David Fallis. Photo by Paul OrensteinHow come I never heard of these guys before?” is on balance a good thing to overhear from a departing concertgoer, if you’re the artistic director of a musical ensemble watching an audience file away after the final performance of your season. For one thing it means there was at least one new person in your audience that night. For another it means that, all things being equal, the individual in question is likely to be back.

When the performance in question is not just the final one of your season but the final one of your final season, though, it’s likely that the pleasure you take from the remark will be tinged with at least some regret.

Two upcoming performances this May both fit the “final finale” description, albeit in different ways. For Larry Beckwith’s Toronto Masque Theatre, “The Last Chaconne” on May 12 at the Jane Mallett Theatre will be the last performance before the company disbands. While for Toronto Consort, their May 25, 26 and 27 concert performances of Monteverdi’s signature opera Orfeo will signal the final appearances of David Fallis as their artistic director after almost
28 years in the role.

Lucky for us, Fallis’ and Beckwith’s respective decisions, to step aside and to disband, sparked opportunities for The WholeNote to sit with each of them for lengthy and wide-ranging conversations, which we will bring your way in more extended form once their May “last hurrahs” have been hurrayed.


David Fallis didn’t start out as Toronto Consort’s artistic director. As a matter of fact, in 1979 when he joined, they didn’t have one; Fallis, a self-described “novice, who didn’t know all that much about the music” came aboard as part of a collective that included Garry Crighton, David Klausner and Alison Mackay. “One of them would just shoot us programs, and they’d do all the research, run the rehearsals and it worked well for 12 or 13 years,” he recalls.

Things evolve and change, though, and when the need arose for a steady curatorial hand at the helm, the role fell to Fallis.

Fast forward 27 years to the beginning of this past season, and Fallis went to the group saying he’d like to make this his last year as director and what should they do? “Full circle,” was the agreed answer: nine people who have worked together “in consort” for at least ten years, and in many cases longer, don’t necessarily need an artistic director.

Paradoxically, it’s because Toronto Consort is what is technically known as a “broken consort” that not much needs to be done to fix it! Broken, in consort terminology, means made up of instruments from a range of different families and types, as distinct from a “whole” consort, such as a family of viols. Because of that, the members of Toronto Consort are already strong individuals with different ideas, used to bouncing musical ideas off each other, figuring things out and, as necessary, taking turns at being the lead.

The coming year reflects this spirit of artistic collectivity: of the five concerts announced for the 2018/19 season, one will feature a guest ensemble, two will be curated by members of the ensemble who have previously curated events (Katherine Hill and Alison Melville); one will be co-curated by Fallis and Hill, and the tried and true Consort favourite, Praetorius Christmas Vespers, will be Fallis’ to direct.

That being said he’s not trying to pretend that there isn’t a special feeling about the upcoming show. Partly because of the place it played in the history of his time as artistic director, partly because of some favourite people he gets to include as guests – tenors Charles Daniels, Kevin Skelton and Cory Knight, and with Jeanne Lamon playing violin.

“As the last act – me officially as artistic director – you couldn’t do any better than a piece about the power of music, a man who is such a beautiful singer and musician that he can charm even the powers of hell” Fallis says.

Hail and Farewell | Toronto Masque Theatre

As even his closest collaborators over the past 15 years (company manager Vivian Moens and artistic associate Derek Boyes) would agree, without Larry Beckwith Toronto Masque Theatre would not have come into existence in the first place, or survived this long. He’s always carried it on his shoulders. And it was hard for even his closest collaborators over the years to envision carrying on. It was one of those “What am I going to do with my life calendar things?” – turning 40 – that led him to start the company. At 55 it just feels like the right time to stop: “not walking away, not fading away, just another chapter.”

Once the decision was made, last summer, TMT decided on a course of full disclosure that this season would be the last. “Hopefully to make this last season celebratory rather than funereal,” as Beckwith put it in one of our chats. And a signature season it has been, reflecting the full range of presentational styles, from intimate salon to large-cast spectacle, and of musical eras from early to contemporary to commissioned works that have become TMT’s trademark.

Larry Beckwith. Photo by Tara McMullen“The Last Chaconne” promises to be a fitting climax to it all, with a cast of collaborators that would be astonishing, if they were being roped in randomly for a special occasion, but in this case simply reflect TMT’s relationship-building musical history.

There will doubtless be a moist eye or two, a twinge of regret as they celebrate what they’ve achieved in the context of their collective passion for beautiful words, music and dance: excerpts from Acis and Galatea, The Fairy Queen, The Lesson of Da Ji, The Mummers’ Masque, Orpheus and Eurydice, a new commission from bassist Andrew Downing, and some beautiful dances featuring Marie Nathalie Lacoursière and Stéphanie Brochard … and more.

“The phrase ‘the means of grace’ has always stuck in my mind” Beckwith reflects. “In fact at one time it might have been the name for Toronto Masque Theatre, but someone, probably Vivian, thankfully, talked me out of it. In one sense of the word, grace is what Baroque dance is all about, but the phrase actually comes from a general prayer of thanksgiving in the Anglican book of common prayer.” He quotes from memory. “‘Being unfeignedly thankful for the blessings of this life, for the means of grace and the hope of glory, we show forth our praise not only with our lips but in our lives.’ Music has always been that for me.”

Simple questions sometimes lead to interesting answers:

“How did you know it was time? Do you even know how to relax? What will you miss and not miss?” And (of course) “So what will you be doing next?”

To the last of these, both Fallis and Beckwith respond with some variation of the response “All will be revealed in the fullness of time.” Clearly putting their feet up is not high on their respective lists of priorities.

Meanwhile, if you “haven’t heard of these guys before,” now’s your chance! Every finale is the start of something new.


Toronto Masque Theatre presents “The Last Chaconne: A Celebration” May 12, 8pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre. On the stage where it all began, a star-studded array of singers, actors, dancers and instrumentalists comes together for a farewell celebration at the end of their final season.

In David Fallis’ last concert as artistic director, Toronto Consort presents Monteverdi’s Orfeo, May 25 and 26 8pm, May 27 3:30pm in Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. The world’s first great opera, and one of the most moving love stories of all time, starring English tenor Charles Daniels in the title role, many returning Toronto Consort favourites, and the Montreal-based early brass ensemble La Rose des Vents.

Adam Seelig. Photo by Yuri DojoRounding out the theatrical riches with which we were showered in April (see my regular Music Theatre column elsewhere in this issue), a difficult-to-label work called Betroffenheit returned to the Bluma Appel for the third time for a short run as part of an international tour. Based on the true story of playwright and performer Jonathan Young’s descent into addiction following the death of his daughter and her cousin in a cabin fire, the work is an extraordinary acclaimed (Canadian) physical production – a new marriage of play, dance and an unusual score directed and choreographed by Crystal Pite. I have never seen anything like it.

It overwhelms with its almost existential storytelling interspersed with exaggerated, almost too-frequently repeated literal moments of speech. The contrast between the circus-type atmosphere of the first act and the very bare essential quality of the second makes the piece work as a whole, along with the incredible talent of the performers.

Now, in stark and potentially illuminating contrast to Betroffenheit’s quality of powerful physical poetry, a new musical is coming into being in May, from One Little Goat Theatre. It’s a musical that puts theatrical primacy on the aural and poetic side of theatre, on sounds (words and music) and their reception rather than on the physical realization of the staging. I spoke with One Little Goat artistic director and show creator Adam Seelig to learn a bit more about the company, this concept and Music Music Life Death Music: An Absurdical, the new production.

WN: One Little Goat is described in your mission statement as the only North American theatre company dedicated to contemporary poetic theatre. Can you explain what you mean by poetic theatre and how that impacts the shows you create?

AS: I think of poetic theatre as “aural”; it’s about the words, the impact of the sounds. It is also not didactic, not showcasing one point of view or interpretation but is there for the audience to discover; like the plays of Beckett or Pinter, or earlier of Sophocles with Oedipus and Antigone.

Was creating a musical for you a logical extension of this focus on poetic theatre, particularly as you are both writer and composer?

Yes. For me creating theatre goes back to my love of music, the art form I loved first. I am always interested in the sounds. The creation of this play began with a love song for the middle-aged couple, the sandwich generation. The play grew from there.

Can you tell us more about the play itself?

This is a play (a comedy) with a lot of music involving three generations of family, their loves, their joys and their frustrations with each other. A family now, not really tied otherwise to a specific time or place or heritage.

Music Music Life Death Music cast: (from left) Jennifer Villaverde, Theresa Tova, Richard Harte and Sierra Holder. Photo by Yuri DojoThe concept of poetic theatre would seem to perhaps indicate a specific style of movement as well. Is that the case with your production?

The aural quality is more important. The movement is something the cast will bring themselves. Once we come into the rehearsal hall the play will completely belong to them and they will be the ones to guide it and to show what kinds of qualities emerge based on who they are. We have a wonderful cast: Richard Harte (Boys in the Photograph) whom I have worked with for a decade; also Theresa Tova (Tough Jews, The Jazz Singer), Jennifer Villaverde (Soulpepper’s Animal Farm, Hana’s Suitcase) and Sierra Holder, who is graduating from Sheridan College the week before we start rehearsals.

Can you tell us more about the style of music and the band?

I would say the style is for the most part within the genre of rock and R&B. We are working with a handful of songs that are hard-driving and also a handful that are anywhere from medium tempo to ballad. The band will be led by music director Tyler Emonde who is also playing bass; then there is Lynette Gillis (of the band Overnight) on drums, Joshua Skye Engel (of the Allman Brothers tribute band Eat a Peach) on guitar and myself on a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Are you doing the arranging/orchestrating yourself?

That will be up to Tyler, but as we are a small band we will also have a few sections that are open to solos as well and a little room for improvisation. One of the things I love about going to hear a band is when it goes “off script” so we want to eke out a little bit of space for the band to breathe a little bit as well as playing for the songs.

Music Music Life Death Music plays from May 25 to June 10 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto.

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.

estonianmw bannerTeretulemast (welcome) to the releases of three Estonian acts performing at Estonian Music Week here in Toronto this month. My disclaimer – I am a Canadian musician born to Estonian parents performing at the event. I am looking forward to meeting/hearing them all!

01 Vox Clamatis sacred

In their 2012 release Filia Sion (ECM New Series ECM 2244 ecmrecords.com), Estonian choir Vox Clamantis, under the artistic direction of Jaan-Eik Tulve, performs 15 selections based on the Daughter of Zion from a cross-section of medieval Gregorian chants and works by Perotinus, de Grudencz, von Bingen and a Jewish chant from Cochin. The plainsongs never become monotonous as the different vocal groupings, from solo to tight ensemble, feature clear diction, amazing phrasing and subtle variety of colour. Gregorian antiphon Ecce venit/Psalm 94 opens with attention-grabbing clear solo singing, followed by hypnotic clean phrases, intonation and the addition of low tone pitches at the chant’s climax. A subtle joyous ensemble feel shines in the Gregorian chant Gloria. Nice musical contrast in von Bingen’s O ignis spiritus as the expressive higher voices contrast the held lower notes, with a few overtones sneaking in. Bravo for these breathtaking performances.

02 Vox Clamatis PartHere are my additions to the earlier Vanessa Wells WholeNote review of the Vox Clamantis release, Arvo Pärt – The Deer’s Cry (ECM 2466 ecmrecords.com). The choir’s plainsong strengths and close work with Pärt himself are reflected in their respectful performances. A rhythmic alleluia vocal backdrop drives the short minimalist Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fatima. Veni Creator features a lulling rolling organ that matches the mixed choir in phrasing and nuance. Sei gelobt, du Baum is a more atonal work with sound conversations between male choir, violin, lute and double bass leading to a climactic high-pitched violin. This release incorporates everything I love about both Pärt’s compositions and Estonian choral music.

03 Maarja NuutMaarja Nuut (maarjanuut.com) performs her in-the-moment folksy vocals, violin and fiddle music based on Estonian folk music genres with modern day minimalism, techno sound effects and looping in her 2016 release, Une Meeles – In the Hold of a Dream. The atmospheric, mesmerizing all-Estonian tracks developed from her self-described exploration of the boundary between reality and dreaming. Love the opening Kargus with its energetic charging repeated violin patterns later supporting her clear vocals, like two sides to a personality. The violin sliding-pitches-opening leads to a horse galloping riff and virtuosic rapid traditional vocals reminiscent of regilaul chant in Hobusemäng (The Horse Game). Kiik tahab kindaid (Swing Wants Gloves) features recorded electro-squeaking swing rocking effects with a repetitive eerie short vocal melody. There’s a pop flavoured Valss (Waltz), and a toe-tapping upbeat Esto fiddle polka, Kuradipolka (Devil’s Polka).The closing Vaga linnuken (A Silent Little Bird) features Nuut’s trademark repetitive chant vocals, as string plucking and violin fade to silence.

04 Kadri VoorandKadri Voorand’s 2016 Armupurjus (Love Intoxication) (Avarus Records AR0004 kadrivoorand.com) has the Kadri Voorand Quartet in great playing and improvising form. Her jazz-infused piano/vocal/composition stylings (with kalimba, wot and electronics) are supported by Taavo Remmel (double bass), Virgo Sillamaa (guitars/composition) and Ahto Abner (drums/percussion). Voorand sings in English and Estonian. The title track Armupurjus has a stadium hard-rock feel with wailing vocals and wall-of-sound instruments. The jazzy Papagoid (Parrots) has lyrical yet rhythmical band instruments supporting Voorand’s personal unique scat-singing style. Love how she makes held-note swells out of the Estonian vowels in words. She sings “mul ei meeldi papagoid” (I don’t like parrots) but it sure seems like she does in her subsequent closing vocalizations. Short contrasting Improludes are fun outtakes from end-of-studio-day improvisations. The closing traditional Estonian Ää mine uhkele mehela (Don’t Marry the Lofty) arrangement features sound washes and willful vocals.

Aitäh (thanks) for all this world-class Estonian music.

Concert notes: Reviewer (and accordionist) Tiina Kiik will perform with singer Roosi Lindau at Estonian Music Week’s opening reception on Thursday May 24, at Sassafraz restaurant and bar at 5pm. On Saturday, May 26 at 8pm at Koerner Hall, Vox Clamantis, the Grammy Award-winning choral ensemble led by Jaan-Eik Tulve, is co-presented with The Royal Conservatory as part of the 21C Music Festival. The choir shares the evening with singer violinist Maarja Nuut, who reinvents ancient traditional melodies from the Estonian countryside as hypnotic songs with electroacoustic loops. On Sunday, May 27 at 7pm at Hugh’s Room, singer Kadri Voorand, 2017 winner of Best Female Artist and Best Jazz Album at the Estonian Music Awards, will be accompanied by her renowned quartet. On Monday, May 28 at 12:30pm at Tartu College, a jazz-singing workshop with Kadri Voorand focuses on creating original ideas, the voice as a physical movement, and lyrics used as a tool to work with original sound (by registration only).

PAUL CRAM bannerPaul Cram in his Toronto studio, 1985. PHOTO: MARK MILLERBy the time saxophonist-composer Paul Cram passed away on March 20, he had redrawn the possibilities of jazz across this country.

In 2001, Mark Miller described Cram’s unique reach on the national jazz map: “[He] has been that rare musician around whom ‘scenes’ seem to coalesce – first in Vancouver, then in Toronto and latterly in Halifax” (The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada, Mercury Press). It was a remarkable achievement: he contributed to the creation of enduring production organizations while building bands large and small and making some of the most durable recordings in the history of Canadian jazz.

For the Toronto-based singer Tena Palmer, who performed as a featured soloist in Cram’s orchestra and worked in the free improvisational Aperture Trio with Cram and guitarist Arthur Bull, “Paul was like an exponential version of a Johnny Appleseed of the arts. Alliances, collaborations, friendships and new combinations of ideas and approaches sprung up around him and in his wake, enlivening creative work and enriching lives far beyond his own awareness.” Trombonist Tom Walsh, an associate for 30 years who’s now based in Montreal, remarks, “Paul had a genius knack for blending talents of widely differing perspectives into a cohesive statement.”

Born in Victoria in 1952, Cram began his musical adventure with clarinet lessons, switching to tenor saxophone under the influence of John Coltrane. By the 1970s he was immersed in the music of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, developing allegiances to precision, open structures and spontaneity that would mark his music throughout his career. While studying composition at the University of British Columbia in the mid-70s, he also entered the ferment of Vancouver free jazz, bonding quickly with the distinguished drummer (and painter) Gregg Simpson. Together they launched the New Orchestra Workshop (NOW), a band that saw itself in the tradition of Mingus’ Jazz Workshop, a forum to work on compositions, most notably Cram’s own.

Cram’s first LP under his own name, Blue Tales in Time (1981), was a breakthrough recording for BC free jazz, introducing bassist Lisle Ellis and pianist Paul Plimley as well as Cram’s substantial skills as composer and saxophonist. When he settled in Toronto in 1982, he left behind the structure of NOW, since then a significant part of creative musical life that has spawned orchestral projects with both international and national figures, among them George Lewis, Marilyn Crispell, Barry Guy and René Lussier.

Cram was soon a key figure in Toronto, bridging styles and scenes, composing, playing and always building. In 1987, the nine-piece Paul Cram Orchestra recorded Beyond Benghazi, with Cram matching his own saxophone with guest soloist Julius Hemphill. Cram also helped launch, and served briefly as co-director of, Hemispheres – an orchestra that specialized in both improvised and composed music.

Cram’s longest sojourn was in Halifax, where he was able to expand on all fronts. In 1990 he co-founded the Upstream Music Association, an organization that includes the Upstream Orchestra and which has regularly mounted the Open Waters Festival and a host of other events. Beginning as a co-director in 1990, he eventually became sole artistic director in 2000, remaining in the position until 2015 when he left to take care of his health. Composer and clarinetist Jeff Reilly remarks: “I think you could say he was the organization for many years.” Cram also became actively involved in writing music for film and theatre, including the award-winning soundtrack for the film One Heart Broken into Song.

While Paul Cram the saxophonist generated free jazz passion, Paul Cram the composer practised the post-modern eclectic. The Paul Cram Orchestra was almost an autobiography, containing musicians he had first connected with in his Toronto years, like Tom Walsh and guitarist John Gzowski who had appeared on Beyond Benghazi, as well as Nova Scotia associates like saxophonist Don Palmer and Jeff Reilly. Their 2000 concert at the Victoriaville festival (FIMAV) became the CD Campin Out. In 2004, they provided the finale for probably the greatest international showcase ever afforded to adventurous Canadian jazz – a week of the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Jazz em Agosto festival in Lisbon. The concert has been released as Live in Lisbon.

For a sense of what the music felt like at the time, here’s something I wrote for the Campin Out liner notes: “The two streams in Cram’s music, the improvised and the composed, come together in a very special way. The composition is less about giving the improvisation structure than the improvisation is about giving the orchestration fluidity and vice versa. Part of Cram’s ambition is to have the composed portions move with the energy and spontaneity of collective improvisation, and it’s something he achieves frequently here. The music is rooted in modern jazz. Mingus and Gil Evans come handily to mind, and more particularly the writing of Carla Bley, both for the wit and the exchange of melody and texture; but Cram takes that principle of restless movement further afield. This is a tour that takes in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and dances the tango and the waltz, all the time expanding the image pool with in-flight films of other locales and times, some of them pointed out by a guide plucked from a 50s TV detective series.”

In 2012 Cram led a 21-member Upstream Orchestra at FIMAV. Jeff Reilly describes his magical way with an orchestra: “That orchestra was a natural extension of Paul’s ‘Ellingtonian approach’ (as he called it) or getting as many people as he could onstage to delve into the deep experience of releasing the subconscious (what he called ‘the bottom 90 percent’) through improvised sound. He loved the collective roar of an orchestra in full cry, and I was always delighted when he asked me to conduct. Paul’s ability to coalesce a group of musicians into a collective sound was the result of the sheer force of his creative imagination – he loved and lived this stuff and it just seemed to happen around him wherever he went. I learned a great deal from Paul, about music, about sound, about people and about love. Music is a bigger, better thing because of him, and we all benefited from what he brought to us.”

Tom Walsh, present from Beyond Benghazi to that 2012 concert, and one of Canada’s finest improvisers, had a special empathy with Cram, sharing a view of band-building with him that can seem like mad science and private language: “We had many, many conversations and shared many inside jokes about the ‘tricks of this trade.’ Maybe a certain player’s real talents are covered up. How do you ‘game’ it out of him or her? How do you expand a jazz player’s linearity into ‘cosmolody’? How do you ‘gift’ permission to a classical player to hear and feel outside his or her role?”

It was that kind of thinking that brought a special vitality, a sense of risk and promise, to Paul Cram’s large ensembles – rare qualities in any music.

Archival Note: Gregg Simpson has recently uploaded recordings and much more archival material, downloadable at https://conditionwestrecordings.bandcamp.com/music. There’s an intense set of early music, Live at l’Opale, Montreal, 1983, by the Paul Cram Trio with Simpson and bassist Lisle Ellis; and the orchestra set, Live in Lisbon.

Stuart Broomer writes frequently on music (mostly improvised) and is the author of Time and Anthony Braxton. His column “Ezz-thetics” appears regularly at pointofdeparture.org.

Keeping apace of new music events in the city is like a never-ending discovery of new ideas, initiatives and opportunities to expand one’s horizons on both the local and international scenes. The Royal Conservatory’s annual 21C Music Festival, running from May 23 to 27, provides an opportunity to experience all this within a five-day span, with eight concerts and 37 premieres. The Kronos Quartet, along with composer and multi-instrumental performer Jherek Bischoff, will open the festival, followed by concerts featuring a number of different international and national pianists, including Anthony de Mare with his special project Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano, Sri Lankan-Canadian composer and pianist Dinuk Wijeratne performing with Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, and the French sibling pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque.

As is customary for 21C, one of their concerts is a co-presentation with an established Toronto new music presenter – in this case, New Music Concerts, who will bring a Claude Vivier-inspired program to Mazzoleni Hall on May 27. This year, however, a second co-presentation also caught my eye: Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis with Maarja Nuut & HH, presented on May 26 in collaboration with Estonian Music Week, running concurrently in the city from May 24 to 29.

The Estonian Music Week co-presentation is one of two concerts at 21C that combine music by contemporary composers with music of the past – thus creating a blurring of time, as it were. Vox Clamantis will offer both Gregorian chant music alongside contemporary works by primarily Estonian composers – while in another 21C show on May 25, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the A Far Cry chamber orchestra will combine two works by J.S. Bach and two by Philip Glass.

Vox ClamantisVox Clamantis

I had an opportunity to speak with Jaan-Eik Tulve, the conductor of Vox Clamantis, about the ensemble, the connections between Gregorian chant and contemporary music, and the legendary singing tradition in Estonia. Vox Clamantis was formed 20 years ago by Tulve as a way to continue singing the Gregorian chant he had studied in Paris in the 1990s. However, it quickly expanded into an ensemble that embraced the music of contemporary Estonian composers, who were keen to write music for them. One of the key reasons for this desire to compose for Vox Clamantis, Tulve told me, “was because they found that our musicality, phrasing and voices are different from classical singers. Even though Gregorian chant is the basis for classical music, the differences are that it is unmetered and monophonic music, so you must pay close attention to phrasing and listening to each other.”

Jaan Eik Tulve. Photo by Bartos BabinskliOne of the composers the ensemble has a very close working relationship with is the esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Back in 1980, Pärt was forced to leave Estonia, which was part of the USSR at the time, in order to have his creative freedom. He lived in Berlin for 30 years, only returning to Estonia in the late 1990s after the country regained its independence. A strong relationship between Pärt and Vox Clamantis was quickly established, strengthened by the fact that Pärt had studied Gregorian chant when he was young. “We found a lot of similarities in our musical expressions and understandings of music, and little by little we sang more and more music that he wrote for us. He also often comes to us with new compositions while he is working on them so he can hear what they sound like,” Tulve said. The program at the 21C Festival will include five pieces by Pärt, all of which are on The Deer’s Cry CD, an album fully dedicated to performances of Pärt’s music by Vox Clamantis. As well, one of the repertoire programs that the ensemble regularly performs is comprised of a mixture of Pärt’s music with Gregorian music, a program designed by both Tulve and Pärt.

Other contemporary composers whose works will be on Vox Clamantis’ 21C program include the music of Helena Tulve, Jaan-Eik’s wife, who also studied Gregorian chant along with contemporary composition. “It’s a very short but concentrated monophonic piece which is quite different from most of her other instrumental compositions,” Tulve said. It will be paired with Ave Maria by Tõnis Kaumann, who is also a singer in the ensemble. And finally, a work by American composer David Lang will round out the concert, demonstrating Lang’s ability to write in a wide range of styles. When I asked Tulve about the connection between the ensemble and Lang’s musical language, he remarked that Lang’s music “was perfect for our ensemble as it is quite close to our musicality. It’s minimalist music, and we find minimalism in Pärt’s music, Gregorian chant and Lang’s music. Minimalism is the one common point.”

I concluded my conversation with Tulve by asking him to speak about the relationship between singing and the Estonian national identity. In what’s known as the Estonian Age of Awakening, which began in the 1850s and ended in 1918 with the declaration of the Republic of Estonia, the Estonian Song Festival was established in 1869. It is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world, held every five years, bringing together around 30,000 singers to perform the same repertoire for an audience of up to 80,000. “This festival was very important during the Soviet occupation” Tulve told me, “and helped Estonians survive this period by strengthening their own national identity. To preserve this strong link between singing and the Estonian identity, every child learns to sing in choirs at school, and the singing is at a very high level throughout the country with many good amateur choirs.”

Two other Estonian performers will also take to the stage that same evening – Maarja Nuut, performing on vocals, violin and electronics, along with Hendrik Kaljujärv on electronics. For the evening finale, the choir and these two young experimental performers will come together with a work performed by Vox Clamantis with improvisations by Nuut and Kaljujärv.

Simone Dinnerstein with A Far Cry

One of the pianists the 21C Festival is programming is Brooklyn-based Simone Dinnerstein, who burst onto the international scene with her self-produced recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2007. Since that time, she has performed internationally, with repertoire spanning from Baroque to select 21st-century works especially composed for her. Recently, she entered into a creative collaboration with composer Philip Glass, whose Piano Concerto No. 3 for piano and strings will receive its Canadian premiere at 21C along with pieces by J.S. Bach and Glass’ Symphony No.3. The concerto was a co-commission from a consortium of 12 orchestras; it was premiered in Boston in 2017 with string orchestra A Far Cry.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa Marie MazzuccoIn my recent phone interview with her, Dinnerstein spoke about how this came about. The idea arose in 2014 when both artists discovered that they had a mutual interest in the music of Bach. Glass was interested in writing a work for her and Dinnerstein proposed that it be a concerto for piano and string orchestra. “I thought it would be interesting if the performance of the piece was paired with a Bach concerto,” she said. “All of Bach’s keyboard concertos are for keyboard and string orchestra, and there haven’t been many pieces written for that combination since Bach’s time. Glass liked the idea and from there, along with A Far Cry, we all decided it would be interesting to create a whole program with music by Bach and Glass.” At the May 25 concert, the first half includes Glass’ Symphony No. 3 followed by Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G Minor BWV1058, and in the second half, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor will be followed by Glass’ new Piano Concerto. And just in time for the festival, the two keyboard concertos on the program will be available on a CD titled Circles.

Glass’ concerto is written in three movements, with some parts more flowing and others quite dynamic. Dinnerstein said that in the second movement, some parts remind her of rock music in terms of sonority and rhythm. “At times the orchestra almost sounds like one of those 1970s synthesizers and it’s a really amazing sound. The third movement is definitely what I call transcendental music.”

In a an accidental but striking instance of synchronicity between 21C and Estonian Music Week, this third movement is dedicated to Arvo Pärt. “I can see why he dedicated it to Pärt,” Dinnerstein commented, “because there is a stillness to it that is present in a lot of Pärt’s music. But to me, it still sounds very much like Philip Glass. It’s a very slow-paced movement and is extremely difficult to rehearse because you need to be an active listener all the time. Everybody in the orchestra and the pianist have to be really aware of each other and of the music moment by moment, which takes a great deal of focus. I’ve now played this with a number of orchestras and one of the things that is wonderful about playing it with A Far Cry is they are an ensemble that really spends a lot of time listening to each other since they have no conductor. It’s part of their artistic personality to be able to respond to each other in a very instantaneous way, so we’ve tried different things with that movement. I might suddenly change something I’m doing and they have to respond to it without having a plan, so it’s much more improvisatory. That kind of thing is very hard to do with a larger orchestra and a conductor, but with them, it’s really possible.”

Dinnerstein went on to describe the commonalities between the music of Glass and Bach. “Both of their writing deals a lot with sequences of patterns and they have a common interest in the larger architecture of a piece. As well, they have written relatively very little regarding the interpretation of a performance. Their use of tempo, articulation and dynamic markings is quite bare, so that leaves a great deal up to the interpreter to try and delve into the music and see what the music is saying to them. I love that about those composers. As a result, when you hear different people play their music, it can sound wildly different.”

As for commonalities between Baroque and contemporary music, Dinnerstein commented: “I’ve always thought there’s a stronger connection there than between Romantic music and contemporary music. There’s a kind of abstraction to both Baroque and contemporary, and if you listen to Chopin for example, it feels very much of its time. You’re very aware of Chopin the artist. With Bach and Glass, the expression is less tied to the composers themselves – I don’t feel a sense of them as people. Rather, I feel that whoever is playing their music can bring out something quite different. The personality of the composer feels less dominant and there is a wider spectrum that lies within the music itself.”

What is striking about both these concerts I’ve highlighted here is the way contemporary music is linked with the sensibilities of both medieval Gregorian chant and Baroque music. It will definitely make for some fascinating listening – and an opportunity to experience music in all its timelessness. 

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

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