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In the last few years, Toronto’s best known Indo-jazz fusion band, Autorickshaw, has been very busy, concertizing locally, nationally and internationally and putting out several CDs. December 3 marks the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India, when a toxic gas leak from the Union Carbide plant killed 8,000-10,000 people within a day, and another 15,000 over a longer period, with over 100,000 more suffering chronic illness to this day. Autorickshaw will commemorate this event with a concert at the Lula Lounge, “Bhopal Remembered,” and funds raised from the launch of their new single, City of Lakes, will go to Bhopal’s Sambhavna Clinic, which offers treatment to survivors of the disaster.

“This is a new direction and new initiative for us that I think will resonate deeply within the general public long after our concert is done”, says lead vocalist Suba Sankaran. “I also think it’s a beautiful way to go in terms of giving a socially conscious gift this holiday season. In fact, we’re making the track available by donation. We’ve just been in the recording studio and are working hard to have some mixes of our original composition City of Lakes available for our December 3 deadline and concert date – that’s a promise!”

You can download the single at http://autorickshaw.bandcamp.com. You can also download their other CDs and learn more about Autorichshaw at www.autorickshaw.ca. For this concert, Suba and regular band members Ed Hanley, Rich Brown and Patrick Graham will be joined by guests Ben Grossman (hurdy gurdy), Dylan Bell (keyboard, voice), and a string quartet comprised of Aleksandar Gajic, Parmela Attariwala, Claudio Vena and Amy Laing.

Toronto’s acclaimed Art of Time Ensemble is known for combining classical music with other genres as well as other art forms such as dance, film or theatre. Their December 4 and 5 concerts will present Brazilian music from three different perspectives, at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre. Juno-nominated Canadian jazz vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow (named Female Vocalist of the Year, 2008 National Jazz Awards) will perform songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and others, accompanied by five of Toronto’s best jazz musicians. The second half of the programme will feature Brazilian composer/guitarist/singer Carlos Althier de Souza Lemos Escobar, better known as Guinga, accompanied by Art of Time musicians. Considered to be Brazil’s most innovative songwriter, and one of the country’s best guitarists, his music draws on many genres including samba, blues and jazz. Incidentally, he also maintained a dentistry practice for about 30 years! The program will also include Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 for eight cellos.

The Canadian Opera Company’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre continues its eclectic free noon-hour programming. The December 10 presentation is a concert of Indonesian Gamelan music, featuring the Balinese gamelan quartet Seka Rat Nadi (James Kippen, Annette Sanger, Albert Wong and John Carnes), as well as the Javanese ensemble Gamelan Gong Sabrang, based at the Indonesian Consulate. It’s unusual to be able to hear both Balinese and Javanese styles of music on the same programme, so this could prove to be an interesting musical experience. Seka Rat Nadi will also perform at Musideum (401 Richmond) on December 12 at 1 pm. Speaking of which, Musideum, which is both “unusual musical instrument store” and performance space, also hosts some interesting “lec-dems”; the first coming up this month is on December 5, featuring Araz Salek on the Persian tar (lute). Stay tuned for more at www.musideum.com.

Now in its 20th year, the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella performs at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, George Weston recital Hall on December 13. The 20-member choir will perform liturgical works and other songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian as well as “classics and international favourites.” Founded by conductor Alexander Tsaliuk, the choir’s repertoire includes many Jewish liturgical works that were banned by the Soviet authorities during most of the 20th century, and only in 1990, at the approval of Mikhail Gorbachev were manuscripts that had been confiscated from synagogues and Jewish ensembles by the KGB turned over to the choir. This concert is part of their North American tour.

Also on tour in North America, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre presents “HaBanot Nechama,” a spirited trio of Israeli female pop vocalists, January 13. To listen to some of their music, visit them at their Myspace page (www.myspace.com/habanotnechama).

Unfortunately, my crystal ball is not revealing anything beyond this date, but there are still more events in December, and here they are in brief. Please check our daily listings for details on the following: December 2, Yamato Drummers of Japan perform at Massey Hall; December 4, KlezFactor is at the Trane Studio, with klezmer standards and original klezmer-fusion; December 4, Maryem Tollar, Roula Said, Sophia Grigoriadis, George Sawa and others perform at a fundraiser for the Gaza Freedom March, Ryerson U Student Centre, 55 Gould St. (www.gazafreedommarch.ca); December 5, Judith Cohen and Tamar Ilana Cohen Adams perform Sephardic and other Judeo-Spanish repertoire and Balkan dance music with musical friends at Casa do Alentejo, 1130 Dupont; December 16, the Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble (George Sawa and Suzanne Meyers Sawa) play at Mezzetta’s Restaurant, 681 St. Clair W.

Karen Ages can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

 

Bob_at_Music_Gallery_2006As a flutist, composer, conductor, and teacher Robert Aitken has had an impact on musical life in Canada that is hard to over-estimate. But his highest profile locally is with New Music Concerts, which he founded in 1971 with composer Norma Beecroft. As its long-time artistic director, he has put Toronto on the map as an international centre for contemporary music. He has attracted the top composers in the world here –like Iannis Xenakis, Witold Lutoslawski, Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Toru Takemitsu, Helmut Lachenmann and Mauricio Kagel. As well, he has premiered many pieces by Canadian and international composers. His own compositions have all been published and recorded. As a conductor in Canada he leads the New Music Concerts ensemble, and has been involved in a great variety of performances including the turbulent Canadian Opera Company production of R. Murray Schafer’s Patria I in 1987.

Yet ironically, outside Canada, Aitken is known more for his virtuosic flute-playing in a broad range of repertoire from the baroque, classical and romantic eras than for his work in contemporary music. As well, his conducting and teaching take him throughout the world. In fact, for sixteen years, up until 2004, he was professor of flute at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany. His technique of flute-playing has even been the subject of a Ph.D. thesis, “A Description and Application of Robert Aitken’s Concept of the Physical Flute,” by Robert Billington.

Born in 1939 in Nova Scotia, Aitken counts as his main teachers Nicholas Fiore in Toronto and Marcel Moyse at Marlboro, and then in France. For many years Aitken played in the Lyric Arts Trio with his wife, pianist Marion Ross, and soprano Mary Morrison. He also teamed up with pianists like Glenn Gould and William Aide, harpist Erica Goodman and harpsichordist Greta Kraus. Aitken joined the Toronto Symphony in 1965 but left five years later to pursue his solo career. It was the next year that he started New Music Concerts.

I met with him at the office of New Music Concerts in downtown Toronto. Before I even had a chance to ask him a question, he jumped in to voice his frustration over having so many things to get done before he heads off to Europe to give concerts and sit on a competition jury.

Aitken: There’s so little time to do everything. That was always the story of my life, and it hasn’t changed now that I’m older. I love everything that I’m doing – there’s almost nothing that I do that I don’t like. But there’s not enough time to enjoy it, and sometimes not enough time to do it to my total satisfaction.

Margles: Is it difficult to find the time to compose?

I’ve been trying for a couple of years now to finish a piece for the American Flute Association. The phone keeps ringing, or personal things come up. You can’t just shove them away in order to compose, because our families are a big part of our lives.

I’m also trying to finish a chapter I’m writing on John Weinzweig, who was my composition teacher at the University of Toronto. It’s for a book that John Beckwith and Brian Cherney are editing on his music. He was a great orchestration teacher. When you look at his music, it looks almost naïve, and it’s never virtuosic. But you can get into real trouble performing it. So I’m calling my chapter, “How To Play Weinzweig”.

On top of everything else you’re involved in, you do the pre-concert interviews with guest composers and players before performances at New Music Concerts. Do you enjoy doing those?

I’m always very nervous about those talks - more nervous about the talks than the concerts. So I’m in a bad mood most of the afternoon before the concerts just worrying about them. I’m always trying to get someone else to do them. But people say they really like them because I ask questions that are sometimes surprising.

You ask questions that I want to hear the answers to.

I try to ask questions that I want to have the answers to!

Have they ever been published?

Unfortunately most of them were not recorded. But we did just produce a video of a pre-concert talk I did with Elliott Carter, along with a recording of our most recent concert of his music. He has his 100th birthday in December.

Bob_and_Elliott_Carter_ in_1978Interviewing Elliot Carter

And he’s still writing. You’ve had such a long relationship with him – do you find his music has changed?

It’s warmer and more affectionate.

Yet he hasn’t compromised his style. Are you surprised that such a supposedly difficult composer has achieved so much success?

Now – but before, people stayed far away from playing his music. That changed when he started to write single-voiced pieces in the early 1990’s.

He wrote his first solo piece, Scrivo in Vento for me in 1991. Many of us had been asking him for a long time to write a solo piece for them. But because he only wrote contrapuntal music, he didn’t want to. I was living in Freiberg, and he had come to Basel, which is close by, to bring some music to the Sachar Institute, where they keep all his manuscripts. When we went out for supper, I said he should write a fifth movement for Bach’s Sonata for Flute Solo because it ends with the bourrée, and Bach never ended with a bourrée. He listened – he’s a very good listener, and he remembers everything. About three weeks later, he phoned me and said that the piece was almost done, but he just had a few questions. I said, “You’re kidding!” Now he writes solo pieces without end.

Carter, Boulez, Xenakis, Lutoslawski – you’ve given Toronto audiences a chance to hear the most important composers of our time. Do you find that the composers ever get influenced by their experiences here with New Music Concerts?

For a lot of people we’ve brought, it was their first time in North America. When oboist Heinz Holliger made his first trip here, we had Carter on the program with him. Heinz is very outspoken. He said, “Why are you doing Elliott Carter? That old fogey – his music’s not interesting.” But then, after doing that program, he became a great lover of Carter’s music, one of Carter’s biggest supporters. He phones him probably every week. That’s amazing, because he had been totally against Carter until then.

Bob_with_Heinz_Holliger

Holliger’s career strikes me as being similar to yours because, as well as performing contemporary music and composing, he played the whole range of repertoire including baroque.

I just wish that I would get concerts playing traditional music in Toronto today. I seem to be labelled a contemporary music specialist here. Before, especially when harpsichordist Greta Kraus was alive, I played equal amounts of traditional and contemporary music. Greta and I played together every Thursday afternoon for maybe ten years. We did a concert series called Flute Through the Ages at the St. Lawrence Centre that would sell out in a day. In other countries I frequently perform and conduct concerts of traditional repertoire. I recently took the Wiener Konzertverein, which is a chamber orchestra out of the Vienna Symphony, on a ten concert tour. The repertoire was not contemporary at all – I played a C.P.E. Bach concerto, and conducted Grieg’s Holberg Suite.

Bob_with_Greta_Kraus_1978Is it tricky for a modern flute-player to perform baroque music today, with so many period instrument players specializing in baroque music?

People don’t seem to want to listen to baroque music played on modern instruments. At the moment I don’t know any flutists that are playing both contemporary and baroque. Most of us are too inhibited now to play baroque music on our modern instruments.

Is it because of the style of playing?

Greta had a style of playing like Wanda Landowska – she used the same kind of harpsichord. In a way it was very romantic, but it was fabulous to listen to. The balance was always excellent. Plus, we played with a natural rubato nobody plays with today. I suppose they don’t want to, but I’m not sure if anybody can.

If Greta were still alive I would do a baroque concert in Toronto, I bet you it would come under super, super criticism – but I also bet that people would like it.

Do you have problems with period performance styles today?

Oh, lots of problems. Especially when string players crescendo and decrescendo on every note, and then the flute players copy. They say that’s the way people played in that time. But how do they know for sure? And even if the strings did do that swell, why would the winds do it – just because the strings did it? Anyways, I’m sure that the best string players did everything in their power to not do that. The mere fact that it happens by drawing a baroque bow across a string doesn’t mean that they actually played like that. And there are wonderful baroque flute players like Barthold Kuijken and Conrad Hunteler who don’t do that.

Before period instruments, were modern flute players paying much attention to authenticity in baroque music?

Jean-Pierre Rampal, I think, did. I went to him to study French baroque. He was fabulous at Couperin, Rameau, Blavet and all the French baroque composers

Would his style of playing be appreciated by period performers today?

Not with the authentic period-instrument people – not a hope!

Why?

Because he played in a natural musical way. But today, people still love his old recordings. They have lots of improvised ornaments which relate well to period playing, except that he kept sticking in diatonic runs all the time. We know that wasn’t done, because we have lots of other examples where composers wrote out the ornamentation that they wanted. But when it came to trills and ornaments of that type, no one could beat him, then. Nobody today, either – he was fabulous.

How do you choose pieces to program for New Music Concerts?

We try to show what is most interesting among the current directions in contemporary music. From the very beginning the series did not just reflect my taste or Norma’s. So when we did Grand Pianola Music of John Adams, it wasn’t my direction in music, but we picked one of his greatest pieces, and it really spoke for him. The same with Steve Reich – when he began to write phasing music, I thought “Come on – show that to children, but not to us.” I was totally against him for a long time. But after Russell Hartenberger and Bob Becker, who were anchors in Reich’s own ensemble, moved to Toronto, they kept pressuring me to do his music. I realized we had to because he was becoming so famous.

I had a really big fight with Reich on the phone, because he did not want to have anyone except his own group performing his music. I said, “We have very good musicians in Toronto. We will learn the music perfectly. We have all the instruments – everything you need.”

He said, “But they’ll never be able to learn this music – it’s so difficult.”

So I said, “If you don’t let us play this music, what’s going to happen when you die? Nobody is going to know how to play your music. Don’t you think it’s time that someone plays it besides just your own ensemble?” So finally he agreed. Our concert was the first time any ensemble played Steve Reich’s music that was not his own group. Of course, we were very well coached, having Russell and Bob involved, and Steve himself came for at least a week. After that concert, I had a different appreciation of his music. I still think the phasing is just too obvious. But Drumming, I think, is a great piece, and it does employ phasing.

How do you judge today’s music?

I prefer pieces that are provoking and challenging. But I have a lot of difficulty today judging what is a good piece and what is not a good piece. It may be easier to say what is an effective piece and what is not an effective piece.

I remember when we did John Cage’s Roaratorio in Convocation Hall with Cage reading James Joyce, and loudspeakers all over the place. The first night we had 1,300 people – imagine, for a contemporary music concert! The next night there was a terrible snowstorm and still 800 people came. John Beckwith showed up on his cross-country skis. That was 1982. In those years we had lots of pieces that were really on the edge. We could afford to take chances. Today, whenever we want to do something controversial, we always have to worry about whether we can get the money.

Are composers themselves taking fewer chances today?

Absolutely — I think the computer did that. Computers kill the imagination in music. When you compose with a computer, it’s too much trouble to do something like complicated rhythms or really wide intervals. Unfortunately, there’s now a whole generation that has been trained by using a computer. Any time I’m on a jury for an international composition contest, we can always tell which pieces were composed on the computer.

But it’s harder for composers today because they have to make their own rules. There are people taking chances, but the funny thing is, the chances they are taking are the same ones that were being taken in the 60’s and 70’s, because it’s all cyclic. Often when I look at those pieces by composers who think they are doing something really risky, all I see is something that was done before.

Right from the beginning of New Music Concerts you set the mark high, presenting Italian composer Luciano Berio in your very first year.

That was actually our first concert. Before that concert, we put little ads in the newspaper that just said, “Berio is coming.”

Do you think Toronto is good for new music?

It really is. There are a lot of groups now, not just us, so I do wish that our councils would recognize our value. We had a couple of years where they cut us down, seriously reduced our grants - not the Toronto Arts Council but the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. Now we are creeping up again, but we are still not up to the level that we were at in 1982.

Are there many organizations in the world devoted to contemporary music like yours?

There are actually lots in Europe, but they have salaried players. The musicians play only contemporary music all the time.

Does that affect the way they play?

I think the music comes out better with musicians who play a mixture of repertoire. With New Music Concerts, I cannot think of any occasion where a composer who came here didn’t say we had given the best performances he had ever had of his pieces. If musicians play only contemporary music there is a risk that they just do what’s on the page, and forget about doing something with the music. But our musicians are so accomplished in all repertoire that they bring interpretive abilities to contemporary music. It’s not only with New Music Concerts – it’s like that all over Toronto.

It’s also because we try to rehearse enough, which doesn’t just mean getting the notes right and in tune. It’s to be familiar enough with the piece that when you are playing your line, you know what’s going on somewhere else. If you can hear the counterpoint or some chords that are against you, then you play differently.

You usually manage to bring the composer here – is that important?

From the first day our intention was to always have the composers here. Without the composer, you don’t have a hope in hell of knowing that what you’re doing is correct. The players play with more enthusiasm, because they want to please him. And when they have questions, they can get the answer right away. When it is possible to speak to the composer, that’s the best situation of all.

Does being a composer have an effect on your approach to playing?

I use a lot of analysis when I’m playing. Marcel Moyse, the flute teacher who had the biggest influence on me by far, taught us analysis. He made us aware of how a piece was composed so that we had a better idea of how to play it. Like any language, if you don’t understand the musical language of the composer, you can’t understand what’s being said. And if the performer doesn’t understand the language there is no hope of the audience understanding the piece being performed.

Does the fact that you write music influence your teaching?

When I teach flutists, basically, I teach them how to analyze the piece. All a teacher can teach you at any time is how to listen and how to teach yourself – those are the most important things you can teach anybody.

Have your compositions changed much over the years?

Even the titles I’m using show a change in my attitude towards composition. The piece I’m working on now is called Remembrances, and I’m calling the first movement Tsunami. The whole piece will certainly be more accessible than any of the other pieces I have written.

In what sense?

In the sense that I’m not choosing an obscure title and writing an obscure piece around it. Each of my pieces is quite different, although I like to think that all my music takes the listener to a world they didn’t know, someplace that they’ve never been before. Otherwise, why write the piece? But when I began to compose, I wanted to write pure music. Then I went around the world – Japan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka (which was Ceylon at the time), India, and Turkey. When I got home, I had so many musical experiences in my head that I needed to get them out. I had always been outspokenly against composers writing music influenced by other cultures, unless they were from those cultures. But after that trip I had to do it.

I wrote Remembrances for a flute orchestra of twenty-six flutes –piccolos, C flutes, alto, bass and contrabass flutes. If I had decided to write for flute quartet, with just four parts, it would have been finished already. But I’m writing 26 parts.

Are these titles descriptive?

Tsunami is fairly literal at the beginning because a flute orchestra is fabulous for doing virtuosic things like cascades. The second movement, Solemnes, recalls the monastery in France which was assigned the job of researching and reestablishing the old Gregorian chant for the Roman Catholic Church. I learned about that from my University of Toronto days, when I studied paleography with Harvey Olnick. The first time I went to a church service at Solemnes it was beautiful beyond belief. Everything was sung. It was a total experience, with incense and so much atmosphere. That experience is still very big in my mind. Solemnes opens up like a cloud from a torrent of piccolos and low bass flutes to unison Gregorian. When you have that many flutes playing unison, they create a sound you will never forget.

What’s slowing me up is the last movement, which I want to call Caracas. It’s inspired by unbelievable Venezuelan flute-players like Huáscar Barradas. I think the greatest Latin flute playing by far is in Venezuela. It’s tricky because I don’t want to copy the style literally.

If you had to choose one aspect of music-making to concentrate on, what would that be?

Practising the flute.

Do you mean performing?

Yes. I think as we get older, our ears become more acute, and we are much more critical. To be a good player, you have to be critical of yourself, so I am very critical. As I criticize myself, I think my playing gets better. I think I’m actually doing it better than ever before.

RECORDINGS and COMPOSITIONS

A list of Robert Aitken’s many recordings is available on his website at www.bobaitken.ca, as is a list of his compositions.

“Little” slip

Thank you to the dozens of readers who took the time to contact us about last month’s “Little” slipup in my interview piece with Fay Olson. I discovered the editing error myself via a gracious email from Ms. Olson herself: “Other than the incorrect cutline under the picture of my husband Don Vickery and me, I thought you captured the essence of our interview very well … There is one more correction I’d appreciate your noting. Although Don Vickery is Music Director for Quotes Bar & Grill, guitarist Gary Benson is founding Musical Director and leader of the Canadian Jazz Quartet.”

Ten Feet Tall53_cooks_wife

Speaking of husband and wife teams, seasoned chef Andy Wooley and Carin Redman, both musicians, are the proprietors of bistro, café, bar and live music venue Ten Feet Tall (www.tenfeettall.ca) now in its 7th year of glory just steps away from the Greenwood subway stop. Danforth and Beaches locals are regularly treated to an inviting atmosphere of eclectic menu items, friendly service, vibrant decor and a tasty variety of live music.

Their Mill Street-sponsored Jazz Matinee takes place every Sunday from 3:30 - 6:30pm, with never a cover charge. Sometimes humbly referring to herself as “The Cook’s Wife”, Carin Redman is herself a professional vocalist who has been singing pop, jazz and R&B for over 15 years; she runs the restaurant and also books the room. I got a chance to catch up with Ms. Redman over a scrumptious Pad Thai ($14) and a pint of Mill Street Organic Lager ($5.50).

OD: What kind of reaction has your music policy received?

CR: The reaction we received was a very warm one.  The people in our neighbourhood have been great supporters.  They love that we have music at the end of the street...we are part of the TD Canada Trust Jazz Festival every year and I’m continually thanked during that festival for us being here. It’s like a big party!  The music over here has been a wild success and I’ve enjoyed it so much.  I’ve met so many people and made some great friends as well.

OD: Were you surprised by this reaction?

CR: I have a little bit of a background in marketing so I knew that this would be a great area and time slot for jazz - no one was doing it around here.  Although I felt strongly that it would work, I was still pleasantly surprised.

OD: Ten Feet Tall is one of the few rooms in town that guarantees that the musicians are paid in a no cover/pay-what-you-can situation.  Is it especially challenging for your business to make money?

CR: I book people that can fill a room. Number one, they have to have talent and be good musicians...it took a while to have our “jazz regulars” which we now have. We still do rely on our bands having some sort of following, but I’m never worried any more because I’ve figured out how to book this room.

OD: Who are some of the highlights in the month of November?

CR: On November first we are proud to present Steve Cole & Russ Little. I mean, the names speak for themselves. We’ve had them here before and they are just unbelievable musicians…On November 22nd we are proud to welcome back Kingsley Etienne. If anyone reading hasn’t seen Kingsley, you simply must come out because it’s like a religious experience!

JAZZ PICK OF THE MONTH: Laura Hubert Band

54_hubert_w_bob_brough(www.laurahubert.com) at the Cameron House (408 Queen West), every Monday “9:30ish-Midnightish” Pay-What-You-Can. With a honed horn-like delivery she infuses her song with ample feeling, phrases daringly, and bends notes with ease. Always present in any given moment, Laura Hubert is a very convincing musical actor. To really get what she’s about, you have to witness the facial expressions, body language and stunning presence every Monday night, accompanied by Peter Hill and top-of-the-heap horn players including Chris Gale, Shawn Nykwist, Bob Brough or Ryan Oliver. Live jazz does not get much better than this!

As we head into the colder and greyer months, there’s no better way to stave off the winter blues than with a concert of Brazilian music. On November 15, legendary singer Gal Costa will grace the stage of Massey Hall, joined by Romero Lubambo, on Brazilian violão. Born Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos in 1945, and an icon of the Brazilian “Tropicalia” style of music, she has produced over 30 recordings.

26b_costa “We’re really excited about this show,” says Alan Hetherington of Samba Toronto, who are presenting Ms. Costa. “Gal is a legend, from the family of Brazilian performers that include Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethania. Even more exciting is that my band (Sambacana) will be opening the evening with our mentor, and musical genius, Filo Machado.” This is Gal Costa’s Canadian debut, and she’ll be singing the music of some of Brazil’s greatest composers, some of whom wrote songs inspired by her.

Also at Massey Hall, “Bollywood” musician Kailash Kher and his seven-piece band Kailasa perform on November 12. Having performed in over 60 Indian films and on soundtracks, Kher is also devoted to the Sufi tradition of using music as a way to get closer to God. Formed with two of his brothers, the band Kailasa combines classical Indian Sufi folk traditions with modern rock, funk and electronica.

27a_nagata_photo_sandra_symondsIn conjunction with Holocaust Education Week (Nov 1 - 11), Opera York  presents the North American premiere of And the Rat Laughed, an Israeli opera by composer Ella Milch-Sheriff based on a novel by Nava Semel. Sung in Hebrew with English surtitles, the opera tells the sory of a young girl hidden during the second world war with a family of Polish farmers. The opera features Israeli soprano Einat Aronstein who sang in the original production, and runs November 5, 7 and 8 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Arts. For more events associated with Holocaust Education Week, visit www.holocausteducationweek.com.

Small World Music presents an on-going series of concerts this month. Co-presented by the Diaspora Film Festival, American composer David Amram will be at the Revival club on November 3 to celebrate the Toronto debut of the documentary film “The Frontier Ghandi,” for which he composed the soundtrack. The concert will feature a program of music drawing on the cultures of Brazil, Puerto Rico, Quebec, Greece, Egypt, Ireland and other places. Amram himself will be perfoming on a variety of  instruments and will be joined by a small ensemble. The next evening at the Lula Lounge, Poland’s Warsaw Village Band perfoms folk tunes with a modern sensibility. Formed in 1997, they’ve performed in over 30 countries and have garnered several Grammy nominations, as well as BBC radio and European Broadcasting Union awards. November 15, Zimbabwean pop star Oliver Mtukudzi performs at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne). He sings in both Shona and English, on themes of social and economic issues. For more information on these and other Small World presentations, visit www.smallworldmusic.com.

Other items in brief:

Africa New Music presents Marie Musamu, gospel singer from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 7 at College Francaise, 100 Carlton St., 5-10 pm. Also on November 7, local group Sapovnela presents a concert of Georgian music at the Heliconian Hall. Toronto’s own Japanese taiko ensemble Nagata Shachu (formerly the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble), gives three concerts at the Al Green Theatre, Nov. 27, 28 and 29. And the universities wrap up their fall terms with student concerts: York’s world music ensembles perform on November 5 and 6, and the U of T Faculty of Music’s play on November 30, December 2 and 4.

Karen Ages can be reached at worldmusic@thewholenote.com

After writing last month’s column, touching on the fragility of Toronto’s new music festivals, sad news followed. Contact Contemporary Music had to pull the plug on its New Music Marathon due to a lack of funding. This one-day, dynamic and free music festival in the heart of the city only managed to turn out two editions before it was met with financial challenges. Here’s to hoping it can get back up on its feet soon.

25_st_lawrence However, one outfit on which we can rely to remain a stable champion of new music is the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season.
Formed in 1989 by violinists Geoff Nuttal and Barry Shiffmann (replaced by Scott St. John in 2006), violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Marina Hoover (replaced by Christopher Costanza in 2003), the St. Lawrence first settled in Toronto to take advantage of a special training programme run jointly by the U of T Faculty of Music and the Royal Conservatory. While the ensemble was warned that the chances of survival were slim, it defied the odds with early, career-boosting collaborations with performers like violinist Jaime Laredo and pianist Anton Kuerti. A move to New York City in 1990, to study with the Emerson Quartet, led to two years as Juilliard’s graduate quartet-in-residence, and then on to teaching assistantships with the Tokyo Quartet at Yale University in 2004. In between, the quartet came to international attention by winning several key prizes, including the first Banff International String Quartet Competition in 1992.
The rest, as they say, is history. The St. Lawrence has since gone on to record with EMI, creating award-winning discs of both standard and new repertoire by contemporary composers like Christos Hatzis and Osvaldo Golijov. Currently they are the ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University, and maintain a vibrant international concert calendar of some 100-150 performances per season.
Over its history, the quartet has become well known as a champion of more adventurous works, which they present with the same characteristic passion, intensity, physicality and malleable approach to style that they bring to their entire repertoire. As the quartet has continued to age and improve technically, it has also fervently protected these qualities. “This is the constant challenge,” said Nuttal in a recent interview with The Strad magazine “to try and get better in terms of…all of the important stuff, and not lose that edge.”
It has also protected its loyalty to Canada and Canadian composers. And so – unlike some other quartet anniversaries that focus on well-worn quartet cycles – the St. Lawrence Quartet has partnered with the Canadian Music Centre, CBC Radio 2 and a handful of private donors and music presenters to commission five Canadian composers from across the country. The Quartet will arrive back in Toronto on November 16 after a tour of Atlantic Canada to present the culminating concert of this commissioning project at Walter Hall – the first time all five works will be performed together on one programme.

The St. Lawrence was hard pressed to select just five composers from the trove of almost 90 submissions they received back in the fall of 2007, when this project as launched. “To hold in our hands such a body of work from Canadians, coast to coast, was tremendously inspiring,” said Robertson, who coordinated the project. In trimming the selection down to the final group, the quartet was struck again and again by the diversity, creativity and strength of all the submissions. But in the end, only five could be selected, and so composers Marcus Goddard, Elizabeth Raum, Brian Current, Suzanne Hébert-Tremblay and Derek Charke were invited to join the St. Lawrence’s Anniversary Commissioning Team. The resulting works are themselves as diverse as Canada itself.

BC-based Marcus Goddard created Allaqi, inspired by the katajjaq style of Inuit throat singing. The title, which means “a clearing of the clouds” reflects the music’s movement from a place of darkness to brightness. Imitative textures and rhythmic patterns jump from instrument to instrument in the style of katajjaq, evaporating into folk song-based melodies, lyricism and calm simplicity. Murmurings of the opening rhythms grow again, but are softened by broad melodies that guide the work to its conclusion.

Elizabeth Raum, who hails from Saskatchewan, was inspired by the landmark Bushwakker Brewpub in Regina’s Old Warehouse District to write her work, Table at the Bushwakker. The piece’s opening introduces the various characters that are portrayed throughout the work. The scene is a typical Saturday night at the pub, where the tables are full of students, amorous couples and women out for a “girl’s night” on the town.

26a_current Toronto composer Brian Current based his work, Rounds, on initial sketches made while staying in Kyoto, Japan, over the spring of 2008 and completed during the winter months in Toronto. The title refers to the use of melodies throughout the work that overlap and layer one another, much like the musical rounds children sing in the school yards.

Suzanne Hébert-Tremblay, who makes her home in Québec, drew on a fascination with nature and birds to compose A tire-d’aile. The work is built up from the song of three specific birds: the common loon, the hermit thrush and the song sparrow. These songs make up the core musical material, which is repeated and developed through four distinct sections in the first part of the work, and then overlapped in a polyphonic style for the second part. Both parts are framed by a lyrical theme inspired by loon song.

Finally, New Brunswick-born composer Derek Charke offers a musical journey from the present to the past in his Sepia Fragments. The work plays off of several quotations, both original and borrowed, that appear to be sometimes clear, sometimes blurred, like memories captured in a time capsule. Fiddle tunes and reels dissolve to fragments of harmonics and trills. Snippets of Shostakovich transition into parlour music. Tchaikovsky-inspired tunes gives way to Vietnamese folk melody.

In addition to this culminating concert, the St. Lawrence has opened their November 16 afternoon rehearsal to the public. Anyone wishing to attend this free session may benefit immensely by observing the interaction between the Quartet and the composers, some of who will be hearing their work for the first time. The session, which will run 1-4 pm in Walter Hall, will include demonstrations and conversation with the musicians and the Commissioning Team.

For concert details and to purchase tickets, visit www.music.utoronto.ca, call 416-978-3744 or e-mail boxoffice.music@utoronto.ca.

Jason van Eyk is the Ontario Regional Director of the Canadian Music Centre. He can be contacted at: newmusic@thewholenote.com.

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