The 32nd TD Toronto Jazz Festival will run June 22 to July 1, with 23 ticketed shows in various venues and approximately 150 free concerts. For the second straight year, the festival will be centred around Bloor-Yorkville, with seven core venues: outdoor stages on Cumberland St. and Hazelton Ave., The Pilot Tavern, Heliconian Hall, the Church of the Redeemer, the Isabel Bader Theatre and the Village of Yorkville Park. This year’s festival also has some new initiatives, including four ticketed concerts at Trinity-St. Paul’s; an opening night celebration co-produced with the Royal Ontario Museum called “Jazz Club,in which the ROM will be transformed into a giant nightclub featuring jazz, swing and dancing throughout the evening; and a partnership with CBC Music and the JUNOs rotating between two Yorkville stages and highlighting Canadian musicians who were either nominated for, or won, JUNO awards this past year. The showcase will feature eight bands on June 30, including David Braid/Mike Murley, the Okavango African Orchestra, Hilario Durán, Shirantha Beddage, Autorickshaw, Beny Esguerra and New Tradition, and more.

With the festival fast approaching, I sat down for a conversation with Josh Grossman, now in his ninth year as artistic director, about this year’s festival and its continuing evolution.

Josh Grossman - Photo by Marie ByersWN: Walk us through the move away from Nathan Phillips Square into Yorkville, which began last year. What has this change brought to the festival?

JG: There were programming-flexibility and other issues involved in having the big tent in Nathan Phillips Square as the festival’s central venue. These involved noise by-law requirements which limited us to three shows a day – one at noon, one in the late afternoon and one in the evening – and we wanted to be able to present more. Also, the tent held 1,200 people and the pressure of filling it for ten straight days proved to be a challenge. The sound was often less than ideal and so was the atmosphere – we lacked the budget to decorate the square to give it more of a festival feel as it had during the Pan-Am Games. The move to Bloor-Yorkville allows us to present smaller shows, but more of them, and in a variety of indoor and outdoor venues that provide more flexibility and variety. Also, with its pre-existing history, Yorkville provides a village-within-a-city feel that makes a jazz festival feel like more of a festival, which is hugely important. It has a built-in community and neighbourhood vibe and offers many other advantages. It’s in the centre of the city, easily accessible by public transit and, with seven venues, it offers a flexibility of programming. It’s also close to some of the hard-ticketed venues such as the Danforth Music Hall, Koerner Hall, the ROM and Trinity-St. Paul’s, so there’s a sense of concentration. We want people to be able to catch a variety of shows each day by simply walking or taking a short subway ride. Because Yorkville is relatively small, many of the venues, even the outdoor ones, offer an intimacy which suits the music being presented. Heliconian Hall for example, where we’ll be presenting ten free concerts, holds just 100 people, has wonderful sound, a good grand piano and a great stage. The Church of the Redeemer is similar and both these venues have a history within the city, which it’s nice to take advantage of.

What has response from the Yorkville community been like?

Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and the Bloor-Yorkville BIA have been very supportive, which has allowed us to increase the Yorkville footprint of the festival this year. It’s helped that CEO Howard Kerber, who formerly ran TIFF in the community for several years, has been involved. There are still noise by-law issues – no more than 85 decibels and nothing past 11pm – but most shows will wind up by ten. And the local businesses certainly appreciate the influx of 5,000 people into the neighbourhood.

Apart from affordability, availability and avoiding repetition from year to year, what drives your selection of acts for the festival?

We focus on the audience in Toronto, being aware of who’s popular in the city, and of the increasing cross-cultural aspect of the community with an eye toward promoting this. With the ticketed big-name shows we look for variety; we want the acts to be exciting and vibrant as well as financially viable. It’s certainly not a matter of me as artistic director just indulging my own tastes; there have been many times I’ve wanted to bring in an artist I love but have been shot down by the board. It’s surprising, but there are a number of artists with huge international jazz reps who simply don’t sell well in Toronto. The free concerts are easier because there’s no box office pressure and the possibilities are almost endless.

There’s a perception that the festival has grown smaller in the last couple of years – is this true?

Not entirely. There have been slightly fewer big-name, hard-ticketed events the past couple of years, but the total number of presentations has held steady at 170 to 180. Part of the perception that we’re smaller is we no longer involve, under the festival umbrella, many clubs which present jazz part time. This is largely because they didn’t allow us input into their booking of artists. The exceptions this year are the Home Smith Bar, The Rex (which does its own booking but we wanted to maintain a partnership with because it presents so much jazz year-round) and The Pilot Tavern, an obvious choice given its location and long history.

I’ve often thought that with jazz festivals, smaller can be better.

Yes, we’re finding that can be true – that musical quality and variety matter more than size.

You’re likely sick of this question – as am I – but what do you say to the inevitable criticism that there are acts in the festival that aren’t really jazz?

So when we bring in someone like Willie Nelson, or Alison Krause this year … I’m not going to argue that they’re jazz artists, but they serve a certain purpose in attracting large audiences, which helps the bottom line, which in turn helps us afford other artists. But whether they’re jazz or not, nobody can argue that they’re not great musical artists. And there’s a hope that their fans, who may not have been exposed to jazz before, may catch some other shows and say “Hey, I like this, why haven’t I heard this before?” Also, it’s not really fair, because those critics often seize on one or two artists out of the 170 being presented, most of which in some form are legitimately jazz. The music has evolved and cross-pollinated so much that it now comprises many elements of world music, R&B, soul, blues, funk and so on, so who can say anymore in absolute terms what jazz is, or isn’t? Particularly in the summer, jazz becomes a bigger, more inclusive tent. Besides, some of these more popular artists can surprise you – for example, a few years ago the Steve Martin booking was roundly criticized, but in my opinion his performance offered more improvisational content than a lot of the so-called “straight jazz” ones did that year.

How long does putting together each festival take?

With all the logistical challenges and coordination of booking, organizing and planning, it’s pretty much a year-long process. The team generally allows itself some time off to bask in the afterglow of the current festival, then it’s on to organizing the next one.

What would you like to say about this year’s festival?

I’m pretty excited about it, the expanded presence in Yorkville and some of the new venues, artists and initiatives being offered, such as blues legend Bettye Lavette heading up a Blues Revue for the first time in the festival and the first-ever Toronto appearance by The Bad Plus featuring their new pianist, Orrin Evans; the Industry Exchange, a new series being held in the Stealth Lounge of The Pilot, aimed at promoting emerging local talent from diverse musical backgrounds. The Yorkville venues have given us the flexibility to present a lot of Canadian talent, both established and lesser-known. I feel we’re offering a program with a lot of range, featuring some legends such as Herbie Hancock as well as some newer artists, in some of the city’s most attractive venues.

Bettye LavetteAll told, you’ve done seven or eight of these, so what do you consider a successful jazz festival to be – how does that look?

Well, attendance and the bottom line are important of course and it helps if the weather cooperates. But mostly, it’s the vibe of the festival, the feeling of its interaction with the city itself, positive feedback from audiences, seeing familiar faces and some new ones at the shows. Having artists express an interest in returning is always nice and often happens because this is such a vibrant city with so much musical talent. And it’s a good sign when I see a lot of local musicians in the audience.

Full disclosure! Aside from playing two Yorkville concerts with Reg Schwager’s Songbook and the Barry Elmes Quintet, I plan on being one of the local musicians in the audience Josh Grossman spoke about. I like the eclecticism and look of this year’s lineup, some of the new initiatives and the overall scope and size of the festival. Above all, I feel its setting allows for some musical intimacy and the potential to be what a jazz festival should be at the end of the day – festive. I wish everybody an enjoyable time at this year’s festival and a happy summer of listening.

To see more detail about this year’s lineup and schedule, visit torontojazz.com

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

In the dog days of Toronto’s musical summer, while the halls are lying dormant and musicians gigging on the Ontario festival circuit, two weeks of intense art song training will take place at the Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSM). Out of 90 applicants this year, eight singers and four pianists chosen by video auditions will work on all aspects of art song with international mentors, Christoph Prégardien and Julius Drake, and the head of Collaborative Piano at U of T and Canadian Art Song Project co-artistic director Steven Philcox. Tuition fees are covered by scholarships, which in turn are underwritten by TSM donors. Each week of work will be crowned with a group recital, in a program that will emerge organically from the training repertoire tackled.

Christoph Pregardien - Marco BorggreveThere will also be the opportunity for the Art of Song Institute singers and pianists to join forces with the fellows of the Chamber Music Institute, the other arm of the Toronto Summer Music Academy. A lucky precedent was set last year, explains Steven Philcox when I phone him on an early morning in May; song students enjoyed working with string players and TSM artistic director Jonathan Crow so much that a repeat was in order. This year, two pieces that call for inter-Institute collaboration will be in the final concert: a Menotti number and Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle for soprano, piano and string quartet.

Each of the international mentors is here for one week, though their time will overlap enough to allow for a Prégardien-Drake recital on July 17. Their young mentees will be required to prepare eight songs for each week of the program, 16 songs total. “There will be daily sessions with Christoph, Julius and myself, and a lot of focused diction and language study,” says Philcox. “Michael Albano, resident stage director at the U of T Opera, will give a full session on recitation of poetry, away from the music – getting back to the words – and this is both for singers and pianists. They’re all required to prepare a piece of poetry from memory.”

Steven PhilcoxWhat songs exactly the singers end up working on during those two weeks of close collaboration with Drake, Prégardien and Philcox depends in part on their own interests. The repertoire is discussed early on in the selection process. “We audition everybody through the Young Artist Program tracker, and singers can upload their videos and submit their repertoire online. That way we can audition internationally.” The TSM artistic panel then looks at the applications and makes the selection.

Both the Festival and its Academy are loosely programmed around a theme each year, and this time it’s Reflections of Wartime. “At least some of the songs that the singers bring will be required to fit the festival theme. I ask the singers for 16 to 20 songs and out of those I am able to assemble the rep,” says Philcox. The final list of songs will also depend on who the mentors are and what their area of specialization is. “Christoph Prégardien’s wish was to focus on German lieder and we’ll have quite a bit of Schubert and Schumann – and a lot of students really wanted to work on Schubert with him.” There are two tenors, two sopranos and four mezzos, and in the self-generated repertoire there wasn’t much overlap. “Even within the same voice type,” he adds. “One mezzo happens to be closer to alto and she’s looking at some of the Mahler Kindertotenlieder and Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis.”

Here is the class of 2018: pianists Frances Armstrong, Leona Cheung, Pierre-André Doucet and Jinhee Park, sopranos Maeve Palmer and Karen Schriesheim, tenors Joey Jang and Asitha Tennekoon, and mezzos Lyndsay Promane, Danielle Vaillancourt, Renee Fajardo and Florence Bourget. A couple of the local names will be familiar to Torontonians – Promane and Palmer certainly, as well as tenor Asitha Tennekoon, who has just wrapped up in the first run of the newly composed The Overcoat at Canadian Stage here and in Vancouver.

The young tenor moved to Toronto only four years ago, but since then we’ve seen him in roles in just about all the core companies of the indie scene: Tapestry, Against the Grain Theatre, MY Opera, Opera Five and Bicycle Opera Project. I caught up with him over Skype while he was travelling through BC to ask him about his interest in the art of song and the kind of detailed work that the TSM Academy offers.

“My first TSM Academy was two years ago, actually,” he says. “This year when I found out who the mentors are going to be, I decided to apply again. I’ve listened to Prégardien for a long time, and know his work. Whenever I have to work on Bach cantatas and passions, I look for his versions. As a tenor, I think I might end up doing a lot of rep that he’s done.”

Tennekoon’s rep this year will be British songs and a lot of Schubert lieder. “I’ve done Schumann, I’ve done Wolf, but somehow never taken the time to study Schubert.” And since working on Schubert’s larger song cycles would be somewhat impractical in the context of a two-week summer school, he ended up choosing a few songs from Schwanengesang. “I love those pieces; they speak to me,” he says.

“Lieder in general. There’s something about the way those songs delve into human psyche that really engages me. How the poet and the character in the song put something across, deal with something in a matter of just a couple of minutes – and often so powerfully. That really makes me want to work on it and figure out why and how this happens.”

Part of it, he says, is that there are no operatic visuals, no plot development and no colleagues onstage to help build the character and help you make your case. “There’s an immediate spotlight – you dive straight in. I love that challenge. You can’t move around, there’s nowhere to go.”

One particular song from Schwanengesang in particular drew him in: Der Doppelgänger. “When I first heard it, it surprised me that it was Schubert. The way the harmonies worked, it all felt like Mahler – that sense of pathos and death to it.”

Asitha TennekoonAfter the Academy and in addition to Schubert, Tennekoon will continue to explore Britten’s vocal opus. “I love the way [Britten] writes for the voice,” he says. “I’ve already done a bunch of Britten songs and would like to continue singing Britten as much as possible.” Schumann too, and the French rep eventually. Contemporary music almost goes without saying. “Doing new music is the most enjoyable thing about my time in Toronto so far. Working with Tapestry, you kind of get thrown into it and I absolutely love it. Taking part in something out there that’s never been heard before, getting to talk to the composer and librettist and ask them questions and suggest your own ideas – it’s one of the most exciting parts of this business.”

But first , back to Bach. Tennekoon returns to Stratford Summer Music for the Coffee Cantata later in the summer, and there are a few solos in the Matthew and John Passions in the near future. And in the spring of 2019, a house debut at the Opéra de Montréal in what’s been billed as a jazz opera with boxing, Champion.

The joint reGENERATION recitals by the Art Song and Chamber Music fellows take place on July 14 and 21, 1pm and 4pm on each day in Walter Hall, Toronto; tickets are available at TSM’s website.

June Pick

Tapestry Opera is partnering with Pride Toronto for a three-day festival of naughtiness titled “Tap This” on June 7, 8 and 9. Soprano Teiya Kasahara will subvert operatic tropes about female characters in her haute butch style. Joel Klein (as his drag alter Maria Toilette), Kristina Lemieux (as Vadge) and Gutter Opera Collective will present “Cocktales”: salacious and tender first-person retellings of early sexual experiences. There’s more: the complete program and tickets can be found on Tapestry’s website. 

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Opera performances in Southern Ontario in the summer are becoming more numerous every year. This year, a few young companies are taking opera to some municipalities that once had opera companies and to others that never had them. This is all to the good in broadening the audience for opera as well as broadening notions of what opera is, as the offerings mix standards and rarities with brand-new works.

June

Nota Bene: June 2018 begins with a rarity. The Nota Bene Baroque Players of Waterloo team up with Capella Intima of Toronto and the Gallery Players of Niagara to present Folly in Love (Gli equivoci nel sembiante) from 1679, the first opera written by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). The first performance takes place in Kitchener on June 1, the second in Hamilton on June 2 and the third in St. Catharines on June 3.

The opera concerns two nymphs, Lisetta and Clori, who are both in love with the same shepherd Eurillo. When a new shepherd Armindo arrives, the nymphs change their affections to him. After much confusion, the four sort themselves into two happy couples. Sheila Dietrich and Jennifer Enns sing the two nymphs, Bud Roach is Eurillo and David Roth is Armindo. Roach also conducts the six-member ensemble of period instruments. The opera is presented in concert in Italian with English surtitles.

Vera Causa: Also outside Toronto, the young opera company Vera Causa Opera is presenting an unusual double bill of new Canadian operas by women composers. The first is an opera in Croatian and English, Padajuća Zvijezda (The Fallen Star) by Julijana Hajdinjak, and the second is The Covenant by Dylann Miller. The first opera is inspired by a short story by the composer’s sister Danijela about two lovers in a celestial kingdom where love has been outlawed and is punished by banishment to Earth. It features Allison Walmsley as Luna, Melina Garcia Zambrano as Aurelia, Gabriel Sanchez Ortega as Solaris, Katerina Utochkina as Astra and Philip Klaassen as Stello. Rachel Kalap is the stage director and Dylan Langan conducts a five-member ensemble plus chorus. 

The second opera concerns witches, lesbians and priests and is about “empowering women to embrace their true selves from the perspective of a teenage girl in a small town.” In it Allison Walmsley sings Cate, Chad Quigley is Father Andrew, Kimberley Rose-Pefhany is Keira, Autumn Wascher is Delaney, Stephanie O’Leary is Lilith and Sam Rowlandson-O’Hara is Cate’s Mother. Rebecca Gray is the stage director and Isaac Page conducts a small instrumental ensemble and chorus. The operas will be performed on June 22 in Waterloo and on June 23 in Cambridge. As both the Nota Bene and the Vera Causa opera productions show, opera companies whose goal is to serve their local communities are springing up outside of Toronto.

By Request: In Toronto, Opera by Request has two presentations in June. The first on June 2 is Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The second on June 9 is Donizetti’s daunting Anna Bolena. In the Mozart, Lawrence Cotton sings the title role, Evan Korbut is Leporello, Laura Schatz is Donna Elvira, Carrie Gray is Donna Anna and Risa de Rege is Zerlina. Kate Carver is the pianist and music director. In the Donizetti, Antonina Ermolenko sings the title role, John Holland is Enrico VIII, Monica Zerbe is Giovanna Seymour and Paul Williamson is Lord Percy. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director.

Opera 5: On June 13, 15 and 17, Toronto’s Opera 5, which up to now has focused on presenting rarities such as its Dame Ethel Smyth double bill last year, makes its first foray into a full-length opera from the standard repertory, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Johnathon Kirby sings the title role, Kevin Myers is the Count Almaviva, Stephanie Tritchew is his beloved Rosina, Jeremy Ludwig is her jealous guardian Don Bartolo and Giles Tomkins is her music teacher Don Basilio.

Rachel KrehmAs Opera 5 general director Rachel Krehm says, “The show will be set in the spring of 1914 in Spain just before the Last Great Summer (in which Spain declared its neutrality in World War I, a decision that would later seriously divide the country). A big feature of the set will be golden gates which symbolize Rosina’s entrapment – the outside world just out of reach. The comedy will come at you from every angle: the colours onstage, the physicality – but always inspired by the comedic genius from the score.” The opera will be fully staged and directed by Jessica Derventzis, with Evan Mitchell conducting an 11-piece ensemble.

Two from Luminato: The Luminato Festival has two opera-related offerings. From June 16 to 19 it presents Tables Turned, a remount of one of Tapestry Opera’s experimental Tap:Ex series from 2015. Soprano Carla Huhtanen and percussionist Ben Reimer join forces with Montreal composer, turntable artist and electronics specialist Nicole Lizée for a performance blending live and pre-recorded music with projections from classic films. Luminato’s other opera-like work is the production-in-progress Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook. The story follows the life of composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), who escaped Nazi Germany for the US in only to be rejected for his adherence to Communism in 1948 and forced to return to Europe, finally settling in the new East Germany. The opera, conceived and directed by Tim Albery, constructs a song cycle of Eisler’s many lieder to tell the story. Baritone Russell Braun is the soloist and Serouj Kradjian is the pianist. The sole performance is on June 23, but Soundstreams has scheduled the work for a full production in June 2019.

Russell Braun - photo by Johannes IfkovitsLlandovery Castle: Finishing June in Toronto is an opera workshop of The Llandovery Castle by Stephanie Martin on June 26 and 27 in association with Bicycle Opera. The title refers to the name of a Canadian hospital ship that was torpedoed on June 27, 1918, by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. Fourteen Canadian nurses from all across Canada were among the casualties. Paul Ciufo’s libretto focuses on the lives of Minnie “Kate” Gallaher, Rena “Bird” McLean and Matron Margaret “Pearl” Fraser. The characters also include Sergeant Arthur “Art” Knight and Major Tom Lyon (two of the 24 men who survived the sinking) and German U-boat commander Helmut Patzig. The opera is directed by Tom Diamond and Kimberley-Ann Bartczak conducts a chamber orchestra. The June 27 performance will mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

July

S.O.L.T Going Strong: Straddling July and August is the Summer Opera Lyric Theatre in Toronto, founded in 1986. The training program culminates in staged concert performances of three operas. This year the operas are Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884) on July 27, 29, August 1 and 4; George Frideric Handel’s Semele (1743) on July 28, August 1, 3 and 4; and a version of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (1789), renamed Fior and Dora after the heroines Fiordiligi and Dorabella, on July 28, 31, August 2 and 5.

Brott: This year the Brott Music Festival will again present a fully staged opera as part of its schedule from June 21 to August 16. This summer’s opera will be Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented for one night only in English on July 19 at the FirstOntario Concert Hall. Anne-Marie MacIntosh sings Pamina, Zachary Rioux is Tamino, Holly Flack is the Queen of the Night, Max van Wyck is Papageno and Simon Chalifoux is Sarastro. Patrick Hansen directs the steampunk-designed production and Boris Brott conducts the Brott Festival Orchestra. 

Julie NesrallahMusic Niagara: Meanwhile, Music Niagara has two mainstream operas on offer. On July 9 it presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Niagara-on-the-Lake, starring Alexander Dobson in the title role supported by young Canadian talent. On July 21 it is presenting a version of Bizet’s most popular opera styled as Carmen on Tap, starring CBC Radio host Julie Nesrallah in the title role with tenor Richard Troxell as Don José. The twist with this production is that the opera is abridged and is set in the cellar of Old Winery Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The production promises to give audiences a more intimate view of the classic work.

Coffee Time: Shifting to another successful music festival, Stratford Summer Music will be presenting a staged version of a secular J.S. Bach cantata not in a restaurant but in the Revel Caffe in downtown Stratford. The work is, of course, Bach’s so-called Coffee Cantata of 1733, in which a father tries to prevent his daughter from becoming addicted to her favourite pick-me-up. Simon Chalifoux, Elizabeth Polese and Asitha Tennekoon are the three singers and Peter Tiefenbach provides the staging and the keyboard accompaniment for the three performances on July 27, 28 and 29.

Then, in early August, SSM presents a brand new response to The Coffee Cantata in the form of The Cappuccino Cantata, by the suspiciously pseudonymous “J.S. Bawk.” Set in Stratford in 2018, Gordon, who manages a coffee bar, is smitten with his barista, Stephanie, but she has a crush on the “boy with the MacBook” who comes in every day. Katy Clark, Adam Harris and Zachary Rioux are the singers and again Peter Tiefenbach provides the staging and the keyboard accompaniment. Performances are on August 10, 11 and 12, also at the Revel Caffe.

Also in August

Highlands Opera: In Haliburton, the Highlands Opera Studio is presenting three operas. On August 16 and 17 it presents an unusual double bill of two 20th-century Canadian comic operas by Tibor Polgar (1907-93). Polgar was born in Budapest and was a pianist and conductor with the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1925 to 1950. He fled Hungary after the Russian invasion, first to Germany and then to Canada, where he became a citizen in 1969. He was an instructor at the University of Toronto Opera Division from 1966 to 1975.

First on the double bill is The Glove, Polgar’s most performed opera, commissioned by the CBC in 1973. The libretto is based on the 1797 ballad by Friedrich Schiller about a princess who asks a knight to enter an arena of lions to fetch her fallen glove. Andy Erasmus sings the Ringmaster, Grace Canfield the Princess and Matthew Dalen the Knight. Second on the bill is The Troublemaker from 1968, based on a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. Matthew Dalen sings Abu Hussein, Andy Erasmus is Sherkan, Maria Lacey is Tamatil, Emma Bergin is Nushmet and Joseph Trumbo is The Cadi. On August 24 through 27 the Highlands Opera Studio presents Puccini’s La Bohème with two casts, one on August 24 and 26 and the other on August 25 and 27.

Opera Muskoka: The second summer opera company in cottage country is Opera Muskoka, now in its ninth year. On August 21 it presents a concert performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Italian with English surtitles at the Rene M. Caisse Theatre in Bracebridge. Soprano Sharon Tikiryan is the producer and will sing the role of the calculating maid Despina.

All of this operatic activity all over the province is certainly enough to occupy any Southern Ontarian opera-goer until the fall.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

In May, two shows stood out for me for different reasons. Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage’s intimate upstairs Berkeley Street Theatre was an unusual theatrical concert with a whimsical heart and setting, combining often-sublime chamber music (by composer Njo Kong Kie) with simple props, a dancer, short films and onscreen poetic introductions to the various compositions. The beautiful playing by violinist Hong Iat U and cellist Nicholas Yee (supported by the composer on the piano) stood out as enigmatic conversations between their instruments, in much the same way that author Patrick O’Brian describes the often improvisatory, lyrical, shipboard violin and cello duets played by his famous characters Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

A more traditional musical theatre outing was the TSO’s concert presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide This was a wonderful opportunity to hear and see the exquisite Tracy Dahl as Cunegonde, with her crystal clear tone, perfect technique, and delightful acting and star mezzo Judith Forst in great comedic form as the lively Old Lady.

Looking ahead to June, there is no shortage of music theatre on offer but the most striking cluster of offerings is concentrated under the umbrella of the Luminato Festival. I took the opportunity to meet artistic director Josephine Ridge to ask her about her approach and goals for the festival as she nears the beginning of her second season in Toronto.

Josephine Ridge 4 Photo by Katherine HollandWN: Looking at the upcoming Luminato program, what really struck me was how much music there is, but also, and this seems new this year, how politically and socially engaged the whole festival is. Is that because of the current atmosphere we are living in?

JR: It’s actually deeper than that; it’s about the way I view the role of a festival within its home city – that a festival needs to be relevant to the inhabitants of its city and therefore we need to engage with the ideas that are in the public realm of discussion. We need to think about what are the issues, the concerns and the enthusiasms and in other words really what’s in the ether, because if we’re not a festival that is distinctly about Toronto and of Toronto then it means that we are not contributing and adding to the cultural landscape in the way that I believe we should as a festival.

It’s something that I was very proud to have been able to do when I was at the Melbourne Festival.

And it takes time to explore and get to know a new city.

That’s part of the excitement of course, and I think, as in all things, with fresh eyes one has a different perspective, perhaps, as well – and that certainly for me adds to the interest in terms of the conversations that I have.

You have talked before about wanting to have conversations with as many of the arts organizations as possible in the city.

Yes, this is the other side of the engagement and connection that we were just talking about. This is really about understanding what Toronto artists and companies are doing now, and how can we add to that and perhaps together achieve something which each can’t on their own.

There is already growing excitement about that approach from some of the artists I’ve spoken to – at Tapestry Opera for example.

In fact, Tapestry is a good case in point. I quickly came to understand the work that Michael Mori and his company are doing, so the conversation with Michael about this year was around work that they have produced in the past that is really deserving of a wider audience and being revisited and seen in an international festival context. We very quickly got to Nicole Lizée’s multimedia piece Tables Turned. It’s one of the important components of a platform we have created this year called Illuminated Works, which is all about fulfilling one of Luminato’s founding briefs – which was to throw a spotlight on the creativity of Toronto and take Toronto arts to the world. We are bringing a large group of international and Canadian presenters and producers to come and look at a whole range of work, with a view to it being picked up and given national and international touring opportunities. We can’t work with everybody every year but we can make a start and really make sure that over time we engage as widely as we can.

Will you be continuing with these conversations, looking for companies you haven’t yet met, and new artists emerging onto the scene?

Definitely. One of the important roles we have is not only to present work that is complete but also to recognize the proper support that is required for the creative development process of new work, and so in the program this year we have four works that are works in progress.

We’re giving those artists an opportunity to put their work in front of an audience so they can feel how it sits with that audience and feed that learning into the way they then take the work forward for future development.

This will be exciting for audiences, too, to be in on the development process on the ground floor.

Yes, and I think the works we have chosen are far-ranging: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, Hell’s Fury, The Ward Cabaret, and Balaklava Blues.

Dr. Silver a Celebration of Life - Photo by Neil SilcoxAnd they’re all music theatre – as we define it at The WholeNote – where music is an integral element in telling a theatrical story. This year the mix is very interesting and even more experimental than last year. Do you see music theatre as always being an essential part of the Luminato recipe, particularly as it crosses borders and genres?

Well, I’m particularly interested in artists and their work where they are not working in art-form silos; and distinctions between the definitions of particular art forms now are so blurry. Also, music to me is really central so it’s not surprising that so many works that we are looking at are cross-genre. I also think that the ability that music has to speak to audiences who perhaps might not think of themselves as being a “theatre audience” or a “dance audience,” for example, is exciting.

How did you choose the music theatre pieces this season? Did you start with one that was a cornerstone, the Irish Swan Lake, for example, or did you begin with the underlying themes and ideas you wanted to engage with this season and go from there?

I think it’s partly that I am always drawn to music and so there is no one answer to that. I have a long relationship with Teaċ Daṁsa, Michael Dolan’s company (Swan Lake), and have seen a lot of Michael’s work over the years as a director and choreographer. He is, I think, a unique and important voice, and Toronto audiences and the artists working in Toronto should see the works that he is creating

The excerpts that I have seen online look wildly theatrical.

It’s a completely original reading of such a well-known work, and all the elements of the Swan Lake story are there, but of course it is completely transformed into this really poor community in Ireland. There are no kings and queens and princes here, and the music is original Irish music (with folk references) played live onstage. Somehow even with all of that transformation, the classic story is there, which to me is just magical.

And the Canadian pieces – how did you choose those, Dr. Silver for example?

In the case of Dr. Silver, A Celebration of Life I was invited by Mitchell Cushman of Outside the March, very soon after I arrived in Canada (the middle of 2016), to go to a day of workshops they were holding, and this was one of those works in a very raw form. I met and talked with Mitchell and then also with Mitchell Marcus of The Musical Stage Company, as it was absolutely evident to me that Britta and Anika Johnson are a real creative force. I was interested in not just the direction of that work but of whatever else they were doing, and wanted to signal that I would be interested in finding a way for Luminato to be part of that story to support those artists. Although Dr. Silver has its official presentation in September as a finished work, I asked if it would be useful for them to have an opportunity on the way through to put it in front of an audience, so that’s how that conversation went.

Hells Fury: The Hollywood Songbook [Tim Albery’s concept based on the life and songs of composer Hanns Eisler], on the other hand, came to us as an idea from Lawrence Cherney at Soundstreams. He said “We want to create this work and need a partner.” So, there are many ways in which these projects can come to life. You have to be in the room, seeing work, having the conversation for these outcomes to even occur.

And if artists are interested in having a conversation with you how should they approach you?

I try to go to see artists working at all scales and at all types of work, so people do tend to find me in foyers, but I can also be easily be contacted at Luminato.

The Ward Cabaret you mentioned is also a work in progress – can you tell me a bit more about it?

I think it’s a really important piece because it comes from the recent book The Ward from Coach House Books that deals with the importance of the Ward [an area bounded roughly by Queen and College, Yonge and University] and the cultural diversity of its original inhabitants as being the real basis of Toronto’s cultural diversity today. What David Buchbinder (the show’s originator) has done is have a musical response to that material, and I think it’s going to be really interesting and very rich.

Now that playwright Marjorie Chan and director Leah Cherniak are newly involved in the collaboration, is there any sense yet of how theatrical it is going to be?

What we have now is really a cabaret concert performance, but eventually it will be a fully staged theatrical experience. I can’t tell you when that will be but we are certainly there for the journey.

Before we finish, could you tell me a bit more about Riot, the other show you are bringing from Ireland? It sounds like a smorgasbord of different genres, including music theatre, all mixed together.

Riot is uplifting. It’s funny, energetic, has got real heart and soul, and deals with – going back to your first questions – issues and ideas. It covers quite a lot of really important territory of social politics, in particular, but does it in a way that is very entertaining and lightly done. I think you’ll find a lot of connection to Toronto audiences because of the territory it covers and because it is so entertaining.

Up Over It in 'Riot' - Photo by Conor Horgan for THISISPOPBABYAnd because of the contrast in style with everything else?

That’s why we are running it a bit longer – so it has a chance to bridge a lot of the other works that are taking place.

The whole festival is longer this year. Is there extra programming or are you spreading things out?

It’s more about pace, allowing there to be some air in between, so hopefully people can see more but also connect the various aspects of the festival. It’s also structural: with only two weekends you begin and you end; with three weekends now we have a beginning, middle and end, and we’re telling a story.

Luminato runs from June 6 to 24 at various venues around Toronto.

Follow our online blog for more previews and reviews of music theatre around Ontario this summer.

Quick Picks

June 1 to 10: Frame by Frame. A new collaboration between international theatrical innovator Robert Lepage with Canadian choreographer Guillaume Côté, celebrating and showcasing excerpts of Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren’s groundbreaking films. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

June 6, 7: Soundstreams finishes its 35th season with an exciting two-part music theatre program, the world premiere of James Rolfe’s I Think We Are Angels, with a libretto based on the poems of Else Lasker-Schüler, and a new theatrical version of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion led by music director John Hess and stage director Jennifer Tarver. At Crows Theatre, 345 Carlaw, Toronto.

June 16: Tony Award-winning Scottish actor Alan Cumming (of The Good Wife and many other shows) comes to Massey Hall for one night only with his new cabaret show Legal Immigrant, built around stories and songs of his life and loves in his adopted homeland, the USA.

June 26: A rare chance to see Canadian stage and film star Christopher Plummer live at the TSO, in Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

July 13 to August 12: Rosalynde (or As You Like It). Driftwood Theatre places one of Shakespeare’s most musical comedies in Canada in 1918, with the songs given new musical settings to fit the period by music director and composer Tom Lillington. In parks around Ontario; see driftwoodtheatre.com/bards-bus-tour for details. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Music and nature are closely intertwined, the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of our planet inspiring musicians for centuries, even millennia. The ancient philosophical concept of a Harmony of the Spheres as proposed by Pythagoras suggests that the sun, moon and planets all emit their own unique pitch frequency based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the harmony of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear. Although Aristotle later contested this theory, the idea of Harmonia mundi continues to be reinvented and interpreted by composers in new and exciting ways. For example, in 1996 the Dutch composer Joep Franssens premiered his massive Harmony of the Spheres for chorus, combining minimalist and spectralist approaches to create a work that captures both the profound immensity of the universe and the bright shimmer of far-off stars.

Between Pythagoras and Franssens lies a wealth of nature-inspired music, from silly and serene to severe and stormy. Birds in particular have been a source of inspiration: German Baroque pipe organs contained special stops such as the nightingale, which produced a fluttering, high-pitched whistle (the organ at Metropolitan United has a nightingale stop, a generous donation from an organ aficionado), while French Baroque musicians such as Daquin and Rameau wrote imitations of birds in works such as Le Coucou and La Poule. Perhaps the greatest ornithological composer in history is Olivier Messiaen, who faithfully transcribed bird calls noting the species and location, and wove these threads into masterful pieces of music. It is nearly impossible to find a late work of Messiaen that does not incorporate bird song as an integral and essential component.

Bach and Handel used the pastoral as a musical model, illustrating idyllic scenes of shepherds tending their sheep. Mozart wove birds into The Magic Flute through the character of Papageno, an earthy birdcatcher who, when he finds his perfect match in Papagena, rejoices with an imitation of bird-like courting sounds. Beethoven and Brahms both enjoyed long walks through the woods, put to paper in Beethoven’s case in Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral, portraying everything from bubbling brooks and bird calls to a violent thunderstorm. Mahler used his mountain retreat as his summertime escape from Vienna, hiking, walking, rowing and composing his greatest works in a nearby hut, mirroring the intensity of his temperament and the immensity of the mountains in his large-scale symphonies.

Summer continues to be a time of escape and refuge for many, whether braving traffic on Highway 400 to reach a familiar lakeside cottage hideaway or taking a road trip and exploring new and exciting places. While many use the summer months as a chance to get away and recharge, musicians sometimes seem to grow busier over July and August, as evidenced by the plethora of festivals and concert series that continue to increase in number and scale each year. A quick glance at the Green Pages in this issue of The WholeNote provides some idea of the sheer number of exciting opportunities available to hear new, old and endearingly familiar masterpieces. Regardless of where your travels take you, there is something to see and listen to. Here is a brief overview of this summer’s early music festivals and events:

June

May and June offer season-ending performances by organizations across the city, grand finales showcasing great ensembles and equally great musical works. As seasons end, others begin, and this June serves as the starting point for numerous summer programs and concerts.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute (TBSI), a world-renowned training program for advanced students, pre-professional and professional musicians in instrumental and vocal Baroque performance practice, is led by some of the world’s finest musicians in the field. This year’s TBSI runs from June 10 to 23 and features five separate performances by faculty and students at venues across Toronto’s Bloor-Annex corridor, including Jeanne Lamon Hall and Walter Hall, with the grand finale at Grace Church on-the-Hill. As a former participant in this superb training program, I cannot speak highly enough of the quality of repertoire and tutelage each participant receives, and strongly encourage lovers of early music to attend at least one of these performances. Keep the program, too – you’ll be amazed at how many names return as fully formed performers in following years!

Alison Melville, recorder player and flutist of North Wind Concerts, when she hosted CBC Radio 2’s 'This Is My Music'North Winds Do Blow! On June 16, some of Canada’s most celebrated Baroque music specialists play a cornucopia of beautiful tunes from Handel operas and oratorios. ”Handel: Airs for the Theatre” showcases tunes from Rinaldo, Acis & Galatea, Riccardo Primo, Orlando, Admeto and other Handelian hits, arranged by Toronto’s own Colin Savage after 18th-century models, as well as a few 18th-century arrangements published by Handel’s contemporary, John Walsh. Featuring Baroque woodwind wizards from across the city playing a diverse and colourful array of period instruments, this concert is an ideal celebration of summer’s arrival, and the debut performance of North Wind Concerts, an evolution of the group formerly known as Baroque Music Beside the Grange. Taking place at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, this concert is perfectly located, just down the road from Tafelmusik’s Summer Institute.

Montréal Baroque: If you are planning a trip to Montreal in June, make sure to explore the 2018 Festival Montréal Baroque’s “Hallelujah Handel,” taking place from June 21 to 24. This overview of Handel’s output from his solo sonatas to opera will be a first for Montreal, focusing on rarely heard music including the complete keyboard works, the complete sonatas for flute, recorder, violin and gamba, the complete trio sonatas, concerti for violin, organ and harp, and rarely heard oratorios and masques, performed by many of Montreal’s Baroque ensembles, established and novice, as well as invited guests. Taking inspiration from Berlioz’s description of Handel as a “tub of pork and beer,” the Montreal Festival events will include food and wine tastings. (Handel, a famously corpulent person, was a well-known epicurean famed for downing two bottles of red each evening – he eventually developed a serious case of gout!)

July

Elora and Parry Sound: If June is the month of Handel, July presents a mixed-bag assortment of much-loved early music. The Elora Festival, renowned for its varied and eclectic programming, offers performances by both guest ensembles and the resident Elora Singers and Festival Orchestra. This year’s guests include the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal in a concert of three settings of Lamentations by the prophet Jeremiah, written by the 16th-century composers Tallis, Morales and de Lassus; the renowned English ensemble The Gesualdo Six, making their Canadian debut; and two concerts by the Elora ensembles, featuring Bach’s Lutheran Masses, Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Mozart’s Mass in C.

Further north, the Festival of the Sound presents six concerts from July 25 to 27, pairing works by Bach with pieces by other canonic composers such as Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Debussy. This series (titled “Papa Bach”) explores Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence on subsequent generations of musicians, as each concert features a solo cello suite followed by a work from a composer who was inspired by his music. Featuring a wide range of performers playing on modern instruments, this varied series presents an interesting contrast with the Baroque specialists featured throughout June’s festivals.

Angela Hewitt -Photo by Keith SaundersAugust

Stratford Summer Music: Although August marks the beginning of the end of summer (and back-to-school ads appear earlier and earlier each year), the music continues – notably in the Stratford Summer Music series. Angela Hewitt returns to Stratford on August 11 and 12 to present Books One and Two of Bach’s inspiring keyboard work The Well-Tempered Clavier. Through two performances, Hewitt will play the complete 48 preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. Seldom heard live in its entirety, The Well-Tempered Clavier is an astonishing masterpiece and this will be a rare and memorable opportunity to experience one of the world’s most profound works of creativity performed by one of today’s leading Bach interpreters.

Music Garden:Tucked away in Toronto’s waterfront, the Toronto Music Garden was conceived by internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy in partnership with the City of Toronto’s Parks and Recreation department. Through its labyrinthine landscape, the garden interprets Bach’s Suite No.1 in G Major, BWV 1007 for unaccompanied cello. Each summer the Toronto Music Garden is home to Summer Music in the Garden, presenting a tremendous range of chamber and world music. On August 19, “Sunday Afternoon at the Opera” offers scenes and arias from Mozart operas; late medieval love songs, including works by Guillaume de Machaut and Johannes Ciconia, are the focus of the August 23 concert “Elas mon cuer”; and on August 26, a program of chamber music and dance from the French Baroque is presented in “Confluence: Baroque Dance in the Garden.”

Navigating the Summer

As anyone who has travelled to an unfamiliar place knows well, navigating is often the trickiest part of going somewhere new. This issue of The WholeNote serves as your musical road map, helping you traverse the winding roads of summer music in all its forms without a GPS shouting “Recalculating!” With so many opportunities to hear splendid music, it is impossible to make a wrong turn and I encourage you to delve into some of these magnificent concerts and festivals.

If you have any questions or want to hear my two cents on anything early music this summer, send me a note at
earlymusic@thewholenote.com. See you in September! 

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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