A few months ago I mentioned a trip to Ukraine by Bob Gray, a local band conductor, teacher and trumpet player. What he learned on that trip inspired him to pay another visit, with two primary goals in mind. The first was to investigate the feasibility of start-up brass bands in Ukraine during his eight-week stay in Kiev. The second was to be there for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Salvation Army’s ministry in Ukraine. In a recent email from Kiev, Bob reported on how things are going there, and unfortunately his first goal is not working out as easily as he had hoped. The idea was to investigate the feasibility of establishing new brass bands there. However, at present, there are no Salvation Army bands in Ukraine to use as models. Since there is no tradition upon which to build, there are no qualified leaders or instructors already active within the Salvation Army organization, making it difficult for some of the congregations to sustain and support the start and development of any band. Other setbacks: he has also learned that their music for worship in Salvation Army services differs greatly from the rest of the Salvation Army world. There are no brass band arrangements of the songs used there. Even for Christmas, the carols used in many places elsewhere differ from those familiar and popular in Ukrainian culture.

His second purpose for his extended trip will likely have a happier outcome. He will be there for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Salvation Army’s ministry in Ukraine. This event will take place on the weekend of June 8 to 10 in Victory Park and Hotel Bratislava. For this occasion, the Salvation Army band from Winton Corps, in Bournemouth, England will be participating. Bob has been asked to sit in with that band, as one of their cornet players is unable to make the journey to Kiev. It is the hope that the activities of this well-established band will stir some interest in resurrecting the brass band movement within the ranks of the Salvation Army in Ukraine. We wish him every success, and hope to hear of the establishment of new bands there in the near future.

Strings Attached

From messages about all-brass music thousands of miles away, we move to news about all-strings music right here in town. We have just heard from Ric Giorgi about the next concert of the Strings Attached Orchestra, their final concert for this year on June 3, again at the Isabel Bader Theatre. As usual, the program was designed to span a wide spectrum of music from such classics as Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.6 to Ashokan Farewell and the Best of ABBA.

The Plumbing Factory

Speaking of all-brass bands, we also just had a message from Henry Meredith of the Plumbing Factory Brass Band where he referred to the “devastating and relentless winter” we’ve all just been through. Rather than paraphrase what he said, here is his musical response to Mother Nature, verbatim: “Because of the ice storms only a week before our ‘spring’ concert, and the snowstorm on the night of our dress rehearsal, the PFBB has now decided to expand our concert season into the late spring and early summer. It is hoped that this will make it easier on both us and our audience, not to have to battle the weather to prepare and enjoy our brass band music. So we have decided to keep rehearsing, and to develop a brand new concert for you, to be performed on June 27.”

In typical Henry Meredith style, he outlines the program in one of his poems.

This little rhyme will explain the reason
Why we established a new summer season
It also provides a few hints about
The music which you will enjoy, without doubt.

The concert, “Summertime Musical Adventures” (June 27, 7:30pm at Byron United Church, 420 Boler Rd., London), will include such band favourites as Ringling Bros. Grand Entry, Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite, Bernstein’s Candide and The Whistler and his Dog by Arthur Pryor.

A Musical Movie

Something entirely new appeared on my radar screen recently: a Russian-Canadian film production company that is in the process of making a documentary about Benny Goodman’s historic tour of the USSR in 1962. Now, over 55 years later, this story is still alive in the minds of people who remember those concerts of the jazz orchestra of Benny Goodman, those “strange” but incredibly attractive American musicians. They remember the joy of buying scarce tickets and enjoying music, and screaming “encore” up to ten times. The whole world as we knew it was struck by the headline at the time. “The King of Swing Benny Goodman Plays Yankee Doodle Dandy on Red Square.” Certainly Russians had never seen anything like that before.

This full-length feature film, Trojan Jazz, will retell the events of the exchange of talented musicians between the US and the Soviet Union. The anticipated appeal is to jazz enthusiasts in both English- and Russian-speaking cultures. The concept of Trojan Jazz likens the Benny Goodman Orchestra to members of a Trojan horse that brought Western jazz culture into an isolated Eastern jazz culture. The impact was unpredictable. Jazz musicians of both cultures exchanged written ideas, which began a collaboration second to none.

Julian Miklis (at left)Local concert clarinetist Julian Milkis, son of former TSO concertmaster Yasha Milkis, is cast as Benny Goodman. Milkis actually studied with Goodman while attending the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. He can be seen in a variety of ensembles recreating some of Goodman’s hit songs.

To illustrate the Goodman legacy of playing big band music continuing to this day in community groups around the world, the producers wanted to show such a group in rehearsal So, all of a sudden, one evening a few weeks ago, I and my bandmates found ourselves being bombarded by bright studio lighting and surrounded by at least a half-dozen cameras. The Toronto-based rehearsal band Swing Machine, of which I have been a member for many years, was chosen and filmed to exemplify this ongoing tradition. There we were many years later, still enjoying the performance of big band music. We haven’t heard anything of when or where this movie might be seen, but I am told a visit to https://firstjazztourinussr.com will provide more in-depth information as the project develops.

Mikhail Sherman

A few weeks ago, at a regular rehearsal of the Swing Machine Big Band, I looked across at the saxophone section. The usually very reliable baritone saxophone player, Mikhail Sherman, was missing. We later learned that he had decided to have a nap before leaving for the rehearsal, but never woke up.

Born in the USSR, Mikhail grew up with a love of music in a country famed for great classical musicians. After serving time in the army and playing in a military band, he went on to become the principal clarinet and saxophone player for the famed Moscow State Circus, City of Lviv, for seven years.

In 1979 he left and came to Toronto to pursue more opportunities. He started his life here as a refugee with nothing. He washed dishes and became a cook at the Windfields Restaurant. His love for music led him in another direction. It was here that he met Frank Fermosi and Rocco Nufrio, the owners of the then-successful Saxophone Shop. They quickly spotted Mikhail’s love for music. He, in turn, showed a keen ability to learn the trade of repairing instruments. They offered him a job and training, in which he quickly excelled!

In 1986, when the Sax Shop closed, Mikhail decided to would open his own shop in North Toronto. Still with little in his pocket, he started Mikhail Sherman Music Service, which was to become one of the most successful woodwind repair shops in Canada, servicing the educational system and many top professional musicians. Mikhail passed away peacefully and suddenly in his sleep on April 26, 2018. Many of the great musicians and music educators in the GTA will miss his quick response and expertise. A true rags-to-riches story.

Uxbridge Community Concert Band

After a year’s absence from the local band scene and some questions about the band’s rebirth, the Uxbridge Community Concert Band, with Steffan Brunette at the helm, has now had its first rehearsal. Steffan took a year off to study composition and to do some travelling. Rather than assume all of the many duties required to operate a band successfully, Steffan now has an executive team to help with the many details, but it is, once again, a superbly organized band. After their first rehearsal it became evident that a few more trumpets would be welcome. The band is a summertime-only group that rehearses in Uxbridge on Wednesday evenings. For information, email uccb@powergate.ca.

Toronto Summer Music Festival

On Sunday, July 29 at 2pm, the 2018 Toronto Summer Music Festival will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI with a concert titled “Reflections on Wartime” at The Bentway. This will include a full afternoon of events with a feature performance by theCanadian National Brass Project.” For those not familiar with it, The Canadian National Brass Project brings together many of the best brass players from professional symphony orchestras throughout North America, and each summer this all-star ensemble, led by conductor James Sommerville, joins forces and performs across the country. The program will include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Concertgoers can also take in the sights and sounds of the Fort York Guard, enjoy a demonstration of artillery firepower, and hear military music by the Fort York Drums. There will also be a “Musical Petting Zoo” for children to test out a variety of musical instruments. For those not familiar with it, The Bentway, 250 Fort York Boulevard adjacent to Old Fort York, is being described as Toronto’s most exciting new outdoor concert venue.

A few days later, on Thursday, August 2 at 7:30pm in Koerner Hall, TSM will present “A Big Band Celebration,” which will focus on music of World War II. During the darkest days of the war the big band music of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller and others was a major source of entertainment for life on the home front. As the presenters suggest, these familiar tunes became a metaphor for the way of life soldiers were fighting to preserve. This promises to be a stimulating evening of the best of the big band era as interpreted by music director Gordon Foote and featuring JUNO Award-winning jazz singer Ranee Lee.

Ranee LeeComing Events

By the time this issue is available in print, some of the events mentioned below will have taken place, but for the record and for online users, they are included here. Now that summer is close at hand, Resa Kochberg’s three musical groups have announced their current concert plans:

On Sunday, May 27 at 7:30pm, Resa’s Pieces Concert Band will perform at the Flato Markham Theatre, 171 Town Centre Blvd., Markham.

On Sunday, June 3 at 7:30pm, Resa’s Pieces Strings Ensemble will be at St. Basil College School, 20 Starview Ln., North York.

On Monday, June 4 at 7:30pm, Resa’s Band will present another concert at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto.

On Monday, June 11 at 8pm, Resa’s Singers Ensemble will perform at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, 100 Elder St., North York.

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

The 12th Glenn Gould Prize Jury: (from left) François Girard (Canada), Ute Lemper (Germany), Beverley McLachlin (Canada), Foday Musa Suso (Gambia/ United States), jury chairman Viggo Mortensen (United States/Denmark), Naeemeh Naeemael (Iran), Sondra Radvanovsky (Canada/United States), Howard Shore (Canada), Ye Xiaogang (China). KENNETH CHOU PHOTOGRAPHYMy visitor to the WholeNote office, this icy April Tuesday afternoon, James Norcop, braved unseasonably slippery sidewalks and roads to get here, lured by the prospect of getting to talk about a topic dear to his heart – the upcoming Concours musical international de Montréal, which takes place this year from May 27 to June 7. This is the seventh edition of the Concours dedicated to voice, which rotates with violin and piano every three years. But it is the first, largely thanks to Norcop, that will give art song, his lifelong passion, its rightful place in the sun.

Norcop is, however, a good listener, very adept at drawing people out, so only a few minutes into our chat, the conversation has drifted away from the Concours, and instead of me asking the questions I am holding forth on the topic of the previous Friday’s Glenn Gould Prize announcement, trying to recount for him the particulars of the story that award-winning composer and chairman of the China Musicians’ Association professor Ye Xiaogang had told Friday’s noonday audience after the announcement of the winner – or 12th Laureate as the Glenn Gould Foundation terms it – of the Prize.

He was one of an accomplished panel of nine jurors who had spent the previous day narrowing a book of “more than 30 and fewer than 100 nominees” (as the chair of the jury Viggo Mortensen had described it) to just one: Jessye Norman, one of the great singers of her generation.

Each of the eight other jurors had spoken in turn after Mortensen announced the winner, I explained to Norcop, and there had been something in what each of them said that had disarmed the cynic in me, lifting the occasion beyond any previous such announcements I had attended. As one of the jurors, renowned singer Ute Lemper, put it in her comments: “It was not easy. Down to three people, I do feel that at the end we did not decide purely with the intellect, but decided with the heart and at that moment I thought this is a wonderful moment of life where you suddenly get overwhelmed with something stronger than just the intellect. With a perfect balance of heart and intellect and knowledge and spirit all having come together.”

Ye told a story about the way Gould himself had come into his artistic consciousness. It was one of those roadside stories – hearing something on the car radio already in progress, recognizing it as the Goldberg Variations but needing to pull over to the side of the road to listen right through and to discover who? “It was Gould. The 1955 Goldberg,” Ye said. “1955, I thought. The year of my birth! In that moment I said to myself I can do great things.”

A pause ... Then “Can I tell you my Glenn Gould story?” Norcop says.

“I was at music school at USC, and on staff was a great figure, a lady by the name of Alice Ehlers. She was a refugee of course, came from Germany – she had played harpsichord for Furtwängler, in Passions, and so on, so she had credentials. ‘Madame Ehlers’ … she was extraordinary. She gave this Baroque interpretation class we all attended. And she was never late. This one day we were all there. Two pm came. Then 2:05, 2:10 and no Madame Ehlers; 2:15 and we were all getting ready to leave and there she was. Walking on air. ‘Ach, I have heard a miracle. There is a Canadian, his name is Glenn Gould. He plays the Goldberg Variations. I don’t agree with everything but he is magnificent!’ Glenn Gould’s Goldberg – the only thing that ever made Madame Ehlers late for class. And this was in 1955, right in the moment after the record’s release.”

As for the first time Norcop remembers hearing Jessye Norman sing, the memory of that moment is also vivid, even though the date and place are not. “Was it 15 years ago? 20? 25? Hers has been an extraordinary career. It was also one of those car radio stories. You know, when you turn on the radio in the middle of something playing, so instead of being pre-warned, you have to make up your own mind about what you are hearing. And for me it was simply ‘My God!’ She was in the middle of Wagner’s Wesedonck Lieder. She sounded like a young Kirsten Flagstad back then.”

James NorcopHeading North

Within ten years of that memorable day in Madame Ehlers’ Baroque interpretation class at USC, baritone Norcop’s career was about to take an 18-year “temporary back seat” to that of Norcop the arts administrator – a career that would take him from manager of the Vancouver Opera to the Ontario Arts Council, where he met Charlotte Holmes, his future wife. In more than a decade and a half at the OAC he served, among other positions, as music officer and eventually as head of the touring program for all the arts.

Through it all, vocal music, and in particular art song, remained (and remains) a throughline and consuming passion. The Jim and Charlotte Norcop Prize in Song and Gwendolyn Williams Koldofsky Prize in Accompanying, at the U of T Faculty of Music, are testament to that. So too has been Norcop’s role, from the first year of Douglas McNabney’s tenure as artistic director of Toronto Summer Music, eight years ago, in enabling the TSM art song academy to rise from the ashes of TSM’s short-lived opera program. The hard rocks of financial unsustainability were the primary reason for the opera program’s meteoric rise and fall. “Besides which,” Norcop says, “there are other places in the world to go for opera studies in the summer.”

But for art song, not so much, although for Norcop as a genre it is at the pinnacle of the classical vocal arts, albeit widely viewed these days as a poor relation of its “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” aria-driven operatic counterpart. “It requires all the powers of passion, interpretation and artistry that opera does, distilled into intense moments. And all without benefit of script.”

For years he hoped and tried to establish, with collaborative pianist Liz Upchurch, a vocal arts competition in Toronto; she wanted to dedicate it to her mentor, repetiteur and vocal coach extraordinaire Martin Isepp. But “Toronto is a very tough place to fundraise for musical causes,” he says, wryly.

Which brings us, finally, to the main reason for his braving the ice to be here: the Concours in Montreal.

Aria vs. Song

“Canada only has four musical competitions of international stature,” Norcop says. “There’s Banff for string quartets, Honens for piano, Montreal for organ, and then there’s this, the Concours.”

And even the Concours, with its triennial emphasis on voice, was missing the mark, as Norcop saw it, based on his first visit there, for the 2015 vocal round. “The category was just voice, with everything lumped in, so naturally opera ruled the day, with maybe a little bit of oratorio thrown in.”

To cut what should be a longer story short, he leapt in, making the case to Concours executive and artistic director Christiane LeBlanc that it should be feasible to create parallel streams within the triennial vocal round, so that in the vocal year there would be a competition for aria and one for song, running parallel.

She got it right away,” Norcop says (with perhaps no implied criticism of years of futile trying to do the same thing in Ontario).

The speed with which it has all come together (three years is nothing in administrative time) is remarkable, reflective of the alactrity and passion with which Norcop threw himself into the task of raising the roughly $250,000 needed to get the initiative off the ground, and to put into place a prize structure matching dollar for dollar the $130,000 offered overall in the aria category (which has a 16-year head start on its upstart twin).

And Norcop is putting his own money where his mouth is, in the category that best reflects a lifetime of insight into the realities of pursuing an artistic life in art song. It’s the James Norcop Career Development Award, a no-strings-attached $50,000 to the winner.

“The song business is not like the opera side,” he says. “It’s a life of one-night stands, or putting yourself out there. The publisher of the Montreal Star gave Maureen Forrester an award that was the equivalent of that much when she was setting out, and she used it to go to Europe. She never looked back and she never forgot.”

True to his principled understanding of the nature of the art of song, he takes great satisfaction from the fact that the collaborative pianists accompanying the singers will, if under 35 years of age, be automatically entered into a parallel competition, for the John Newmark Best Collaborative Pianist Award. “We need to name our awards for our great artists,” he says. “Competitors are coming from around the world. It’s a chance to tell them the story of who our great ones were.”

And a way to support the ones to come.

“You can follow the whole thing via live-streaming,” he says. “It’s a great audience to be part of. They are faithful, following it all the way. But nothing beats being there. Oh, what fun it’s going to be.”

publisher@thewholenote.com

Rachel Mahon. Photo: CBC MUSICThis year’s third annual Toronto Bach Festival, curated by Tafelmusik oboist John Abberger, includes three concerts that present not only Bach’s own music, but also works written by predecessors who influenced him. The middle concert this year is an organ recital by Rachel Mahon, assistant organist at Chester Cathedral in the UK and former organ scholar at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the first female organist in its 1,400-year history.

Born and raised in Toronto, Mahon won numerous awards and competitions in Canada and is half of the Organized Crime organ duo, founded in 2012 with fellow organist Sarah Svendsen. Although now based in the UK, she frequently returns to Canada as a recitalist; a list of her upcoming performances, including this year’s Bach Festival, can be found on her website, rachelmahon.ca.

In advance of her May 12 “Bach’s Inspiration” concert, Mahon shared her thoughts on Bach’s music, his inspiration, and what it means to return home to Toronto.

WN: Your upcoming recital at the 2018 Toronto Bach Festival shows “how Bach admired and was inspired by other composers.” What can we expect to hear? How did you put this program together?

RM: J.S. Bach’s achievements as a composer are astonishing, especially when considering he never lived or visited anywhere outside Thuringia or Saxony. This didn’t stop him from absorbing all he could at the ducal court of Weimar, where travelling musicians brought Italian and French music and where Bach was organist and Konzertmeister. We know for a fact that he copied Nicolas de Grigny’s Premier livre d’orgue and arranged Antonio Vivaldi’s music. He also took a trip to Lübeck in 1705 to learn from the great Danish organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude.

With these things in mind, I’ve included some pieces by Buxtehude which I will directly contrast with those of Bach, Bach’s arrangement for organ of an Italian concerto and a piece from Grigny’s organ book, alongside some of Bach’s great organ works. I hope that this program will give an impression of the immense impact other composers had on Bach’s writing.

Sarah Svendsen and Rachel Mahon as Organ Duo, "Organized Crime"As a Toronto-trained organist now working across the pond, this Toronto Bach Festival performance represents a homecoming of sorts. What does it mean to you to return to your hometown and perform? Do you approach a recital in Toronto differently
than one in the UK?

The phrase “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone” really rings true with me. It wasn’t until I left Toronto and had been gone a year that I realized just how much I love the city, so I particularly enjoy coming home, especially to play. Toronto has so much going on and this is true in the local organ scene too: there are several fine instruments in the city of all different styles.

I will be playing at Holy Family for the Bach Festival and this is particularly a homecoming for me because I was born and raised in Parkdale. When I started organ lessons at 15, the Oratorians let me practise at Holy Family twice a week and for many years I sang in the Oratory Children’s Choir (which my mother founded and directed) before I became the choir’s organist at age 18.

I would say I approach each concert I play differently, no matter where it is. Of course I take into consideration my audience and perhaps the time of year, as so much organ repertoire is based on the liturgical year, but also, and most importantly, the instrument. Organists have the unique problem of not being able to travel with their own instruments, so we must adjust to each organ and each organ is completely unique. Certain pieces just won’t work on certain organs.

I suppose there might also be an extra layer of nerves for Toronto as well. The organ world is relatively small and in Toronto I have many friends in the field. I studied with John Tuttle at the University of Toronto and wouldn’t want to horrify him with any bad habits I might’ve picked up across the pond!

Bach is one of the most-performed composers across the globe. What does Bach’s music mean to you? Do you think there’s still something new to say in the interpretation of these works?

Bach is my favourite composer of all time. I love Tallis, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Elgar and Howells, to name a few, but Bach remains the supreme composer for me. As an organist, a singer, a conductor and a listener, Bach’s music never disappoints me. I am always fulfilled by it and yet want more – I went to Tafelmusik’s St. Matthew Passion three times in one week a few years ago... There is so much to bring out in the music that no two performers’ interpretations will be the same.

I believe a performer is able to put his or her own character into a piece, to draw the ear to what he or she wants the listener to hear in the music. This is an exciting privilege and is why there can always be something new to say with these works.

Rachel Mahon’s organ recital, May 12 at 2pm at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, is the middle concert of the third annual Toronto Bach Festival, which takes place May 11 to 13.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist, and The WholeNote’s regular Early Music columnist.

bannerJenny Crober and I are chatting over the phone. She’s in New York City with several of the choristers from VOCA Chorus of Toronto and the Achill Choral Society from Orangeville. They’ve spent the last few days rehearsing with James Meaders, the associate artistic director of Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) and composer-superstar Ola Gjeilo. Crober and crew are in NYC with DCINY to perform a concert of Gjeilo’s work onstage at Carnegie Hall with choirs from across the world. “There were 250 singers,” shares Crober. “It was a bit of a crush to fit us all onstage. And it was hot, but lovely.”

Jenny Crober. Photo by Lorraine DillardIt is moments like these that are hard to put into words: why do conductors do this kind of work? Why sing under intensely hot lights and packed like sardines? Why drive two hours each way to lead rehearsal? Why spend hours studying scores and making notes in private? Why conduct at all? Last year in May, we explored with a range of choristers the reasons they give up so much of their time and energy to choral music-making. This year, I’m chatting with choral conductors to get perspective on the power of choral music in their lives, and why they do what they do.

When she’s in Toronto, Crober raises her hands to lead VOCA Chorus; Cheryll Chung, an accomplished pianist, founded the Cantabile Chamber Singers in 2006; powerhouse Karen Burke leads the Toronto Mass Choir; and you’ve probably seen Shawn Grenke in action as associate conductor of the Amadeus Choir. Here they all share their ideas on the hard work of conducting and choral music.

Crober started working with VOCA (when it was still the East York Choir) in 1991 as an accompanist and took over the reins as conductor in 2004. Over her tenure she has seen VOCA (the name-change was in 2011) double in size. The choir is a whole different beast now, she says. “We have professional singers, doubled the size and have choristers from across the city and beyond. This gives me impetus to keep on as the choir continues to grow into what we’re becoming.”

Conductors are uniquely able to pull on the threads that pull community together. And community is the common theme that all these conductors bring forward. “The community outlets need to be present for people to fall in love with choir – to fall in love with conducting and community music,” says Burke. Cheryll Chung says, “It is really important as a conductor to connect with your ensemble and build a sense of community and trust, so that it can enable you to get the music across.” And Grenke tells me: “I love bringing people together. I find that when I get into the rehearsal, and the rehearsal process, it’s transformative. I get an energy from the singers and we create something great.”

Choral conducting success stories often feature conductors who have been successful in reaching out and building community, sometimes from scratch. “Those people who are thinking outside of the box about what choir can be. It doesn’t have to be just Bach chorales or Mozart’s Requiem or school choir. I think it’s up to us, who are teaching students, to remind them there is more to the world of community music-making than being a music teacher at a school board or a tenured professor at a university,” Burke says. “There’s such a broad array of positions, and a lot of time people just create their own space. They move into a neighbourhood that doesn’t have a community choir or organization and make it happen. If you have a passion and find the void, take your passion and fill the void.”

That passion, when conveyed by a conductor, is what brings people back over and over again. And in a city like Toronto, the breadth and depth of choral music is astounding. (Take a look at the Canary Page listings just to get a small taste of the diversity of the Toronto choral scene.)

“A good conductor is a teacher at heart,” says Burke. “If you don’t like people, you’ll be a terrible conductor. What I see, the people who are doing so well, the people who have built organizations – that comes from a love of people.” There are many people who can read music, can speak the language of music, but don’t know how to speak the language of people and relationship-building. Shawn Grenke gets this as well: “As a music educator, I [conduct] to keep music alive, and more importantly to keep people singing so the music stays alive.” It is about people, it’s about “enjoying the experience of giving, together,” says Burke. “If people are in that space, then great.”

Success as a conductor requires success in all the people who make up a choir; Burke, as a conductor and as a teacher, looks for something more than just musicianship in potential conductors and musical colleagues alike. She’s looking for a spark, someone who can communicate beyond the page of the music. “There isn’t an ABC to being a choral conductor; you have to seek it out,” she says. There is no clear path to conducting and much trial and error involved.

Cheryll Chung was the only choral candidate during her time completing a Masters degree at U of T. After she graduated, she had to figure out the path for herself. “What do you do?” she shares. “A lot of graduate students start their own ensemble or choir. At first, [with Cantabile], I thought I’d just do two benefit concerts a year. I did that for a while for organizations like the Regent Park School of Music, the Canadian Cancer Society and Literature for Life, for example. This was the premise: let’s do concerts for the causes. But then, it gives you the energy to keep doing what you’re doing, to make the connection with audiences and members and connect with different people.” Chung started Cantabile as a pilot in 2006 and she continues to lead the ensemble. The key part for her has always been community: “Community building is a hard thing, and you really need to want that, and have it inside of you.”

Clockwise from top left: Jenna and Karen Burke of the Toronto Mass Choir; Cheryll Chung of the Cantabile Chamber Singers (photo: Richard Jonathan Chung); Shawn Grenke of the Amadeus Choir with Mary Lou FallisThe financial strain of the work can be challenging too. Music is expensive, rental of rehearsal space, paying guest musicians, and all the administrative and marketing costs are not insignificant; there isn’t always a lot left over to pay the conductor. “A lot of my musician friends, I think they feel financial stress and take the gigs as they come, no matter the scenario,” says Grenke. “It’s hard as a musician, as a freelance singer or conductor. It’s hard to find enough work to live.” I appreciate his candour, I tell him: I have some knowledge of that life first-hand.

As audiences, we show up in the seats of a performance and criticize or enjoy the music. What we don’t see is the music teacher awake since 5:30am, teaching all day, then driving 90 minutes one way to rehearse for two and a half hours two or three times a week. Or the conductor that works seven or eight gigs a week to make ends meet. As Chung says: “The performance is just the icing on the cake.” Weeks before a performance, a choir gets the music and begins the process of rehearsing and refining. This is the hard work. This is where the relationships and community are built. This is where conductors shine. And only if it all goes well do you get a chance to taste the icing. “There are moments,” says Crober, “when standing on the stage with 250 other people all responding to the music, and one person on the podium, you think – how lucky is that? To be able to do that – to sing in a group of people and make this exquisite music… and it is a moment of ‘Yeah, this is why you work so hard.’ For this.”

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

Maeve PalmerAfter more than 50 years of music-making, composing, broadcasting and producing, I’m still truly amazed by what a single virtuoso voice can accomplish. And it doesn’t seem to matter what size the room or time of day. On Wednesday, April 11, I found myself at St. Andrew’s Church in downtown Toronto listening, at noon, to the brilliant young soprano Maeve Palmer. Palmer was the second-prize winner in last year’s Eckhardt-Gramatté competition. She and her accompanist, Joy Lee, have been touring their “Mysteries” program ever since the 2017 competition. Mysteries of the Macabre by Gyorgy Ligeti (1923–2006) is the dramatic closing work in the touring program, and also provides the title of the recital.

Two unaccompanied pieces sung by Palmer struck me the most. Djamila Boupacha by Luigi Nono (1924–1990) and Montreal composer Philippe Leroux’s Ma belle si tu voulais revealed the remarkably expressive power and presence a virtuoso singer can achieve. Palmer’s agile voice created all manner of nearly indescribable feats: rapid leaps, arpeggios, purring, cooing and percussive effects, as well as seductively sweet tonal shadings, rendering the listener helpless to fully comprehend the subtlety and range of the sonic feast she was sharing. Palmer and Lee also performed arias by Kaija Saariaho and Nicole Lizeé. Lizeé’s Malfunctionlieder, the compulsory work at the 2017 Eckhardt-Gramatté competition, calls on both singer and pianist to execute remarkably theatrical interactions, not only with one another and their numerous props (telephone, teapot and teacup, ripped book pages, etc.) but with electronic media, both audio and video.

The Palmer recital was presented by TO.U Collective, led by artistic director Xin Wang, herself a soprano of extraordinary gifts. Both Palmer and Wang are former students of Mary Morrison at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Morrison’s legacy of producing great singers is undeniable – Barbara Hannigan is another of her remarkable protégés. Morrison and her teaching colleagues at U of T have made Toronto a mecca for singers, both for the opera stage and the concert hall.

And, speaking of the TO.U Collective series of concerts, I note that their presentation on Sunday, May 27 is in a different venue, Rosedale Presbyterian Church. “TO.U is looking forward, for some of the more delicate repertoire, to our first concert in this smaller, quieter and more intimate space,” Wang says. The concert takes place at 4pm, and, sure enough, it includes the superb soprano Xin Wang, singing the sublimely spiritual music of Giya Kancheli from the Republic of Georgia, and dazzling vocal effects in songs by Toshio Hosokawa. Guitarist Rob MacDonald, saxophonist Wallace Halladay, pianist Stephanie Chua and violist Ethan Filner complete the ensemble. The instrumentalists will also play music by Hindemith and Fuhong Shi.

Xin Wang. Photo by Bo HuangBut back to April 11: I found it most interesting that, as I made my way to Maeve Palmer’s TO.U recital, I entered a TTC subway car and found myself face to face with David Perlman, the publisher of The WholeNote! David was making his way to the Richard Bradshaw Ampitheatre to hear yet another young vocal virtuoso, Sara Schabas. Schabas is a highly accomplished U of T grad, a student of Jean MacPhail. She presented a “Holocaust Remembrance” program (together with piano accompanist Geoffrey Conquer and violinist Laura D’Angelo) of music by two composers who died in the Holocaust, Viktor Ullmann and Carlos Taube, followed by Jake Heggie’s one-act opera for solo voice, Another Sunrise, about Holocaust survivor Krystyna Zywulska. (The Heggie work, sung by Schabas, was presented this past February by Schabas’ own fledgling Electric Bond Opera Ensemble, fully staged and paired with Farewell, Auschwitz, a song cycle for three singers by Heggie based on poetry by Zywulska.)

On a personal note, another astounding young soprano I’ve had the pleasure of working with, Christina Haldane, a singer in the DMA program at the U of T Faculty of Music and a student of Darryl Edwards, will be in the studio this month recording a song cycle written for her dazzling, unaccompanied voice. The work in question is the Echo Cycle, with words by Seán Haldane, Christina’s father, a poet and novelist with a long list of published work. The music is by me. I was so impressed by the beauty and versatility of her singing, and by her father’s strikingly musical poetry, I felt compelled to set six of his poems specifically for her voice. The cycle had its premiere exactly a year ago, at Gallery 345 in Toronto. The recording will be available to the public upon completion of the project, which also includes music by Carl Philippe Gionet, Samy Moussa and Oscar Peterson. Watch for it!

With all these thoughts of high-achieving young sopranos swirling around, it seems somehow fitting that, on Friday, April 13, the jury for the 2018 Glenn Gould Prize named American soprano Jessye Norman its latest winner. Norman is the first-ever female recipient of this major award, an acclaimed singer whose long career has included epic accomplishments both on and off opera stages, recital halls and in recording studios. The jury’s citation stated: “Her triumph is an expression of the power of art to transcend all human boundaries.”

And, I might add, an expression of the way the virtuoso solo voice can distill and then unbottle the power of art.

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

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