This performance has an impeccable set of soloists: Karina Gauvin, soprano; Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano; Frédéric Antoun, tenor; and Joshua Hopkins, baritone. December 18 to 23 in Roy Thomson Hall. (Barring an uncontrollable relapse into viral coughing, I’ll be there in my usual place in the Mendelssohn tenor section.)

The New Year

With most musical programming seasons running to the end of June, I’ve decided to highlight one performance from each of the next few months. They might make great gifts if you’re thinking ahead, and there are some you’ll surely want to secure seats to before they sell out.

January: Annually, at the end of January, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir hosts one of the most important training intensives for emerging conductors anywhere in North America. Under the supervision of Noel Edison, five symposium participants are exposed to a rigorous schedule of about 20 diverse songs from global choral repertoire and tested by the chamber-sized Elora Festival Singers and the symphonic, full Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The week culminates with a free concert and a chance to see these conductors in action on January 27 at 3pm, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto.

February: The Orpheus Choir presents “Nordic Light.” The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, have long captured the imagination and spirit of peoples in the far North. Indigenous peoples in Canada have an especially strong connection to their presence. Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvian composer, has written Nordic Light Symphony. He will be in Toronto to introduce the work prior to the performance. This is the Canadian premiere of the work and a chance to experience Ešenvalds’ ethereal, atmospheric and deeply satisfying work, February 24 at 7:30pm, Metropolitan United Church, Toronto.

March: Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. Choir 21, soloists and instruments are conducted by David Fallis. I’m deeply intrigued by the program. Billed as a reimagination of the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Dun’s East Asian musicality will weave a blending of the words of Christ through the theme of water, guided by Eastern musical traditions. From Mongolian overtone singing to Peking Opera to the sound of water, this promises to be an experience, March 9 at 8pm, Trinity-St. Pauls Centre, Toronto.

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

Christmas, and the liminal juncture between old and new years that follows, is for many of us a prime occasion for gifting and for helping those less fortunate. It’s also a time when daylight hours are at their shortest and even our waking hours are dominated by darkness. As such it’s a time which amply rewards introspection of the personal kind, when we can profitably reflect back on the past year and also look forward, hopefully, to a brighter new one.

At the heart of all this is observance of the winter solstice. The period around the year’s shortest day has been marked in the Northern Hemisphere with rituals of rebirth, celebrated in holidays, festivals and community gatherings, reaching back perhaps to the Neolithic period. Ancient Romans, Persians, Chinese, Theravada Buddhists, Northern European peoples – pagan and neo-pagan – as well as the Zuni of the American Southwest all celebrated the winter solstice. Some still do. Sensitivity to natural cycles seems to be hardwired in our human DNA.

It’s no coincidence that Christians of the Western tradition chose the winter solstice to celebrate the Longest Night (aka Blue Christmas). Falling at the end of the Advent season, these long and cold nights underscore believers’ own struggle with darkness and grief as they face the end of the growing season, and loss of many kinds. Christmas, the joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, was strategically placed within the Roman annual calendar by the early Church to coincide with this period.

Timar family Christmas

My own family has celebrated Christmas for many generations but in recent decades the focus has increasingly shifted from long-time religious to secular rituals performed by our immediate Toronto family. In our ever-morphing clan new partners are added, names change, babies are born, people move away and some return; they grow up, grow old and yes, our elders ultimately enter the realm of the ancestors.

All dressed up, each year the extended Timar clan gathers at one of our homes to celebrate our seasonal traditions, ancient and new. We feast extravagantly into the night with special rich food and drink that speaks to our multiple ethnic and religious roots, identities and values. Helping refresh family bonds is the spirit of generosity, mutual care and the hospitality that permeates that late December evening.

65 Million Refugee Realities

Things aren’t so rosy however for everyone at this time of year. It’s a particularly sad time for families torn apart geographically, when some are compelled to flee their homelands. So it was too with my family when I was six. We were refugees from post-revolution occupied Hungary. Our first generation is forever grateful to Canada for giving five of us sanctuary, a fertile place to put down roots, make a home, to flourish.

Today, the plight of refugees of many kinds continues to confront every global citizen. Many millions of our fellow humans need aid or asylum at any given time. Celebrated Chinese multimedia artist and activist Ai Weiwei estimates the number at “about 65 million people.”

In October 2017 he opened a vast new installation Good Fences Make Good Neighbours at some 300 sites around New York City, aiming ultimately to draw attention to the world’s refugee crisis. Good Fences criticizes “the global trend of trying to separate us by colour, race, religion, nationality ... against freedom, against humanity,” as Ai said at his October Manhattan press conference.

Reunite the Moneka Family

The mind-boggling numbers of displaced humanity around the world can be overwhelming in the absence of being able to put a human face on suffering. The dilemma of refugees, so passionately articulated by Ai in his art, is reflected in many ways here in Toronto. Not surprisingly, within our musical communities, it shows up particularly keenly among world musicians who have recently made Canada their home.

Early in November I received an email from Jaclyn Tam, manager of concerts and special projects – including New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO) – at the Royal Conservatory and TELUS Centre. “I wanted to tell you about a fundraiser I’m organizing on Monday, December 11 at Lula Lounge,” Tam’s email began. JUNO winners and nominee musicians Quique Escamilla, David Buchbinder, Maryem and Ernie Tollar, and many special guests will perform. They’re coming together to support Ahmed Moneka, an incredibly special musician and actor who now calls Toronto home, in his bid to bring his family here. I first met him last year when he auditioned for NCGMO.”

Ahmed MonekaI was immediately gripped. Here was a story with parallels to that of my own family of origin, as well as to ancient semi-mythic narratives of asylum, hopes of peace, reconciliation and gift-giving generosity. I called Tam at her Royal Conservatory office.

“Musician and actor Ahmed Moneka was forced to apply for asylum in Canada in 2015 after his family received death threats for his lead role as a gay Iraqi man in the [short] film The Society,” she told me. (The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and showed at TIFF.)

Moneka’s family, of African Sufi descent, was well established in Baghdad’s artist community. His father was a well-known Iraqi actor and comedian, and his sister Isra was one of the founders of the Cinema Department at the University of Basra. His younger sister Tara has an international career as a singer. She has performed on Iraqi TV and at festivals at a young age.

Having faced months of violent threats from the increasingly powerful militias in Iraq, however, the family was forced to flee to Turkey in 2016. Ahmed’s family has been torn apart and they are now “in a critical situation.” Moneka speaks powerfully of their present danger in his fundraising YouTube video. Moneka hopes to reunite his family in Canada “so that they may live together in peace.” All proceeds from the December 11 Lula concert will support his goal.

 “With Ahmed, it’s all personal,” Tam says. “I met him a few times, heard his music, and since there was a personal connection I felt compelled to act. It was simple really: here’s one person I could help reconnect with his family.”

At his NCGMO audition, “Ahmed radiated pure musical joy.” But as Tam explains, by the time the final roster was decided, he had already made a commitment to tour with another band. The NCGMO moved on without him, but he made abiding connections with artistic director David Buchbinder, who has hired Ahmed for other projects.

After hearing Ahmed’s story, Tam felt personally compelled to help. “I don’t have a lot of money to donate,” she says, “but I do have a large network built up over the years and also the producing skills to put together such an event.” So she reached out to Tracey Jenkins at Lula Lounge and to musicians who have worked with Ahmed. “I was touched by the response of Lula and of the musicians and artists. They didn’t hesitate to donate their talents.”

This is our community at work big time (and it promises to be a fine musical evening as well)! Ahmed plays cajón and sings maqam in a wonderful trio called Moskitto Bar, which will play at the fundraiser. (One of his bandmates, Tangi Ropars, is formerly of Lemon Bucket Orkestra.) Additionally, a group dubbed Orchestra of Love has been organized for the fundraiser, bringing together Toronto world music A-listers such as trumpeter David Buchbinder, singers Maryem Tollar and Roula Said, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid and wind player extraordinaire Ernie Tollar.

In addition to pure music, NAMAS will recite poetry to guitar accompaniment and Zeena Sileem, an Iraqi painter, will paint a canvas live during the evening. The completed canvas will be auctioned with proceeds benefitting the Moneka family reunification fund.

All in all, this promises to be a terrific community event guaranteed to put all who come out to support the Moneka family’s desire for reunification in a proper holiday spirit.

New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO): update

I promised in my summer 2017 column story about NCGMO that I would follow up on the ensemble’s progress. Since I was speaking with Jaclyn Tam about the Moneka story I asked her for an update on the orchestra as well. As it turns out, the Orchestra had a Banff Centre studio residency in September and October, recording its first album (which is being edited and mixed for concert release on April 7, 2018). Shortly after the Banff residency, in November, the NCGMO performed a showcase at “North America’s World Music Summit,” Mundial Montréal. And on February 24, deeper and no doubt whiter into winter, NCGMO will appear on the Isabel Bader Centre stage in Kingston, in what the Isabel’s listings describe as a concert of “transcultural music which connects and communicates in ways that words, politicians, and spiritual leaders cannot. Together, we all find a common language.”

Lula Music and Arts Centre

In its own words, Lula “nourishes a thriving Canadian world music scene … with a focus on local artists performing music of the Americas.” It fosters the Canadian world music scene “through concerts, festivals, cultural exchanges, education, outreach, audience and professional development.”

Lula’s Dundas West space appears to be in particularly heavy rotation this December. I counted 31 concerts and salsa classes on the site. That averages out to an astounding one scheduled event for each day of the month! In January the action announced so far settles down to eight music events, plus another six booked to date in February. It’s entirely possible more gigs will be booked in the interim, but in any case that is much too many to talk about here. I encourage readers to visit The WholeNote’s listings or Lula’s site calendar for updates.

Aga Khan Museum: concert picks for January and February 2018

Another premier Toronto venue for culturally diverse music performance is the Aga Khan Museum. It continues its programs of concerts and more casual pop-ups.

Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues - Photo by Zohar RonJanuary 18 the AKM presents “Yemen Blues,” a truly transcultural band deliveringan explosive combination of Yemeni song and poetry, Jewish music, West African groove and funk.” With musicians from New York City, Uruguay and Tel Aviv, leader Ravid Kahalani’s charts set a high musical standard and have roused international audiences.

February 1 “Musical Inventions” by Paolo Angeli featuring Dr. Draw takes the AKM’s auditorium stage.

Paolo AngeliAngeli, playing a unique 18-string hybrid of guitar, violoncello and drums, performs music rooted in the Sardinian tradition blended with avant-garde aesthetics. He’s joined by electric violinist Dr. Draw.

February 16 the AKM presents “Under the Indian Musical Sky,” with Montréal group Constantinople and Grammy Award-nominated Carnatic venu (flute) virtuoso Shashank Subramanyam. Constantinople’s collaboration with Subramanyam “bridges not only East and West but [also musical] traditions … from across the globe,” much like the group’s namesake city.

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

Jazz musicians earn part of what is laughingly referred to as their “living” by doing what they call “jobbing gigs,” on which they provide all-purpose music for various functions. Guido Basso calls what is generally required on these gigs “jolly jazz”: a variety of familiar songs – standards, bossa novas, maybe even the odd jazz tune – well-played at tempos which are danceable, or at least listenable. Not that anyone at these dos actually listens – the music is generally intended as background to deafening chatter – but just in case. The time-honoured m.o. of these gigs is “faking” – that is, playing umpteen songs without using any written music. Even when all of the musicians involved know a lot of tunes, there is a certain amount of repertorial Russian roulette involved. Nobody knows every song – well, Reg Schwager maybe – but even if you know the given song, it may not come to you until after it’s over and it’s too late. Generally though, faking works and it cuts down on schlepping music and music stands.

But a couple of bullets are added to the faking Russian roulette pistol every December, when seasonal music is thrown into the jobbing mix. Both the risks and stakes suddenly go up as musicians are naturally expected to play Christmas standards – familiar and dear to all – but which they haven’t played for a whole year. (By “Christmas standards” I mean more modern seasonal songs with some kind of jazz element such as Walking in a Winter Wonderland or White Christmas, as opposed to traditional carols which are generally performed by roving choirs or brass ensembles.)

On the face of it, faking seasonal standards doesn’t seem like such a challenge, because we all know how these chestnuts (no pun intended) go, right? But you’d be surprised. Not all Christmas standards are as simple as they seem, some are quite complicated and after a year in mothballs they can prove a little elusive. Even the easier ones – such as Santa Claus Is Coming to Town or Let It Snow – present challenges because they don’t behave like other songs. Often their middle sections – or bridges – go into the key of the dominant, which very few other songs do. And because the bridges often occur only a quarter of the time, they’re harder to remember. I’ve been on many a seasonal gig where a faked Christmas tune is going along swimmingly until the middle is approaching and everyone gets a panicky look on their face which says, “Where the hell does the bridge go?” It’s ironic, but the seeming simplicity of the easier seasonal songs confound jazz musicians who spend the rest of the year negotiating the fiendish complexities of songs such as Lush Life or Round Midnight without a hitch, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Being accustomed to complex harmony, jazz musicians playing simple Christmas tunes are a bit like cryptic crossword experts who have difficulty solving regular crosswords.

There are two harmonically complex seasonal standards though: The Christmas Song, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, each of them a must-play. Both are ballads and their slow tempos exacerbate the chord change clashes which lurk around every corner. Taken in the key of E-flat, The Christmas Song has two quick and tricky modulations in its first eight bars alone: to the key of G-Major then immediately to G-flat Major. These key changes come as something of a surprise if you haven’t played it in 12 months, but even if you do remember them there are all sorts of chord-change options to trip over before the modulations. Altogether this makes faking Mel Torme’s classic for the first time in a year a sweaty experience.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas may be the best of the lot and is somewhat easier, but still has its scary moments. It’s smooth sailing up until the beginning of the bridge, which can start on one of two chords fraught with conflict for a bassist and a pianist. Again in E-flat, the first chord of the bridge could be A-flat Major 7, or the “hipper” option – an A Minor 7 flat-five chord which has all the same notes save for the all-important root. Notice the roots are a semitone apart, and there’s the rub. As the bridge arrives, a bassist has to make a split-second decision about which root to play, with a 50/50 chance of being dead wrong and sounding like an idiot. If he or she chooses the A and the pianist plays the A-flat chord it sounds awful and vice versa; it’s a game of chord-change chicken. If I had a dollar for every time I zigged when I should have zagged in this situation, I’d be a rich man. The smart solution would be for the pianist to omit the root altogether and leave the choice up to the bassist. But no, that would be too easy, and not many pianists think this way. This may seem like a small detail and it is, but the trouble with these clashes is that they leave you frazzled and jar your concentration, which can lead to further clunkers along the way.

The big problem is that these seasonal faking mishaps occur in a context riddled with expectation, memory and the potential to spoil the seasonal mood. It’s an important time of year and the people at a seasonal gig know all these tunes intimately from years of hearing them on records and in movies, usually in more deluxe versions with strings, choirs, Bing Crosby, etc. Messing up a Christmas tune leaves the band with eggnog on its face and is like messing up a national anthem – everybody hears it right away and sometimes offence is taken. As in, “Who hired these bums and how much are they being paid? They can’t even play White Christmas, for crying out loud!”

Ted Quinlan - Photo by Sanja AnticBut not all the disasters of seasonal gigs come from faking tunes; some of them have to do with the merrymaking of the audience. Here are a couple of Christmas party stories to illustrate this. About 15 years ago guitarist Ted Quinlan hired saxophonist Mike Murley, drummer Ted Warren and me to play a Christmas party, held on the third floor of The Senator, for a small company. Ted is prized for his musical versatility and his whacky sense of humour, both of which came in handy on this gig. After no time at all it became clear that the people weren’t going to pay any attention to the music, all was din. We were playing God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman when, thinking of the lyrics, I glanced over at Ted, who had a typically maniacal grin on his face. Somehow I knew this meant that he was going to yell out “Satan!” from the carol’s fifth line and when the time came we both bellowed “Satan!” at the top of our lungs. Nobody noticed except the other two guys in the band, who proceeded to join us with “Satan!” in the next choruses. I still don’t know how we managed to get through the tune with all the laughing, but we had to take a break afterwards from sheer exhaustion.

A few years later, singer John Alcorn hired guitarist Reg Schwager and me – his regular band – to play a Christmas party for a small law firm, held in a private banquet facility in a downtown restaurant. It was a fairly intimate party with the people close at hand, some of them even listening to the music. All was going well until we came back from our second break and noticed that suddenly everybody was drunk. Particularly a large East Indian gentleman who really had the lamp shade on, like Peter Sellers in The Party, only louder. Alcorn called Route 66 – not a seasonal song, but a good party tune. As he began singing it, the Indian guy bellowed out “Oh goody, it’s Route 67!” and began dancing a ridiculous teetering boogie only he understood. Reg and I both doubled over laughing, but still somehow managed to keep playing. Alcorn didn’t bat an eye though; his face was a mask of composure and he kept singing as if nothing had happened. That, ladies and gentleman, is professionalism.

So these are a couple of examples of musicians getting their own back amid the minefield of Christmas gigs. A few years ago some of us found a new way of having fun with seasonal music: a mashup game in which we combined the names of Christmas carols/songs with jazz tunes and standards to form wacky new titles. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing Sing Sing,” “Joy Spring to the World,” “Sippin’ at Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night in Tunisia,” “What Child Is This Thing Called Love?” and “O Little Rootie Tootie Town of Bethlehem” were among the first of these; later I expanded the game to include readers and wrote a piece about it. If you’re interested, google wallacebass.com and look for the title “Birth of the Yule” (or use the direct link:
wallacebass.com/?p–4462).

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a joyous and safe holiday season and a Happy New Year. The latter usually comes with resolutions, some of which are easier to stick to than others. A few years back I resolved to stop taking New Year’s Eve gigs, only to discover they’d disappeared. All New Year’s resolutions should be so easy to keep.

Toronto bassist Steve Wallace writes a blog called “Steve Wallace jazz, baseball, life and other ephemera” which can be accessed at wallacebass.com. Aside from the topics mentioned, he sometimes writes about movies and food.

Here we are, it’s December already, but with many community ensembles still more focused on sesquicentennial projects as the year draws to a close than on events that could be described as special for the Christmas season. Let’s start with two band projects we have recently learned of that warrant mention, both of which have significant historical aspects.

Cobourg: The first of these is the announcement of a CD by the Cobourg Concert Band. Although this CD, Pride of Performance, was officially released on Canada Day at the band’s concert in the Cobourg Victoria Park Bandshell, it did not come to our attention until a few days ago. There are a number of ways in which this CD is special. Not only is it a sesquicentennial project, but it marks the 175th year that there has been a town band in Cobourg. That’s 25 years longer than Canada has been a country. Whether that sets a record for the establishment of a town band in Canada will be left for this Cobourg band to dispute with the Newmarket Citizens’ Band and any others that might claim such a title. Every track on this recording is either a new arrangement of an established work or a completely new composition. All are by local musicians, including some band members. Even the cover artwork was created by contest winners from the local St. Mary’s High School. I hope to see a review of this CD in a future issue of The WholeNote.

(A side note: this band also bears the title The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Association – Ontario, and is allowed, by royal assent, to wear the uniform of the Royal Marines. How could this be, you might ask. Some years ago a man named Roland White moved from England and took up residence in Cobourg. He just happened to have been an assistant bandmaster in the Royal Marines working under the renowned conductor Sir Vivian Dunn, and had studied conducting under Sir John Barbirolli. When the town band needed a new conductor, there was White to take over, get that royal assent and change the image of the town band to its present pride of Cobourg.)

London: Where else might we look for a sesquicentennial band project? The first place that comes to mind, of course, is Henry Meredith’s Plumbing Factory Brass Band in London. On Wednesday, December 13, 7:30pm at Byron United Church – 420 Boler Rd., London, Ontario – the PFBB will celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday with “The Golden Age of Brass,” featuring music from the 1800s on period instruments. Since Confederation-era music will be highlighted, von Suppé’s exuberant Jolly Robbers Overture, written exactly 150 years ago in 1867, will open the program. Then, band music by big name composers will include Beethoven’s Marsch des Yorck’schen Korps and Mendelssohn’s War March of the Priests. The centrepiece of the program will be the challenging Raymond Overture by Ambroise Thomas.

Last month I mentioned the importance of musicianship for ensembles to really tell their story. Well, in this program, Dr. Hank has selected a set of four up-tempo compositions to test the skill of his band’s musicians. One highly regarded composer of the 1800s, famed for his toe-tapping pieces based on popular dance forms of the mid-19th century, was Claudio Grafulla. To demonstrate their skills, the band will play a set of four of his works: Cape May Polka, Freischutz Quick Step, Skyrocket March, and Hurrah Storm Galop. Another seasonal favourite, Johann Strauss Sr.’s famous Radetzky March from 1848, will bring the concert to a rousing close. I’m sure that many instruments from Dr. Hank’s vast collection will be front and centre at this concert.

(Another sidenote: While brass bands have many loyal followers, particularly in England and much of North America, that has not always been the case. With the origin of the brass band movement coming largely from company “works bands” in England, there were often considerable derisive comments about them. Sir Thomas Beecham was famous (or infamous) for two of these comments. “The British Brass Band has its place – outdoors, and several miles away” is perhaps his most often quoted. But the one that drew the most ire was  when he referred to the brass band as “that superannuated, obsolete, beastly, disgusting, horrid method of making music.” However, attitudes gradually changed, and in 1947 Beecham even guest-conducted a mass band concert at Belle Vue.)

Ukraine: Speaking of brass bands, recent Salvation Army news caught my attention. The Salvation Army is represented and active in 127 countries around the world. In many of these countries, Salvation Army groups have brass bands. Ukraine, in particular, is a country where there is a will but not the required leadership to develop the brass band movement. Several attempts have been made over the last 25 years to stimulate interest. While some attempts have been successful, with the political unrest of recent years, these have been difficult to sustain.

Enter Bob Gray, a Toronto high school music teacher, trumpet player and conductor with whom I play regularly, who has been active in the Salvation Army for many years. About six years ago, at the Salvation Army’s music camp at Jackson’s Point, he met two young men from Kiev, a cornet player and a euphonium player. After they had returned to Kiev, Bob decided to look into the SA band situation in Ukraine. After the revolution of 2014, Salvation Army churches throughout Ukraine closed, and now there are only two remaining in Kiev. Having learned of the demise of that Salvation Army movement, Gray decided to try to do something to rectify the situation. Item one on his agenda was language study. For over a year he actively studied in preparation for visits to Ukraine for Salvation Army activities. He went to Kiev for the first time in June 2016, then in May 2017, and again in October 2017. Gray, along with the people he met at Jackson’s Point years ago, are trying to resurrect the brass band movement in the Ukraine and, in particular, Kiev. A survey showed that there were 25 instruments in working order and a few players who were willing to commit time and effort to form what would be a divisional band base in Kiev.

The Salvation Army will be celebrating their 25th anniversary of operations in Ukraine this coming June. It is hoped that the divisional band in Kiev will have its debut during that weekend of activities. The Winton Citadel Band from Bournemouth in the United Kingdom will be the featured band for the festivities. The city of Kiev hosted the Eastern block countries Eurovision Song Festival this past June. During the event many groups entertained in local parks and squares. The Salvation Army provided a musical presentation in Victory Park. Bob Gray was a featured cornet soloist as part of these outreach concerts.

A trip to Belgium: A couple of months ago I heard from longtime friend Colin Rowe that he would be travelling to Belgium. I first met Colin some time around 1984 when we were both playing in a swing band at the Newmarket Jazz Appreciation Society. After that, he played trombone in the Governor General’s Horse Guards Band and subsequently became their drum major. Having moved East some years ago, Colin now has the same duties with the Cobourg Concert Band.

Drum major Colin Rowe with the Cobourg Concert Band in Plattsburgh NY, 2013 - Photo by Jack MacQuarrieTo commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele, Veterans Affairs Canada decided to mount a very different form of memorial. Specifically they identified nine recipients of the Victoria Cross from that era and the nine regiments in which they served. Then they selected a living representative of each regiment to go to Belgium, but that person could not be a currently serving member of the regiment. One of those VC recipients was Private Tommy Holmes VC from the 48th Canadian Mounted Rifles. At some time after WWI that unit’s name was changed to the Governor General’s Horse Guards. As the representative from the GGHG, Veterans Affairs selected Colin Rowe. All of regimental representatives, along with the band of the Royal 22nd Regiment, embarked on an RCAF transport for their trip to Belgium on November 5.

Another formerly local musician was Kevin Fleming, who was originally introduced to the GGHG by Colin as a trombone player. Later, like Colin, he continued to play trombone, but became Drum Major of the GGHG. Some time later Fleming transferred to the Regular Force, and a while ago to the Royal 22nd Regiment, nicknamed the Van Doos. Their band was selected as the lead band because Passchendaele was one of that regiment’s battle honours. While there were many ceremonies, the highlight for Fleming was at Passchendaele, with a torchlight parade from the WW1 monument to the town square followed by a concert.

Those who went on that trip commented that it had been meticulously organized by Veterans Affairs, and that on the flight over, they were presented with a six-page detailed itinerary for their ten-day visit to memorials and cemeteries, informing them of the time and place of their every move.

(Aside, again: speaking of Belgium, one significant recent event I attended was a concert by Toronto’s Wychwood Clarinet Choir on November 19. While most of the works performed at their concerts are special arrangements, the opening work, Claribel, was written by Belgian composer Guido Six specifically for his Claribel Clarinet Choir in Ostend. This was a wonderful rousing opening. The arranging talent of choir member Roy Greaves was certainly on display as the choir’s moods traversed from the Irish folk song The Lark in the Clear Air and a Mozart Serenade to three tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Harmonically the choir sounded better than I had ever heard it. Their harmonies were so well blended that one might think that their sounds were coming from a single source.)

Greenbank, Ontario: From the tiny Ontario hamlet of Greenbank, conductor and composer Stuart Beaudoin brought his Orpheus Symphonietta to the small town of Uxbridge for another memorable recent event – a concert featuring his new composition Elegy II: Lament and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5. This was the first performance of his composition which conveys, in musical terms, some of the spectrum of the composer’s emotions arising from world events during his lifetime. It’s an interesting work which bears more listening. This same man will be back two weeks later with his Greenbank Cantorei sine Nomine choir and the same orchestra for a three-hour performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in English.

Flute Street: That other local same-instrument-family group, Flute Street, unfortunately had their most recent concert on the same date as the aforementioned Wychwood Clarinet Choir. Their featured soloist was Christine Beard playing alto flute and piccolo. Those types of same-instrument ensembles would seem to be competing for the same audiences, and it is unfortunate that there is not a central registry to avoid such overlaps. Flute Street’s Nancy Nourse had hoped to have her new contra alto flute, but it wasn’t available on time. She says that it will be the first of its kind in Canada. She intends to unveil it in time for their next concert, possibly in March. It’s an unusual instrument made in Holland. She may even travel there to get it and bring it home.

Jack MacQuarrie plays several brass instruments and has performed in many community ensembles. He can be contacted at bandstand@thewholenote.com.

Afghanistan Poppies - photo courtesy of University of OregonIn 2009 Canadian poet Suzanne Steele was appointed as the first ever Canadian war poet, and served in Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry as a part of the Canadian Forces Artist Program. She documented her experiences in her poetry and on her website, warpoet.ca. After her return home, she mentioned to the late Michael Green, a co-founder of One Yellow Rabbit theatre in Calgary, the idea of writing a requiem using the words she had written in Afghanistan. Green introduced her to Heather Slater at the Calgary Philharmonic, who in turn suggested Vancouver composer Jeffrey Ryan as a collaborator. Steele liked Ryan’s music, and soon they were working together on a project that became Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. The work received its premiere in Calgary in 2012, and was also produced and recorded with the Vancouver Symphony last January.

Ryan and Steele were easy and effective collaborators. Ryan recently told me, “It was clear to me from our first meeting that for Suzanne, the poetry would be coming from a deeply personal and emotional place–of course it could be nothing else but. So I knew that, not being the one who was there, it was also my job to be the counterbalance to that. Suzanne wrote and wrote, and I gave practical feedback from the compositional side: I think this is one too many stories, this needs to be longer, this needs to be shorter, this needs to be soprano not tenor, we need to combine these two ideas, can we have an orchestra-only moment here, and so on. It helped that Suzanne has a degree in music, so she had an understanding of what I was talking about, as well as how to write words that can be effectively set and sung. In the end, I think through this process we came up with something that is a perfect marriage of words and music.

I asked Ryan what struck him most about Steele’s poetry. He said, “The most exciting thing for me is that she was there. She was writing from what she saw and experienced. She knew people there who were killed, she knew people who came home with PTSD, she knew their families. So I knew there would be a truth and authenticity in her poetry that, really, no other poet could have brought, and it gave the piece immediacy and relevance. Also, it was a perspective I never could have even imagined myself. But being able to talk with her as the words were being shaped meant that as soon as it was time to start composing the music, I knew where she was coming from and what she was wanting to express, and from that foundation I already had ideas about what the music would sound like. It’s the same when collaborating on opera; being part of the development process of the story and the libretto, discussing each draft and giving feedback, means that the music is already emerging in my head long before I put pencil to paper.

Suzanne Steele“One thing that Suzanne said in our first meeting stuck with me through the whole process. She said that she was there as a witness, and it was the artist’s job not to provide the answers, but to ask the questions. We both agreed that it was important that the piece not takes sides in the conflict, but convey a witnessing of events to the audience: ‘These are some of the things that happened, what do you think about that?’ As the composer, I sought to express musically the emotional and dramatic content of each scene, whether it was the triage nurse trying to hold down a sense of panic as more and more injured arrive, or the fragmented thoughts of a soldier with PTSD, or the joyful sounds of children playing a game amongst the rubble.”

The completed work, Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, is scored for four soloists, both adult and children’s choruses, and orchestra. The piece is in nine sections, opening with an evocation of the space and calm of the North, and a prayer for healing. The program notes in the score state: “It quickly comes back to earth, and to Afghanistan, with the fractured memories of a soldier suffering from PTSD, living in the present but tortured by the past, the sound of helicopters ringing in his ears. As the work unfolds, a young soldier writes home during a cold Afghan night, the voices of parents and children echoing in his mind. In the Day of Wrath, apprehension turns to catastrophe seen first in slow motion, gradually speeding up to real time as a soldier, critically injured by an Improvised Explosive Device, is airlifted to emergency care. A lover mourns. A soldier is killed two days before the tour of duty ends. A body returns home. Two soldiers tell their story of a lamb. Children play. Voices of light evoke a flock of birds flying freely overhead. A medic is overwhelmed by mounting casualties. A soldier seeks to be made whole again. In the final movement, the choir looks to an unknown future as the soloists remember past sacrifices, all coming together in a closing appeal for rest and peace.”

To commemorate Remembrance Day this year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Tania Miller will give the Toronto premiere of Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. The TSO production features soprano Measha Brueggergosman, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone Brett Polegato with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. TSO music director Peter Oundjian has written: “Of course, Jeffrey Ryan is one of the country’s most distinguished composers, and his work as our affiliate composer some years ago was outstanding. I am always keen to hear the most recent works by our former affiliates, and when our creative team brought this Requiem to me, I knew that we should program it. It is truly an epic work. Suzanne Steele’s moving poetry and Jeff’s powerful music make for an unforgettable experience.”

The performances take place in 8pm concerts on November 9 and 11 at Roy Thomson Hall. The concert also contains music by Vaughan Williams, the Scottish piper G.S. McLennan and a short so-called “Sesquie for Canada’s 150th” by Julien Bilodeau. Jeffrey Ryan will attend both Toronto performances, as well as a November 10 Calgary Philharmonic performance, in Calgary.

Jeffrey Ryan - photo by Chick RiceSteele and Ryan’s Requiem adds to the ever-growing repertoire of musical works honouring the sacrifices of Canada’s soldiers over the course of our history and makes for a poignant reminder of the reasons behind their creation. Ever since Canadian poet, doctor and soldier, Lt. Col. John McCrae (1872–1918) wrote In Flanders Fields, composers have been drawing inspiration from it and setting it to music. In 2006, Kingston, Ontario composer John Burge composed his Flanders Fields Reflections. Burge called McCrae’s work, “Perhaps the most famous poem ever written by a Canadian.” The recording of Burge’s work by Sinfonia Toronto on Marquis Classics won the 2009 JUNO for best classical composition. McCrae’s poem has been set numerous times by composers around the world. Interestingly, the very first setting was by American Charles Ives, in 1917. More recently, Canadians Stephen Chatman, Eleanor Daley and Alexander Tilley have also used the poem. In Chatman’s case, it was a setting commissioned by the Vancouver men’s choir, Chor Leoni.

McCrae’s poem is of course not the only literary source for music of remembrance by Canadian composers. Chatman has also made Remembrance Day settings using poetry by Walt Whitman (Reconciliation) and by Christina Rossetti (Songs of Remembrance). (Music by Chatman, Daley and Tilley will be sung in a concert titled “Acquired Taste: Music for Remembrance,” at 7:30pm on Sunday, November 12 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in Toronto’s west end.)

Born in England, Healey Willan (1880–1968) came to Canada in 1913 and lived and worked through both world wars. He wrote An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts in 1921 for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It’s a work that was dedicated to the memory of those members of the choir who had been killed in WWI. Then, in 1939, as Canada entered WWII, Willan composed A Responsory for Use in the Time of War, while serving as precentor of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto.

Near the end of his life, Harry Somers (1925–1999) composed A Thousand Ages, a major work for boy soprano, men’s choir, orchestra and electronics. The title comes from a line in the hymn, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past. Somers’ father had served in WWI and was haunted by severe nightmares throughout his remaining life. Somers recalled how as a youth he had often awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of his father’s screams. A Thousand Ages is one of Somers’ most personal works, and it received its premiere during the Winnipeg Symphony’s New Music Festival in 2000, with Bramwell Tovey conducting. Tovey was so impressed with the work that he made a version that replaced the orchestra with silver band. This is the version that I recorded with my production team, for a CD featuring the Hannaford Street Silver Band and the men of the Amadeus Choir at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Toronto. It’s a powerful, visceral work that conveys the horrors that soldiers experience. Personally, I feel it’s an impactful work that should be performed more often at Remembrance Day observances.

The same CD, on the Opening Day label, also contained an important work by Tovey. This was his Requiem for a Charred Skull, written as Tovey’s reaction to the war in Kosovo. It was this recording that won Tovey the 2003 JUNO for best classical composition.

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

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