Auditions are terrifying experiences for any musician. An important job, an academic scholarship, the future of one’s career, any and all of these can depend on a few nerve-wracking moments in front of a jury or audition panel. Johann Sebastian Bach was no stranger to auditions, applying for a number of positions, titles and designations throughout his career, in constant pursuit of the next level of 18th-century professional development.

In 1733, at the age of 48, Bach sought a court title from Friedrich August II, the newly appointed Elector of Saxony, by presenting a Kyrie and Gloria, submitted as a “trifling product” and gift to the Elector. These two movements constitute the opening of what would become the Mass in B Minor, a monumental (and decidedly Catholic) essay in the Latin rite. A fascinating piece of auto-plagiarism and self-adaptation, the Mass was completed by Bach reusing a Sanctus from the Christmas of 1724 with only minor adjustments and drawing much of the material for the Gloria and Credo from existing works, including a cantata or two. Despite the incredible beauty, complexity and ingenuity displayed throughout its hundreds of pages, there are no records of a performance from Bach’s lifetime and it is assumed that he died before hearing the Mass in B Minor in its entirety.

Bach’s Mass, much like Beethoven’s equally majestic and complex Missa Solemnis, is far too long for any practical liturgical use, but we are fortunate that it is performed in concert relatively often, somewhere between the frequency of the St. John Passion and the rarity of the St. Matthew Passion. We are even more fortunate this month as there are three large Bach-themed performances in March, two of which feature the Mass in B Minor.

Bach... in B Minor and Beyond

The first performance of the Mass in B Minor takes place at the end of March at Metropolitan United Church on Good Friday. A longtime annual tradition featuring the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra, this is a modern-scale performance featuring a relatively large chorus and modern-instrument ensemble, led by Dr. Patricia Wright. Bach’s music, loaded with Affekt, expressive gestures and profound spirituality, provides an ideal musical backdrop for Good Friday, solemn yet hopeful, with hints of the joy to come on Easter Day.

Dorothee Mields - photo by Harald HoffmannTafelmusik’s orchestra and chorus focus their attention on Bach’s Mass in B Minor just a week later, April 7, approaching the work with their trademark historically informed outlook. Led by Ivars Taurins and featuring a stellar lineup of soloists including soprano Dorothee Mields, mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell, tenor Charles Daniels and baritone Tyler Duncan, this performance will, as Tafelmusik writes on their website, “captivate your heart and soul from the very opening notes of the Kyrie to the majestic close of the Dona nobis pacem.” Tafelmusik’s previous Mass in B Minor was my first concerted introduction to the beauty of Bach’s choral music, and it remains one of my favourite and most emotionally moving live musical experiences.

The third Bach performance taking place this month is not religious in theme, is unrelated to Lent and Easter and does not involve orchestra or chorus. On March 11 in Mazzoleni Hall, pianist and harpsichordist David Louie presents Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a two-volume collection of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys that rivals the Mass in B Minor in monumentality, creativity and ingenuity. Louie will play the first set on a two-manual harpsichord designed and modelled after an instrument built by the French harpsichord and piano maker Pascal Taskin (1723-1793).

Taskin’s instruments are fine examples of the French school of harpsichord building, featuring a wide range, well-distributed pitch divisions (two eight-foot ranks and a four-foot rank) and a warm and rich tone well-suited for the contrapuntal complexity of late Baroque repertoire, both German (Bach’s partitas, suites and fugues, for example) and French (the masterpieces of Rameau, Couperin and Lully). Not only worthwhile for the repertoire being performed, Louie’s use of a period-inspired instrument will illuminate Bach’s contrapuntal genius in a different light than we hear on a piano, while showcasing Louie’s own technical facility on an instrument with its own unique demands and limitations.

David Louie at the harpsichord.

Eine Kleine Lentmusik

The season of Lent, commonly associated with ashes, sackcloth and penitential abstinence (“What are you giving up for Lent this year?”) abounds with music that, although appropriately dark and dour, is nonetheless beautiful and worth hearing. Here are some notable performances taking place this month:

On March 3 the Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Bach’s Foundations,” with works by Johannes Bach, Johann Christian Bach and Johann Michael Bach. Focusing on musically influential members of J.S. Bach’s extended family, this concert will be a fascinating look at the people and pedigree responsible for producing one of music’s greatest minds. I look forward to hearing the similarities and differences in their works and listening for the influence of their great precursor, around whom the entire Bach galaxy revolves.

Cor Unum Ensemble, one of Toronto’s up-and-coming Baroque ensembles, presents Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on March 10 and 11. The text of the Stabat Mater is a popular one – a Catholic prayer to the grieving mother of Christ as she witnesses her son carrying his cross to Calvary – set throughout the centuries by composers including Rheinberger, Dvořák and Rossini. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater takes the form of a duet for soprano and alto with obbligato instruments, a simple and straightforward setting relative to the massively Romantic settings penned by later composers (which can also be inappropriately cheeky and jovial – I’m looking at you, Rossini…). In addition to music by Pergolesi, Cor Unum will also perform Bach’s Cantata 170 “Vergnügte Ruh” for solo alto and a suite by Lully. Taking place in the visually appealing and acoustically superior Trinity College Chapel, this concert is definitely worth exploring.

March is shaping up to be the Month of Bach, both directly and by association! On March 24 the Musicians in Ordinary and St. Michael’s Schola Cantorum present Dieterich Buxtehude’s Jesu Membra Nostri, a set of cantatas focusing on the varied corporal sufferings experienced by Christ over the course of his trial and crucifixion. Buxtehude was a significant influence on J.S. Bach, the young protege travelling hundreds of miles to Lübeck to study the master’s organ music. (By foot, the story in Bach’s obituary goes, though John Eliot Gardiner finds this a bit melodramatic, likening it to an old man “padding his resume,” recounting stories of his youth after a pint or two.) Buxtehude and the North German style of organ playing was indeed influential on the young Bach and provided a model for his early organ works, particularly from the Weimar years. Buxtehude’s Jesu Membra Nostri cantatas are written in an older style and often incorporate modal writing with hints of a conventional tonal system, a style quite similar to the stile antico moments found in the Credo and Gloria of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Lent and Easter are extraordinarily rich musical seasons and this year’s concert calendar is an embarrassment of riches. Not only are there numerous performances of some of Bach’s finest works but also explorations of Bach’s familial and national musical influences, as well as a Bach cantata presented by the exciting and fresh Cor Unum Ensemble. If Bach’s insurmountable genius and erudite musicality is not your personal preference however, check out this magazine for other concerts and events taking place and support Toronto’s vibrant arts scene – there’s something out there for everyone! 

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

On a pleasantly cold February evening, Toronto Masque Theatre held one of its last shows. It was a program of songs: Bach’s Peasant Cantata in English translation, and a selection of pop and Broadway numbers sung by musician friends. An actor was on hand to read us poems, mostly of Romantic vintage. The hall was a heritage schoolhouse that could have passed for a church.

The modestly sized space was filled to the last seat and the audience enjoyed the show. I noticed though what I notice in a lot of other Toronto song concerts – a certain atmosphere of everybody knowing each other, and an audience that knows exactly what to expect and coming for exactly that.

I was generously invited as a guest reviewer and did not have to pay the ticket, but they are not cheap: $40 arts worker, $50 general audience, with senior and under-30 discounts. And the way our arts funding is structured, this is what the small-to-medium arts organizations have to charge to make their seasons palatable. Now, if you were not already a TMT fan (and I appreciate their operatic programming and will miss it when it’s gone), would you pay that much for an evening of rearranged popular songs and a quaint museum piece by Bach?

The stable but modest and stagnating audience is the impression I get at a lot of other art song concerts in Toronto. Talisker Players, which also recently folded, perfected the formula: a set of readings, a set of songs. Some of their concerts gave me a lot of pleasure over the last few years, but I knew exactly what to expect each time. Going further back, Aldeburgh Connection, the Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata recital series, also consisted of reading and music. It also folded, after an impressive 30-year run. It was largely looking to the past, in its name and programming, and it lived in a cavernous U of T hall, but it could have easily continued on and its core audience would have continued to come. Stable audience, yes, but also unchanging.

The issue with a stable and unchanging audience is that the programming will suffer. It’ll go stale, ignore the not already converted, abandon the art of programming seduction. And the ticket will still cost at least $50.

I’ve also sat in the Music Gallery’s contemporary music recitals alongside the audience of eight so it’s not entirely the matter of heritage music vs. new music. Empty halls for contemporary music concerts are as depressing as book events in Toronto, to which nobody, not even the writer’s friends, go. (I know this well; don’t ask me how.)

So, where is art song performance in Canada’s largest city going?

Due to the way they’ve been presented for decades now, there’s a not-negligible whiff of Anglican and Methodist churchiness to Toronto’s art song concerts. They usually take place in a church (Trinity-St. Paul’s, Rosedale United, Trinity Chapel, St. Andrew’s, etc) or a place very much like a church (Heliconian Hall). They are often programmed as an occasion for personal edification – as something that’ll be good for you, that will be a learning opportunity. Why are we being read to so much in recitals – instead of, for example, being talked to and with? Does anybody really enjoy being read to in a music concert?

I sometimes wonder if the classical music infrastructure of concertgoing, its comportment etiquette, regulation of space, fussy rituals of beginning, presentation, breaks and ending wasn’t built to control and disguise classical music’s visceral power over humans? And to keep tame its community-expanding, boundary-blurring potential?

In other words, getting out of the church and the U of T will benefit Toronto’s art song performance. Classical music, including art song, is a pleasure, not homework; it’s inviting the stranger over, not getting together with the same group each time. Some of those who program art song and chamber music in Toronto are already grappling with these questions, fortunately.


Among them is the ensemble Collectìf, consisting of three singers and a pianist: Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe and Tom King. They scour the city for locations and choose places off the beaten path. They held a recital in an Adelaide St. W. loft, and a raucous songfest at an old pub in Little Italy. For a Schubert Winterreise, performed in the more familiar quarters of Heliconian Hall, Danika Lorèn had prepared video projections to accompany the performance and the singing was divided among the three singers, who became three characters. For an outing to the COC’s free concert series, they created their own commedia dell’arte props and programmed thematically around the poets, not the composers who set their poems to music. Collectìf is a shoestring operation, just starting out, yet already being noticed for innovation. Lorèn is currently member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, which is why the Collectìf somewhat slowed down, but when I spoke to her in Banff this summer, she assured me that the group is eager to get back to performing. Winterreise toured last fall to Quebec and an art song program around the theme of nightmares returns to the same festival later in the year.


Another group that caught my eye did not even have a name when I first heard them in concert. They are now called Happenstance, the core ensemble formed by clarinettist Brad Cherwin, soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Nahre Sol. That’s an obscene amount of talent in the trio (and check out Nahre Sol’s Practice Notes series on YouTube), but what makes them stand way out is the sharp programming that combines the music of the present day with musical heritage. “Lineage,” which they performed about a year ago, was an evening of German Romantic song with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm and not a dull second. A more recent concert, at the Temerty Theatre on the second floor of the RCM, joined together Françaix, Messiaen, Debussy, Jolivet and Dusapin. The evening suffered from some logistical snags – the lights went down before a long song cycle and nobody but the native French speakers could follow the text – but Cherwin tells me he is always adjusting and eager to experiment with the format.

Cherwin and I talked recently via instant messenger about their planned March concert. As it happens, both the pianist and the clarinettist have suffered wrist injuries and have had to postpone the booking for later in March or early April. Since you are likely reading this in early March, reader, head to to find out the exact date of the concert.

Happenstance (from left: Adanya Dunn, Brad Cherwin and Nahre Sol)In the vocal part of the program, there will be a Kurtág piece (Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op.11), a Vivier piece arranged for baritone, violin, clarinet, and keyboards, and something that Cherwin describes as “structured improv involving voice”. “It’s a structured improv piece by André Boucourechliev that we’re using in a few different iterations as a bridge between sections of the concert,” he types.

I tell him that I’m working on an article on whether the art song concert can be exciting again, and he types back that it’s something they’ve been thinking about a lot. “How can we take everything we love about the chamber music recital and take it to a more unexpected place. How can repertoire and presentation interact to create a narrative/context for contemporary music. How can new rep look back on and interact with old rep in a way that enhances both?”

He tells me that they’re looking into the concert structure at the same time – so I may yet live to see recitals where the pieces are consistently introduced by the musicians themselves.

Will concerts continue to involve an entirely passive audience looking at the musicians performing, with a strict separation between the two? There were times, not so long ago, when people bought the published song sheets to play at home and when the non-vocational (better word than amateur) musicianship enhanced the concert-goers’ experience of music. Any way to involve people in the production of at least a fraction of the concert sound or concert narrative?, I ask him, expecting he’ll politely tell me to find a hobby.

“We’ve thought a lot about that actually,” he types back. “It’s a difficult balance. Finding a way to leave room for collaboration while also having a curated experience.” Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company where he now plays in the permanent ensemble, also wants to push in that direction, he tells me.

Boldly Go

There is a corner of the musical avant-garde, it occurs to me as I thank him and log off from our chat, that actively seeks out non-professional participation. There are Pauline Oliveros’ tuning meditations, of course, but more locally there is also Torontonian Christopher Willes, whose various pieces require participation and are fundamentally collective and collaborative. Though he isn’t a musician, Misha Glouberman’s workshops in social behaviour, like Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, are arguably a process of music-making.

But how to achieve an active audience in the small, chamber or lieder situations? It’s easier with choruses and large production, where sing-alongs are possible – some smaller opera houses are already doing it, for example Opéra-Comique in Paris. The Collectìf trio did get the audience to sing at the Monarch Tavern that one time (the Do Over, January 2016) but the experiment hasn’t been repeated in Toronto.

Speaking of pub recitals, Against the Grain’s Opera Pub is a glorious project (first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club), but it’s more operatic than art song, at least for now. ClassyAF are a group of instrumentalists who perform in La Rev and The Dakota Tavern, no vocals. Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District has just started the Popera Series with opera’s greatest hits performed in a restaurant full of people, but again, it’s opera, the more glamorous and easier-to-sell sibling to the art song.

Against the Grain's Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle ClubWill Happenstance, Collectif and similar innovative upstarts, and their more established peers like Canadian Art Song Project, endure over the years, obtain recurring arts council funding and renew art song audience?

With that goal in mind, my immodest proposal for the present and future art song presenter: move out of the churches and university halls. Musicians, talk to people, introduce the pieces. Program the unfamiliar. Always include new music, maybe even by composers who can be there and say a few words. If the music is danceable, allow for concerts with audience dancing. (I’m looking at you, Vesuvius Ensemble.) Engage the people. If live music is to be different from staring at the screen, make it different from staring at the screen.

Some March highlights

Meanwhile, here are my March highlights, which are of the more traditional Toronto kind, though still of interest.

March 19 at 7:30pm, Canadian Art Song Project presents its 2018 commission, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. Miss Carr is Emily Carr, and the song cycle, based on her journals, was written for Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. At (alas) U of T’s Walter Hall.

March 4, as part of Syrinx Concerts Toronto, mezzo Georgia Burashko will sing Grieg’s Lieder with Valentina Sadovski at the piano. Baritone Adam Harris joins her in Schumann duets for baritone and mezzo, whereas solo, he will sing Canadian composer Michael Rudman’s The City.

March 11 at Temerty Theatre, Andrea Botticelli will give a lecture-recital (I like the sound of this) on the Koerner collection, “Exploring Early Keyboard Instruments.” Vocal and keyboard works by Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven on the program with tenor Lawrence Wiliford singing. The only U of T chapel to which I will always gladly return, the Victoria College Chapel, hosts the Faculty of Music’s Graduate Singers Series, also on March 11.

Finally, if you are in Waterloo on March 7 and up for some Finnish folk, the U of W’s Department of Music presents the EVA-trio (cellist Vesa Norilo, kantele player Anna-Karin Korhonen and soprano Essi Wuorela) in a noon-hour concert.

Am I wrong about the future of art song in Toronto? Send me an email at

The opening Kyrie of the Bach Mass in B Minor is one of the hardest starts of any major work for a choir; with no starting pitch, the precisely placed hard “K” prior to any other sound, and careful phrasing that starts right away – the opening has much to say about how the rest of the performance will play out. Bold and full should be the effect. Bach’s masterpiece is not a light undertaking for any choir. This April, it’s safe to assume that Tafelmusik will take up this estimable work with its usual intense professionalism, deep artistry and impeccable technique.

“This is the seventh time Tafelmusik has [programmed] the Mass, with some 25 performances behind us,” shares Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik harpsichordist and organist. Instrumentalists and choristers alike relish revisits to Bach’s work, finding “new details and more depth in the score every time.” Nediger continues: “The Bach Mass in B Minor is a very challenging piece on every level, for all performers on stage …[It] demands an extremely high level of skill, virtuosity and artistry of every single singer, and the combined result is astonishing.”

Ivars Taurins takes the reins with early music soloists. Dorothee Mields, a German early music specialist, takes on the soprano. Laura Pudwell, Canadian, is the mezzo-soprano. English tenor Charles Daniels joins Canadian Tyler Duncan to round off the soloists. The essential horn solo in the Quoniam will be performed by Scott Wevers.

On the performance, Nediger concludes: “To say that it is inspiring is an understatement – it is also humbling, in the best sense. Tafelmusik is an ensemble in which everyone brings absolutely everything they can to every performance, and I think you sense that in the audience.” Nediger herself has an enviable position to take it all in, placed at the heart of the stage in front of the orchestra. With the surrounding forces of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, she is uniquely positioned to enjoy the music as she works her way through the intense score.

Tafelmusik performs Bach’s Mass in B Minor April 5 to 7, 8pm, April 8, 3:30pm at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St Paul’s Centre and April 10, 8pm at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

As discussed elsewhere in this issue, on March 30 at 7:30pm at Metropolitan United Church, the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra also perform the Mass in B Minor for Good Friday, with a top-notch set of soloists: Ellen McAteer and Gisele Kulak, soprano; Christina Stelmacovich, mezzo-soprano; Charles Davidson, tenor; and Daniel Lichti, baritone. Metropolitan United Church.

Hilary Apfelstadt and the University of Toronto at Lincoln Center

Hilary Apfelstadt, (soon to be retiring) director of choral activities at the University of Toronto, last visited Lincoln Center, New York City, to perform as part of the Distinguished Concerts International New York City (DCINY) concert series for an International Women’s Day concert in March 2014. This month she returns for DCINY’s March 17 concert, conducting the combined forces of singers and orchestra in the major choral work on the program, Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem. Among the 200 singers from across the US and Canada, including the Luther College Choir from Regina, will be singers from Toronto’s Kingsway-Lambton United Church Chancel Choir and a few dozen singers from the four major choirs of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. The Cherubini shares the ticket with a set of smaller choral works conducted by Martha Shaw, and the premiere of a concerto for flute, harp and orchestra by DCINY composer-in-residence Dinos Constantinides, led by DCINY principal conductor Jonathan Griffith.

Hilary ApfelstadtOf the Cherubini, Apfelstadt says: “It’s a lovely work, a little unusual, in that it has no soloists. The choir is singing almost nonstop. It was performed at Beethoven’s funeral because he admired it so much, but was originally created for the memorial of King Louis XVI of France.” This work follows the standard requiem format, but with Romantic and Classical elements reflecting the transition period beginning in 19th-century European music. The opening two movements are performed without violins. The deeper sound and broad crescendos provide a dramatic edge without the higher pitches. Apfelstadt also notes that the instrumentation lacks flutes, further contributing to a profound bass and heaviness in the music.

Early Romantic ideals are apparent in the bombastic Dies Irae, with the unusual programming of a gong. The same movement also shows a more classical ideal, with fugal runs and strings typical of Mozart and other classical contemporaries. The choir provides the dramatic energy of the piece, consistently singing in chorale throughout. The fugal runs of the Offertorium are particularly exciting.

Apfelstadt is mindful of the intense time commitments and existing rehearsals music students must juggle. “From a pragmatic point of view, when you’re teaching at school, you’re always trying to find things that are vocally challenging, without being overtaxing.” The goal is to set up the students for success and the Cherubini represents “a choral piece that is a challenge, with enough elements in it to be surprising.”

“They seem to like it, have a feel of accomplishment,” says Apfelstadt. “Virtually none of the students have encountered [Cherubini’s] work, or heard much about this composer. It’s really well written, bits remind me of Mozart, bits remind me of Beethoven. And because Beethoven was such a fan of the work, it’s like a stamp of approval.”

Those students who join Apfelstadt in New York will have the privilege of experiencing Lincoln Center from the stage. Here in Toronto, later in the month, on March 24 at the MacMillan Theatre, you can catch the entire massing of the four main faculty choirs, the Women’s Choir, the Women’s Chamber Choir, the Men’s Chorus and the MacMillan Singers, along with the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra as they present the Cherubini Requiem. With 200 singers and the power of the U of T Symphony Orchestra at her fingertips, Apfelstadt looks forward to this performance capping off her distinguished career at the University of Toronto.


Mar 8 and 9: Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. David Fallis helms this performance with instrumentalists and Choir 21. Dun has not often composed for choir and this complex work invokes the circular passage and flow of life, intimated by the story of Christ, and evoked by the presence and sound of water. Helmuth Rilling, founder of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, commissioned four new interpretations of the Passion of Christ from the four Gospels in 2000. Tan Dun was given the commission for St. Matthew’s. Mar 8, 7:30pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Kingston; Mar 9, 8pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

For a more conventional performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion, Chorus Niagara under Robert Cooper performs it the week prior. Mar 3, 7:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Mar 28 and 30, 7:30pm: The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents “Sacred Music for a Sacred Space.” All the choristers (myself included) always love this annual Easter tradition. Performing on Good Friday, in the aural and visual splendour of St. Paul’s Basilica, maintains an annual tradition of emotionally deep a cappella music presented by Toronto’s finest. Artistic director Noel Edison has programmed a horn of plenty including Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, John Tavener’s Song for Athene, Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo and works by Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Łukaszewski and others.

Mar 30, 3pm: The Trinity St. Paul’s United Church Choir are joined by VIVA! Youth Singers and the Oakville Choir for Children and Youth in presenting “Good Friday Choral Concert.” Part of the programming is Andrew Balfour’s Take the Indian: A Vocal Reflection on Missing Children, a remarkable piece built from the pain of the Canadian government’s residential school atrocities and the longstanding institutionalized racism and neglect of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Balfour, himself an Indigenous child taken by and into state care, is artistic director of Camerata Nova, an early, contemporary and Indigenous-infused music ensemble based in Winnipeg. Balfour is being brought in to help prepare the choirs. If sufficient weight is given to the work’s performance, its power and its discomforting narrative, I anticipate a significant and moving display.

Mar 31, 7:30pm: The Guelph Chamber Choir bids farewell to conductor Gerald Neufeld after 37 years at the helm. Neufeld, a longstanding music educator, has taught in the faculties at the University of Guelph and Western University. His final performance will be Brahms’ masterpiece: A German Requiem at the River Run Centre, Guelph.

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This column will offer more questions than answers, more speculations than solutions, and may offend some. This is not intended and I will try to deal with any potential fallout later on, but first, the idea for this column, which was suggested by a musical evening several months ago.

This past November 6, I attended the gala concert by John MacLeod’s big band, the Rex Hotel Orchestra, held in the dining room of the Old Mill. The event doubled as a launch of the band’s new CD, The Toronto Sound, and was an unqualified success in both musical and box-office terms.

The 19-member band played all the selections from the new disc over two generous sets, most of them arranged and composed by MacLeod himself, with single charts provided by Rick Wilkins (Canada’s greatest living arranger, also present this night and a major inspiration to MacLeod), and band members Terry Promane and Andy Ballantyne. Like MacLeod himself, the very absorbing music reflected both traditional and modern elements, sometimes within the same piece, and there was tremendous solo work all around – along with their stellar ensemble playing, just about everyone in the band is an accomplished jazz soloist.

John MacLeodIt was a special evening, but perhaps more so for me than most. John MacLeod and I met in high school some 45 years ago where we began playing jazz together; indeed, you could say John was responsible for me taking up the bass (I was an aspiring guitarist at the time when he inducted me into the Dixieland band he began leading after school hours). We have been musical friends ever since and have played together countless times in all kinds of bands, including the Boss Brass for many years. Going so far back with him and sitting just a few feet away, listening to the rousing sound of his compositions emanating from this band he created, I was overwhelmed: I felt enormously proud of him, and for him. The band has been around for years now, but this felt like a step forward, a culmination of much blood, sweat and tears, and probably some laughs too. Oh, and by the way, the beautifully recorded CD sounds every bit as good as the band did live. Buy one immediately, if not sooner.

As is often the case with musical events at this particular venue, this one was presented through the auspices of JAZZ.FM91 and bore its imprimatur. Ross Porter and Jaymz Bee each made (mercifully) brief speeches, and Fay Olson was her usual tireless self in organizing and promoting the whole affair. But the real founder of this musical feast, and of the CD it celebrated, was an individual who I won’t name because he’d likely prefer to remain anonymous, so I’ll call him “DT,” short for “Deep Throat”. A passionate jazz fan since the mid-1930s (!), DT has been a major benefactor of jazz in this city since the late 60s, when the Boss Brass and CJRT-FM got under way. He has drummed up interest in jazz with his considerable oratorical skills but time and time again has put his money where his mouth is, so to speak, by donating to countless recordings, tours, festivals, bands, concerts, broadcasts and other jazz projects.

In the case of MacLeod’s new CD, DT not only footed the considerable bill for its overall production, but also contributed to the promotion of the event as well by inviting at least two large tables’ worth of people – friends, musicians and/or both – to attend as his guests and picking up the tab for everything – admission, dinner, drinks. I would have attended anyway, but Mrs. W and I were among these guests and it wasn’t the first time I’ve been floored by DT’s class and generosity.

DT is getting on and in the last couple of years has expressed a concern for the future of jazz in Toronto and a keen desire to get local government involved in supporting it beyond the usual cosmetic ribbon-cutting measures. He is well connected and has been trying to sell local politicos, including our mayor, on the idea of establishing a permanent performance home for jazz in Toronto, funded by both public and private money. He was hoping this could perhaps be a part of the Massey Hall revitalization project, for example.

DT was hoping to use the release of The Toronto Sound – a partially strategic title – as a means of demonstrating to local politicians the viability of jazz in Toronto – the high quality of the music and the enthusiastic support for it among local music fans. He invited Mayor Tory and others to attend, only to run into a brick wall of shrugging indifference.

This apathy caused DT no small chagrin, so I’ve decided to take up his cause here by asking a few pointed questions. Why is it after all these years that jazz in Toronto still doesn’t have a dedicated and permanent performance centre, the way other art forms like opera, ballet, theatre or symphonic music do?

Yes, we’ve had clubs, but those have taken a hit in recent times. Wouldn’t you think a city the size of Toronto, where jazz is taught at three post-secondary institutions (York University, U of T and Humber College) and which boasts a 24/7 jazz radio station in JAZZ.FM91, could support – and deserves – such a venue? The TSO has Roy Thomson Hall, the COC and the National Ballet of Canada share the Four Seasons Centre and there are numerous other venues for various forms of theatre and dance.

Most, if not all, of these rely upon some sort of government funding as well as a well-orchestrated pipeline of private donors to keep them running. I realize jazz – usually the out-of-town, big-ticket variety – occasionally sneaks into these places as an interloper – and that jazz is sporadically heard at Koerner Hall, Massey Hall, the Sony Centre and other theatres. I also realize jazz is not as big a ticket or as entrenched as some of these other art forms, but neither is it a cultural Johnny-come-lately; it has existed for over a century now and has a long and rich history in Toronto. The talent has certainly always been here but the support for it has been sorely lacking in any official sense.

I’m not suggesting that jazz needs anything as grand as some of these cultural palaces. I’m proposing a centrally located and modest-sized concert hall with the usual amenities, seating perhaps 400, with an adjoining club space for more casual presentations, the screening of jazz films, lectures and so on.

So why is jazz treated as a second-class citizen here? Is it because it’s seen as an American import? Well, don’t look now, but most of the music played at the aforementioned venues is European in origin. And if nationalism is your game, then consider this: as a primarily improvised music, jazz comes from inside the musicians playing it, so jazz played by Canadians is directly Canadian. When you listen to a Mike Murley or a Neil Swainson or a John MacLeod play, you’re listening to quintessential Canadians.

The notion of a dedicated jazz centre isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Many cities in Europe, which values art and culture more highly than North America does, have full-time state-sponsored jazz orchestras with composers-in-residence performing and broadcasting regularly in state-of-the-art venues. Canadian composers are frequent guest artists with these groups – why doesn’t Toronto have something like this?

Harley Card Quartet at the Yardbird Suite, November 2017We needn’t look as far away as Europe though. Let us consider Edmonton, which for 60 years now has had the Yardbird Suite, entirely run by volunteers from the city’s jazz society. It’s easily the best jazz club in Canada and recently received a much-needed renovation, courtesy of the Alberta Heritage fund. Yes, that’s right, government money being poured into jazz. The recently and lamentably departed Tommy Banks, an Edmonton cultural icon and senator, likely had much to do with this, but that only demonstrates what political support of jazz can achieve. If a smaller and more isolated city like Edmonton has this, why can’t Toronto? What’s our excuse?

My advocacy for a full-time jazz performance centre is not intended to take anything away from other Toronto jazz institutions such as The Rex, Jazz Bistro, Home Smith Bar, JPEC, or JAZZ.FM. Their contributions are all laudable and essential – it’s just that Toronto jazz could use more of a central home which could work hand-in-hand with these other sites and organizations.

Such a centre would not only require political support, but that the Toronto jazz community mobilize itself and get organized. So if all you hardcore jazz fans – and I know you’re out there – want to know what you can do, try writing a letter to your local representative urging greater support for jazz. Or the next time you’re in a club that doesn’t have a cover charge for the music, suggest to the management that they institute one so the band could be paid better. I know it sounds crazy, but it might just work. For years now, Toronto has in its heart of hearts wanted to be New York. Well, New York has Lincoln Center and Toronto has nothing of the kind; New York also has citizens who know that jazz costs money. Coincidence? I think not.

If any of this sounds bitter or querulous, it’s not. I’m not personally bitter because I’m 61 and have been playing jazz successfully for over 40 years, with just about everybody imaginable. I’ve had my innings; it’s the future of jazz and young musicians I’m speaking on behalf of. This may seem like a longshot jazz fantasy but we have to start somewhere, perhaps with just the articulation of this simple wish and idea. Besides, as the old song asks, I can dream, can’t I? 

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

Shortly after I wrote my February 2018 column I had the unexpected opportunity to see a show that at first I wouldn’t have categorized as belonging to music theatre but which, after seeing, I think fits this category as much as it fits any category at all. Brodsky/Baryshnikov offered the extraordinary experience of listening to the great dance artist Mikhail Baryshnikov speak the poetry of his friend and fellow Russian exile, Joseph Brodsky, intermittently breaking into poetic and achingly evocative moments of choreographed movement in reaction to and interpretation of a soundtrack consisting of profound and mostly darkly sorrowful poetry spoken in the recorded voice of his friend. Not a play, not a musical, there was no music at all except for the sonorous quality of the two male voices, mellow and alternately melancholic and passionate, speaking in the traditional Russian poetic cadence. A fascinating evening.

February continued with exciting variations on the music theatre theme with the latest edition of Tapestry Opera’s Tap:Ex (a series created to explore the future of opera, particularly through cross-disciplinary hybrids). Tap:Ex Forbidden, based on an idea of Iranian-born composer Afarin Mansouri, combined her mix of classical Persian music and opera with a libretto by Afro-Caribbean hip-hop artist Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, in the service of a story that featured a very strong and talented small cast and an unexpected use of Lucifer as an instigator of rightful rebellion. The show equates the biblical eating of the apple to not only the acquiring of knowledge but, through that knowledge, the freedom and strength to rebel against a wrongfully authoritarian regime and to rise up for what is right. This heady mix of genres (including rapping in Farsi) gave power to the expression of a Persia aching to find a new modern identity. Seeing many members of the Persian/Iranian community in the audience clearly moved by the experience only added to the power of the evening.

February also saw the homecoming to the Royal Alexandra Theatre of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s heartwarming, hilarious, foot-stomping and inspiring Canadian musical Come From Away, with an almost entirely Canadian cast who astound with their talent and versatility. This innovative, deceptively simple yet complex musical – based on the true events of 9/11 when 38 planes carrying 7000 passengers were stranded for five days in Gander, Newfoundland – grabs at the heart while also making you laugh. So explosively positive was the opening week that the run was immediately extended another six weeks to October 21. (I reviewed the opening performance on our website and can’t wait to see the show again.)

March on, March on!

March looks to be equally full of musical highlights, the biggest of which is the world premiere at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, with music by Canadian composer James Rolfe and libretto and direction by prolific theatre creator and director Morris Panych. (Please see the feature article elsewhere in this issue.) In terms of categories, this new Overcoat could be seen as part opera (it is sung through) but also as part musical, in terms of pace and drive, in both the words and the music, in the service both of the narrative and of breaking open the ideas at the heart of Gogol’s original short story

Fides KruckerAlso at Canadian Stage is another experimental work on a smaller scale: in this body (March 14 to 18), a new creation by acclaimed Canadian vocalist Fides Kruker and her ensemble, along with some of Canada’s top contemporary dancers, Laurence Lemieux, Heidi Strauss, and the luminous Peggy Baker who also choreographs. (Peggy Baker is very much on the Toronto scene these days having also just presented Map By Years with her own company at the Theatre Centre last month, a retrospective of her solo creations with a new solo created for her by Sarah Chase.) Using choreography and voice, in this body will explore “the wilderness of a woman’s heart” through a score made up of Canadian popular song by Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, k.d. lang, Feist and more.

Meanwhile, over at Soulpepper, their extremely popular concert series turns to Paris in the 20s for A Moveable Feast, interweaving song and story to bring alive the world of post-WWI expats and European artists in the City of Light.

An American at the Princess

Paris is also at the heart of another big musical coming to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre towards the end of the month: An American in Paris. The 2015 Tony Award winner and Broadway and London hit is finally coming to Toronto, starring McGee Maddox, a favourite of ballet fans as a beloved former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.

An American in Paris touring company The 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron has always been one of my favourites (as it is of many people) so I am curious to see how I will feel about this new stage version. Although inspired by the film and its beloved Gershwin score, it has also gone beyond those templates to try and create a darker or more realistic version of a Paris recovering from the ravages of occupation and privation during WWII.

So why try to recreate this beloved movie onstage when you can watch it any time? The answer, it seems, was that the success of the 1990s Gershwin musical Crazy for You (developed by Mike Okrent from the original Girl Crazy) prompted the Gershwin estate to inquire into making a stage musical out of An American in Paris as well. According to, they approached producers Stuart Oken and Van Kaplan with this idea but it took years to find the right path and the right creative team. Eventually Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Light in the Piazza) came on board to write the book, and ballet dancer and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (who had choreographed An American in Paris as a ballet for the New York City Ballet in 2005) came on board as director and choreographer.

What Lucas and Wheeldon have brought to the original story of Jerry, an American G.I. painter staying on in Paris after the war and falling in love with Lise, a sweet but spunky Parisian girl, is the added dimension of a Paris more affected by the war, and characters also with a darker or sadder side. There are hints of this in the original movie (Lise’s parents worked for the resistance, Jerry fought through and survived the war and doesn’t want to return to the States), but here they are given more emphasis. Oscar Levant’s role of Adam (Jerry’s concert pianist friend in the film) has also been given more depth, and Lise has been made an aspiring ballet dancer, so that, as Christopher Wheeldon has said, the new version plays on two fronts: “the friendship and the bonding and the love story,” but also the “creation of art and the struggle to create art.”

Adaptation is a difficult and fascinating art whatever the original material; while this adaptation of a beloved classic film musical has been lauded and given many awards, it will be interesting to see for ourselves how well it works for Toronto audiences. I am curious about the added darkness (Leslie Caron herself suffered through the occupation of Paris so it must have informed her original performance despite how Hollywood-happy the movie is). I’m curious as well about the choreography and how well it will stand up to Gene Kelly’s original dances for the film (for which he received an honorary Academy Award). When something is that iconic and entrenched in people’s memories, how do you match it?

McGee Maddox as Jerry in An American in ParisFinding the right triple threat performers for the two main leads has reportedly been a difficult and time-consuming process, but if the choice of McGee Maddox as Jerry is any indication, we’re in luck. Already very familiar with Wheeldon’s choreography, Maddox made a considerable impact as Leontes, the role of the jealous king in Wheeldon’s ballet version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (a ballet created after An American in Paris, but seen in Toronto both in 2016 and this past fall).

Altogether, March is shaping up to be an exciting month for music theatre in the city.

News has just broken as I write this that a year from now Dear Evan Hansen, the musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Steven Levenson (book) which won the Tony award for best musical in 2017, will have its first international production beginning in Toronto in March 2019, in partnership with David Mirvish. Another good opportunity for Canadian music theatre performers, and exciting for music theatre fans.


Mar 8 to 18: Rudolph Nureyev’s version of the classic Petipa ballet Sleeping Beauty, to Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, features his famous introspective solos for the prince, as well as the classic rose adagio for Princess Aurora and the fabulous fun of the wicked fairy Carabosse. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Mar 14 to 25: Gobsmacked at the newly renamed CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic) sounds intriguing as it promises an evening of interwoven stories told solely through a cappella singing from “traditional street corner harmonies to cutting-edge, multi-track live looping.”

Mar 16 to 17: newly rebranded Toronto Musical Concerts (TMC), a professional not-for-profit company with a mandate to provide educational and community outreach through the performing arts, presents a staged reading of Sondheim’s classic Company at Eastminster United Church (310 Danforth Ave.) to benefit The Canadian Safe School Network (647-298-9338).

Mar 16 to 25: On the community music theatre front, the North Toronto Players present Lear Incorporated, their own new “operetta meets musical comedy” version of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, featuring music by Arthur Sullivan, Bizet and others.

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.

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