Nick FraserBannerNick Fraser has become a key figure in Toronto jazz since moving here from Ottawa two decades ago, an inventive and inspiring drummer who invigorates any music he touches.

He’s played across the spectrum, but he’s been most notable as a creative force in some special groups, like Drumheller, a quintet that set a standard for free jazz in Toronto for its decade-long existence. Then there’s the chamber jazz supergroup Ugly Beauties, with pianist Marilyn Lerner and cellist Matt Brubeck, as well as his membership in the fusion quartet Peripheral Vision, the Lina Allemano Four, as well as Allemano’s edgy electronics-driven improv project Titanium Riot.

Nick Fraser. Photo by Brett Delmage.

Lately, though, Fraser has been taking steps to raise his international profile as drummer, composer and bandleader. His most prominent association is with saxophonist Tony Malaby, a central figure in New York free jazz who first established his credentials working with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

Fraser’s connection with Malaby goes back 20 years: “Tony and I met in 1996 at a jazz retreat in Idaho that was run by Gunther Schuller. I was 20 years old and Tony was in his early 30s and I was really impressed with his sound and his demeanour. We’ve kept in touch over the years and have worked together fairly regularly since 2012.” They’ve worked in a trio with Canadian-expatriate pianist Kris Davis, but February offers a chance to hear them in Fraser’s unusual quartet project that’s launching its third CD, Is Life Long?, on Clean Feed, the world’s most active free jazz label. The configuration of the group, with cellist Andrew Downing and bassist Rob Clutton, has an inspired flexibility, with Downing moving freely between lead and rhythm roles.

Tony Malaby and Joe Hertenstein at Downtown Music Gallery, NYC, October 2016. Photo by John Sharpe.Fraser’s vision as a bandleader/ composer is to open the music’s possibilities. “I’m interested in music that allows the musicians to occupy a number of spectra. The quartet music allows us to occupy extremes of the dynamic range, or to juxtapose traditional musical language with more experimental gestures, or to swing between collective improvisation and solo-oriented action. Of course, this is true of all “free” music, but having compositions allows for, in addition to those things, a range of intentionality in the music.”

Fraser initially describes his compositions as numbered “Sketches,” later sometimes assigning titles. On Is Life Long? individual sketches sometimes merge into spontaneous suites. “They’re all vehicles for group improvisation and they’re not finished until they’re performed. Even then, they’re only finished until the next performance. As for the specific musical content, often it’s just a melody, sometimes with a given harmony line, bass line or rhythmic structure ... it varies.“

Every performance is an adventure. As Fraser remarks of the band members, “Tony is a very powerful, special musician and I cherish each time we get to play together. That said, I think the same thing about Andrew and Rob. Each of the people in the band offers me an amazing model of artistic growth.”

The quartet launches Is Life Long? at The Rex Jazz and Blues Bar, February 5 and 6, 194 Queen St. W.;; (416) 598-2475.

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

The year 2017 was one in which women broke barriers in speaking up against abuse, particularly within the powerful corridors of the entertainment industry, political institutions and the media. Time magazine honoured this historical breakthrough by naming their Person of the Year for these women who dared to speak up, calling them “The Silence Breakers.”

Yoko Ono Revisited

In the autumn of 1961, Yoko Ono created her Voice Piece for Soprano, a conceptual score with instructions to “Scream
1. against the wind; 2. against the wall; 3. against the sky.” In the late 50s, Ono was part of a constellation of creative people connected to composer John Cage, and began experimenting with what she called “instruction works,” meaning “paintings to be constructed in your head.” Her Voice Piece for Soprano was one of these works, and was published a few years later in 1964 as part of her book Grapefruit. She speaks of this work as giving her an opportunity to express her rebelliousness as a woman and the need to scream against certain situations in life. She also saw it as an act of resistance, stating in a 2015 interview connected to a performance of her Voice Piece, that if women don’t express their emotions, they can become ill.

This coming February 23, in a co-presentation between the Music Gallery and the Gardiner Museum, Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano will be explored by three local artists who have been invited to respond to Ono’s instructions for screaming. These performers include Lillian Allen, a pioneering voice of dub poetry in Canada; the Element Choir, an improvising choir directed by Christine Duncan; and Mamalia, the former lead singer of the JUNO-nominated contemporary jazz troupe Sekoya. The concert, titled “Voice Pieces,” is being held as a companion event for the Gardiner Museum’s exhibition Yoko Ono: THE RIVERBED, running from February 23 to June 3.

Ono’s resistance piece remains as timely now as when first created, since the need for women to speak out with force against how they have been treated within patriarchal institutions has reached a tipping point. However, I’m certain that Ms. Ono would not concur with the descriptive phrase used in the Music Gallery’s press release, describing this voice as the “out of control female voice pushed to its supposed limits,” nor with using the word “hysterical” to describe the type of voice that engages in therapeutic screaming. It’s time to reframe how we think of the female voice, long held in contempt, mistrust and suspicion from the days of early Christianity up to the present.

Lillian Allen

I approached Allen to speak about her work as a leader in spoken word and dub poetry, her understanding of the voice, and of her plans for the Voice Pieces concert at the Gardiner Museum. Back in 1988, I had interviewed Allen for Musicworks magazine, and so I began with asking her how she would describe the evolution of her career over these past 30 years. She described her work as “helping to innovate, motivate and originate the form of spoken word which has become so important in the worlds of hip-hop and rap.

“I went out into the culture, combining words, music and experimentation and this influence can be traced in the work of many people, including Canadian rappers Saukrates and Drake. This hidden influence has given me great satisfaction. As Leonard Cohen says in his song: ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ I helped to make a crack in a few things. I could have gone the pop commercial route myself, but I stayed with my own work of writing, performing and touring, and also went into teaching at OCAD, which gives me an opportunity to be out there and to give back. I’m still involved in initiating and supporting groups, individuals, and the whole movement of putting voices out in the world.”

Lillian Allen. Photo by Karen Lee.Allen continues to be both excited and challenged by her work. In 2012 she released her album Anxiety, created through a process of working in her living room with various audio devices to create layerings and sonic manipulations of her voice. She explored pre-language sounds and misconfigurations of the voice while also staying close to language in order to bring out a narrative message. She did it for the love of exploration, and not with any preconceived ideas of whether it would become a product or if it would sell. “I was just grooving with it, listening to it, having a conversation with it, and being there with the totality of it.” Her approach was to simply “work and experiment, and out of that I could then pull something.”

On Voice

We then turned to speaking about the voice and I asked her to comment on the voice itself and her relationship to her own voice. “Voice is the thing that gives you motion, gives you vibrational motion. It is vocalized emotion that makes you larger than whatever moment you are in, both in sound and in what you have to say. There is a time to be still, and the inner voice is there. But the voice itself is so full of life, it’s almost a symbol for life and growth. It is that channel inside the unknown, it gets into things we don’t know we know, or that we know but forget. It’s like a path in a forest that you either cut or make. In your psyche, the voice makes that path for you, and you can journey with it, see things and go into imaginary places. It’s the power of YOU, its part of your heartbeat, it’s the power of your lungs, your muscles, it’s not just your fingers on a keyboard. You connect with it, it’s floating in and out of you.

“The physical resonance of the voice is something I love. The resonating voice is almost like beings existing, as if you are creating beings and they are existing in each note, in each sound. You can feel that vibration in the room, in your body. It’s a beautiful thing, and is the reason I love performing and being out there. It creates real magic. Everybody connects to sound. They might not connect to a phrase or image in the English language, but they’ll connect to sound. That was so evident when I did a tour in the UK and France with my CD Anxiety. People connected to the sound – it needed no interpretation.”

She then spoke about the fears people have around the voice. “I do find that people are scared of sound, scared of hearing their voices, scared of messing with language. They need permission. I find adults to be more like this. They feel confronted because they wonder – what does this new territory mean, where will it take me? But once they get into it, once they’re in the water and the waves are there, they can’t help but smile and be happy.”

We spoke about Yoko Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano, the scream, and so-called uncontrolled sound. “This is an artist construction, highly crafted, highly controlled. There’s a sophisticated thought process in even arriving at that concept, it’s a breakthrough. Then to shape it, to rehearse it at different levels – in your mind, on a mic, in a room – you want to know what the impact is, you want your artistic vision to land in a certain way. Women have always gone outside the strictures of language and the hierarchy of various language forms to express themselves. Maybe that’s where the original scream comes from. Do not control, do not get us to conform to your realities and your knowledge that shapes that reality. We know that more exists and that the emotive parts of our existence are essential and important to our lives. We know it’s important to create and communicate something more meaningful and textured that people can connect to.”

Allen is still reflecting on the nature of her contribution to the Voice Pieces concert but plans to include some pieces from her Anxiety album. She will also likely bring in either students or young people from the community to join her, something she now does regularly when performing. She also envisions layering and texturing the sounds, pushing the sound and the conversation into different aspects. “Right now as I prepare, I’m listening and working with my concept, bringing in materials from my own experience as well as researching history.” I may place the students in the space to echo or reverb what I’m producing, and the performance could also include creating a sound improvisation with the audience.”

I expect that this event will be another important moment in the reclamation of the female voice. All three invited artists will add their own unique perspective on the power of vocal expression, and in particular, “the scream.”

Not So New Creations

John Adams

Other upcoming events include the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival, running this year from March 3 to 10. In a departure from previous years, there will be no featured guest composer or curator. Instead the programming will feature three concerts of TSO music director Peter Oundjian’s personal favourites as a way of celebrating his 14th and final season as music director, which has included the successful New Creations Festival. We will hear works by Vivian Fung, Larry Alan Smith, Daníel Bjarnason (March 3); Wolfgang Rihm, James MacMillan and the festival composer competition winner (March 7); and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gary Kulesha and John Adams (March 10).

Last year’s festival curated by indie musician Owen Pallett highlighted a diverse array of composers and performers, attempting to address issues of race and gender inclusion. Alas, I note that it appears this initiative was not continued in this year’s offerings.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

I look forward each February to focus my column’s lens on Black History Month as celebrated in music. Last year I mentioned that the City of Toronto became the first municipality in Canada to proclaim BHM in 1979, recognizing “the past and present contributions that African Canadians make to the life of Toronto….”

It was only as recently as 2016 however, that Ontario passed legislation to formally recognize February as BHM on a continual annual basis. Its history is ever evolving. Therefore I recently asked Andrew Craig, the Toronto-based vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, broadcaster and musical director of high-profile tributes to Quincy Jones and Oscar Peterson, for his views of its relevance today.

“Black History Month, in my estimation, continues to grow in importance and significance. In recent years, our many screens have become flooded with increasingly negative images of people of African descent in compromised or disempowered circumstances. The media is quick to latch on to stories depicting people of colour in well-worn stereotypical roles. What gets far less airtime are stories, both past and present, of the incredible contributions African descendants have made to the development of our contemporary society and culture.

“Despite the fact that these accounts of heroic and exemplary Blacks are so often relegated to the margins of the history books, a fresh retelling of their struggles and triumphs provides inspiration to all, regardless of one’s background or colour,” Craig concluded.

Andrew CraigPortraits, Patterns, Possibilities: a Black Canadian Trilogy

Craig puts his ideas into action on February 23 at Eglinton St. George’s United Church. Culchahworks Arts Collective, of which he is the founder and artistic director, presents a hybrid live action/videotaped evening titled “Portraits, Patterns, Possibilities: a Black Canadian Trilogy.”

This theatrical event, conceived, written and directed by Craig, paints a portrait of three important Black Canadians and the historical milestones they set. Portrayed by actors, the characters collectively observe that despite their considerable accomplishments the struggles they fought for continue to this day. Nevertheless a core theme of optimism permeates Trilogy, the show envisioning a “brighter future for all of us,” as Craig puts it.

The first landmark covered is the 225th anniversary of the passage of the Emancipation Act of 1793. Craig notes that the Black slave woman Chloe Cooley was the catalyst for the introduction of this legislation, the first to limit and ultimately abolish slavery in the British Empire.

As well, this year is the 195th birthday of Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), the first Black woman publisher in North America, notable also as the first woman publisher in Canada. In addition, she was a pioneer in the desegregation of schools, worked for women’s suffrage and graduated as a lawyer at the age of 60! The third milestone being celebrated is the 60th anniversary of the breaking of the NHL colour barrier by Boston Bruins hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree, known as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”

To aid in telling these inspiring stories Craig has programmed music drawn from a mix of sources. It ranges in time and genre from a cappella choral music evoking field hollers and Negro spirituals, up to instrumental music in the style of the post-WWII era. Much of the score will be by Craig himself.

The evening will be videoed live with the public invited to be part of the studio audience. Join me in commemorating these compelling Black Canadian figures and witness the making of Portraits, Patterns, Possibilities, an essential story in our complex national narrative.

Africa Without Borders

Much earlier in the month, on February 3, Alliance Française de Toronto and Batuki Music Society mark BHM with a concert, “Africa Without Borders,” at the Alliance Française’s Toronto venue. The Okavango African Orchestra, winner of the 2017 JUNO Award for Best World Music Album of the Year, is featured. OAO recorded their album in front of a jammed house at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio during BHM.

The eight accomplished African-born musicians in OAO now live in Toronto and Montreal. They include Daniel Nebiat (krar, vocals) from Eritrea, Donne Roberts (guitar, vocals) from Madagascar and Tichaona Maredza (marimba, nyunga-nyunga, hosho, vocals) from Zimbabwe. In addition Kooshin (kaban, vocals) is from Somalia, while Sadio Sissokho (kora, tama, djembe, vocals) came from Senegal, Nicolas Simbananiye (vocals) is from Burundi, while Kofi Ackah (percussion, vocals) and Ebenezer Agyekum (bass) both hail from Ghana. The group’s Batuki Music Society artist page neatly sums up the numbers: “Okavango African Orchestra: 12 instruments, 10 languages, 7 countries … one special concert.”

“The orchestra takes its name from the Okavango Delta, a basin in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where many different animal species come together to feed and find water. Similarly, the Okavango African Orchestra brings together the traditional music and instruments of several major African cultures that historically have had little or no interaction. The musicians of Okavango have created a common meeting place for these disparate cultures, and a new musical language that harmonizes their different tuning systems, rhythms and timbres. The multicultural spirit of modern-day Canada bridges ancient African solitudes.”

The group draws on music genres like Somali jazz, Tigrinya folk music, Malagasy ballads and salegy, hybrid sounds of Shona folk and popular music of Zimbabwe, West Africa griot music and Ghanaian highlife, all vital elements in the successful musical recipe cooked up by OAO.

OAO’s Facebook event page closes with the group’s aspirational message: to continue its collective “journey to an Africa without borders … before the borders were created.”

Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Kaia Kater

On February 24, the Aga Khan Museum partners with Batuki Music Society to present its BHM-themed concert,” Kaia Kater and Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble,” at the Museum. In an exploration of “Black/African diasporic cultural expression in all its many forms,” this concert draws on traditional and contemporary instruments, genres and performance styles. The music ranges from “Nubia to Harlem via Appalachia, New Orleans and Mississauga.”

Ruth Mathiang. Photo by Cari Flammia.The double bill brings together Waleed Kush Jazz Ensemble with guest singer Ruth Mathiang, and banjo player, singer-songwriter Kaia Kater, to explore musical expressions of the African-Canadian experience.

Of African-Caribbean descent, the Quebec born Kaia Kater grew up between two worlds. In her Toronto home she experienced her family’s ties to Canadian folk music firsthand; in West Virginia on the other hand, she immersed herself in the deeply rooted musical traditions of Appalachia. Her debut album Sorrow Bound (2015) referenced this divide. Kater’s second album, Nine Pin (2016), delves even further into the realities faced by people of colour in North America. Her restrained but idiomatically spot-on banjo finger picking provides an elegant support for her expressive voice.

The Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble combines African rhythms and melodies, melding them with jazz harmonies and song forms. Led by the Sudan-born Toronto multi-instrumentalist, composer and vocalist Abdulhamid, band members include local musicians Aaron Ferrera, John Ebata and Cory Sitek. The group writes that “just as Toronto is a harmonious mix of culture and people … [so] the inspiration for our music … is the harmonious mixing of rhythm and harmony.” Poet and singer-songwriter Ruth Mathiang, also born in Sudan but commencing her musical career in Kenya, is the group’s guest vocalist.

Angélique Kidjo

We wind up our non-definitive look at BHM (for many more concerts please check The WholeNote’s listings) with Angélique Kidjo’s concert at Koerner Hall on March 3.

Angélique KidjoThree-time Grammy Award winner, dancer, songwriter, author and social activist, Angélique Kidjo is among the top tier of international singers today, a creative force with some 15 album credits. I was immediately struck by her powerful voice and commanding stage presence when I saw her perform live at Toronto’s Harbourfront at the beginning of her very active touring career. Time magazine has since acclaimed her “Africa’s premier diva.”

As well as performing her original songs Kidjo’s music ranges across ethnicities, boundaries and genres, cross-pollinating the West African music of her native Benin with R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, French Caribbean zouk, Congolese rumba and Latin music. She does it all with “irresistible energy and joie de vivre.” (Los Angeles Times)

Though for many years unconvinced of the value of European classical music, Kidjo has however maintained a lifelong curiosity and transcultural ambition. It’s a trait she says she learned from her father. 2014 marked the beginning of her work with European symphony orchestras with the release of her Grammy Award-winning album Eve. It included Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg among many other top collaborators. The same year she collaborated on a song cycle based on Yoruba poems with American composer Philip Glass. The result was Ifé, Three Yorùbá Songs, scored for orchestra and Kidjo’s eloquently impassioned vocals. For its 2015 American premiere performance with the San Francisco Symphony, Philip Glass wrote in the program notes, “Angélique, together we have built a bridge that no one has walked on before.”

Her latest album, Sings (2015), continues her journey with the orchestra in a collection of nine songs arranged by Gast Waltzing and performed with his Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. The stylistically ambitious recording combines the formal, reserved qualities of European classical music with the freedom of jazz and the emotional intensity and rhythmic verve of African and Brazilian rhythms. It won her another Grammy.

Kidjo’s Koerner Hall appearance however will be with a considerably more streamlined touring band including guitarist Dominic James, bassist Ben Zwerin, drummer Yayo Serka and percussionist Magatte Sow.

Thanks for reading my BHM picks. Now get out and enjoy some live music!


Feb 1: Aga Khan Museum/Instituto Italiano di Cultura Toronto.” Musical Inventions by Paolo Angeli featuring Dr Draw.” Angeli, playing a unique 18-string hybrid of guitar, violoncello and drums, performs music rooted in the Sardinian tradition but influenced by avant-garde aesthetics. He’s joined by electric violinist Dr. Draw.

Feb 9: Alliance Française de Toronto. “Exoria: Songs of Exile.” Montréal Greek music-centered Ensemble Rebetika examines the 20th-century Greek experience of exile through songs.

Feb 10: Music Gallery/Native Women in the Arts. “Mother Tongue” features Joanne Shenandoah, Salia Joseph, Kwiigay Iiwaans and Nelson Tagoona. The event is the first of its kind, a showcase for musicians working to revitalise their Indigenous mother tongues. 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education.

Feb 16: Aga Khan Museum.” Four Skies, Four Seasons: Under the Indian Sky.” The East-West-bridging Montreal collective, Constantinople, welcomes the renowned Indian flautist Shashank Subramanyam in a “tribute to Indian music.”

Feb 17: Lula Lounge presents “Salsa Saturday: Conjunto Lacalu, plus DJ Santiago Valasquez.” Rooted in the Cuban sonora genre, this group adds a dynamic three-trumpet horn section to a rhythm section featuring Afro-Cuban hand percussion, piano, bass and tres. Dance lessons with Dreyser Garcia are available.

Feb 17: Canadian Music Centre. “Momentary.” New works for solo kamanche (4-string Persian spike-fiddle) by Shahriyar Jamshidi composer, singer and creative Kurdish kamanche improviser.

Feb 17: Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre/Nagata Shachu. “Yukiai.” Nagata Shachu (Kiyoshi Nagata, artistic director) is joined by Chieko Kojima, a founding member and principal dancer of the best-known of all taiko groups, Kodo, in an evening of dance, drums and song at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

Feb 22: Living Arts Centre presents the Lemon Bucket Orkestra in Hammerson Hall, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

Feb 24: Royal Conservatory of Music presents the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston.

Feb 24: Toronto Centre for the Arts. “Idan Raichel: Piano Songs.” Israeli singer-songwriter and musician Raichel, best known for his fusion of electronics, Hebrew texts and Arab and Ethiopian music returns to his first love, the piano.

Feb 24: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra marks the Chinese Year of the Dog with a celebratory concert. Wen Zhao, pipa; Adrian Anantawan, violin; Xiaoqiu Lin, erhu; Mark Rowswell (“Dashan”), host; Carolyn Kuan, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall.

Feb 27: St. Michael’s Concerts presents the Vesuvius Ensemble performing music from southern Italy circa 1600 – traditional folk music about the Sorrowful Mother and other works – featuring Francesco Pellegrino, tenor, chitarra battente; Marco Cera, mandolin, ciaramella; Lucas Harris, lute, theorbo, Baroque guitar. St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. clip_image001.png

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

How does it happen that a young conductor from Birmingham, UK makes his Canadian debut leading the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in a pair of concerts? How is it that a young Taiwanese-American violinist makes his Toronto debut at Mooredale Concerts? And what accounts for a young German-French cellist making his Toronto debut at Koerner Hall? The coincidence of three emerging young professionals all arriving in our area over the next few weeks sparked the above questions (and several more). Their answers in a series of emails mid-January were as diverse as their backgrounds but all shared the common thread of personal connections.

Alpesh Chauhan, the 27-year-old conductor from Birmingham, told me that his management are on very good terms with the management of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and keep in touch sharing information on their clients. The invitation to guest conduct on February 9 and 10 developed out of interest on the orchestra’s part; a grateful Chauhan attributes it to strong trust between the parties.

Twenty-seven-year-old Paul Huang’s route to his February 18 Toronto recital travelled directly through pianist Wonny Song, Mooredale’s artistic director, who is also artistic director of Quebec’s Orford Music Festival. Huang, the recipient of the prestigious 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant and the 2017 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists, told me, “Both Wonny and I have won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions at some point in our careers and Wonny first heard me during a trip to New York and we were introduced through a patron of YCA.” That meeting led to Song booking Huang for his Canadian debut last summer at Orford. “He must have liked what he heard and here I am, making my first visit to Toronto!”

Versatile soloist and chamber musician, 35-year-old Nicolas Altstaedt, was chosen by Gidon Kremer to succeed him as artistic director of the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival; and he was selected by Adam Fisher to follow him as artistic director of the Haydn Philharmonic. Altstaedt spoke to RCM executive director Mervon Mehta, who books their concerts at Koerner Hall, in March of 2016 when the cellist visited Toronto with his friend and sometime chamber music partner, violinist Vilde Frang, who was giving a recital at Koerner Hall at the time. Altstaedt expressed his desire to play there and the confluence of this season’s cello series and Mehta’s familiarity with pianist Fazil Say (Altstaedt’s collaborator) sealed the deal for the March 2 recital.

Alpesh Chauhan. Photo by Patrick Allen.Alpesh Chauhan: Chauhan first discovered classical music at school, when a cello teacher performed in his school assembly in Birmingham. He was instantly hooked, and went home later that day with a cello under his arm, much to the surprise of his parents who were born in East Africa (father in Tanzania and mother in Kenya) of Indian descent (Gujarati). He became increasingly passionate about classical music throughout school and later studied cello at the Royal Northern College of Music, while at the same time conducting friends in concerts he arranged for charity. “That was my first real conducting experience and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. “I quickly grew an obsession with the people at the front, and the sound they created from the podium.

“Following several years of training, studying and being mentored by great conductors like Andris Nelsons and Edward Gardner, I have now conducted two concerts at the BBC Proms, a production of Turandot at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, the BAFTA-winning children’s film Ten Pieces II with the BBC Philharmonic and a main season concert at the Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra. I also became principal conductor of the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini last year.”

Asked specifically which conductors inspire him, Chauhan continued: “I love the gestural genius of such conductors as Carlos Kleiber and Gennady Rozhdestvensky,” he said. “One learns so much about the interaction between conductors and the sounds they wish to inspire (and the success thereof) from both of these conductors. I am very inspired by Sir Simon Rattle too as well as other visiting conductors that I assisted as guests at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [where he held the position of assistant conductor] including Edward Gardner, Walter Weller and Vassily Sinaisky. A huge inspiration for me was Andris Nelsons who I was assistant to at the CBSO in his period as music director. Some of what I learned from him includes trust and respect of the orchestral musicians, freedom in performance and concert and strength of musical ideas and interpretation.”

Paul Huang. Photo by Marco Borggreve.Paul Huang: “I was mesmerized by the sound of the violin when I was a kid,” Huang told me. “It was the singing quality and the sound that is so close to the human voice that drew me to the instrument. As a child, I was terribly shy and was not good with words, so playing the violin was a way to express myself without using words!”

I asked who his musical idols were in his formative years and he told me it was a hard question to answer. “But I will say that there are several violinists (mainly the ones from the past) that I would constantly listen to (and still do), people like Kreisler, Oistrakh, Milstein, Hassid and the young Menuhin. Outside of the violin world, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland are some of the singers that I constantly listen to and find myself feeling so inspired every time I listen to their voices.”

As to what violinists inspire him, he said those violinists who have a strong viewpoint and a voice that is convincing and unique. “I find that most of the violinists from the past generation all have a sound that is so distinctive from each other. They are all inspiring to listen to.”

Nicolas AltstaedtNicolas Altstaedt: When I asked Alstaedt what drew him to the cello he told me that his father played the piano a bit as well as the cello. His older brother started playing piano so when he was six he picked up the cello. “Once I started playing, I didn’t think of doing anything else in my life.”

He never “idolized“ interpreters he told me, “though I have certainly been influenced by artists I admired such as Gidon Kremer or Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I have always found deep fascination in the process of composing and creating an artwork. There is a danger in our society in idolizing performers rather than recognizing and understanding the achievements of true creators.”

As to whom he considers to be his musical mentors, he pointed to violinist and chamber musician Eberhard Feltz as the most influential figure in his life for almost ten years. “I met him through the Quatuor Ébène, who have been working with him for a long time. They regularly came to Berlin, staying at my place while i was attending classes for sometimes up to eight hours a day. I started to study with him in 2009 and still see him on a regular basis. He keeps surprising me every time and each encounter leaves food for thought for several weeks.”

Next, I asked each musician to comment on the repertoire they will be performing.

AC: We have a great program for my KWS debut. A flashy overture by Magnus Lindberg, Aventures, which quotes many popular classical music works including Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and even Berlioz’s grand fantasy-themed Symphonie Fantastique which we perform in the second half of the concert. In between we’re joined by pianist André Laplante for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. I have a long relationship with the Berlioz as I conducted rehearsals as an assistant in Birmingham, went on to assist it a couple of times in my time at the CBSO and then conducted it in Scotland in 2016 in a program that also included Debussy’s La Mer!

PH: In general for my recital programs, I want to give audiences a variety of musical styles and a sound world palette which the violin is able to convey. For this program with my duo partner Helen Huang, we will be bringing the Dvořák Sonatina, a piece which Dvořák wrote while in America but very much had nostalgia towards his roots, with several joyful Czech dances throughout the movements. The Prokofiev F-Minor Sonata is perhaps one of the darkest sonatas ever written (like a Russian epic novel). It was written during WWII, a sonata that almost in a way documents history through the notes. In the second half we have prepared two miniature pieces (Sarasate and Kreisler) to lighten up the mood from the dark first half and make a transition to the finale of the program, which will be the colourful and brilliant Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata, a piece that is very dear to my heart.

NA: The repertoire for Altstaedt’s recital consists mostly of the works on his recent Warner Classics CD with his Koerner recital partner, Fazil Say. “I met Fazil seven years ago and commissioned a sonata while I was on the BBC New Generation Artist scheme. We started to play recitals and the following program evolved. I have a strong passion for the music at the beginning of the 20th century; Janácek and Debussy are two very different exemplary masterpieces of that period. Shostakovich has been the most influential composer in my childhood and his sonata is very similar to Fazil’s in term of architecture.”

I concluded my virtual symposium by asking each musician the question: What do you find most rewarding and most challenging in your professional life?

AC: I think one of the most important elements of my professional life is the musical and emotional reward I enjoy when playing and conducting live music. The most challenging, however, is the travel and unsettled lifestyle, which can be very tiring. I also find constantly changing repertoire to be a challenge! For example, the week before I conduct the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, I will be in Italy conducting Shostakovich 11. I’ll then travel straight to KWS for Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, followed by the Netherlands to conduct Tchaikovsky 4 and then back to Italy for Shostakovich 10!

PH: Very often when I get together with musicians we ask each other is all the stress, travelling, hours of practising, the nerves of getting on stage night after night, is this really worth it? But the answer at the end is always yes. Because when I see people coming up to me after concerts telling me how much they enjoyed the evening or sometimes how it made their lives more meaningful or even made some positive impact in their lives, for me, that’s what makes everything worth it. I believe music is the most wonderful and powerful way of bridging different roots, different cultures, different languages, different religions and different backgrounds. In the world of music, we are all on this wonderful musical platform where we are all the same and can share something in common and can understand and respect each other on a much deeper level.

NA: It is very rewarding to spend your life communicating with people in the most diverse and powerful language. I am very aware and grateful for that every day. I am currently working on The Seasons by Haydn and it has been a revelation. The same goes for pieces I have already performed like the concertos by Dutilleux and Dvořák and the complete Bach Suite Cycle, that I am playing the following week. To be in touch and discover artworks that widen your awareness on a daily basis is the most wonderful thing to grow in life.

George Li

Last month I did a Q&A with pianist George Li whose Toronto debut recital in Koerner Hall on February 4 has been postponed with no new date announced as of press time. The Q&A prompted a comment by New England Conservatory visual assets manager Andrew Hurlbut who pointed out that Li’s musical education owed a great debt to the NEC and to his studies with Wha Ryung Byun as part of the NEC/Harvard dual degree program. “It seems to me that long through line in his training is at least somewhat responsible for his current well-deserved success,” he wrote in an email. We appreciate and welcome the comments of readers far and wide.


Feb 5: The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society is taking full advantage of charismatic clarinetist Dionysis Grammenos’ stint as assistant conductor for the COC’s production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. K-WCMS is connecting him with the popular piano quartet, Ensemble Made in Canada, for a performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet Op.115, another exquisite work from the composer’s last creative output. The performance will be repeated Feb 7 in Toronto as part of the COC’s free noontime concert series.

Feb 11: Anyone who was fortunate enough to experience the electricity of Stravinsky’s Petrushka at David Jalbert’s and Wonny Song’s duo piano Mooredale Concerts recital January 14 need not be reminded of Jalbert’s next appearance in our area. For his K-WCMS solo concert, the Ottawa-based virtuoso will burnish his reputation as one of Canada’s finest pianists with three Prokofiev sonatas – Nos. 2, 3 and 5 – on the same program.

Feb 15: TSO principal violist Teng Li brings her warmth and sensitivity to a program of transcriptions by the celebrated 20th-century violist William Primrose in a free noontime recital at U of T Faculty of Music’s Walter Hall. Lydia Wong is the collaborative pianist.

Feb 16: Leon Fleisher, who turns 90 later this year, conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Sibelius Symphony No.1 in Koerner Hall. He will give masterclasses in Mazzoleni Hall Feb 11 and 17. Masterclasses with Fleisher are inspirational and memorable, strewn with anecdotes. It’s no surprise, considering his close connection to Beethoven through his teacher, Artur Schnabel, a student of Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny. A few years ago, Fleisher said he once had “the pleasure of performing with three guys named Jascha, Grisha and Bill [Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Primrose]. And it really was a pleasure.”

Feb 22: Music Toronto presents the Apollon Musagète Quartet in a program of Haydn, Arensky and Grieg. The dynamic young Polish quartet made a memorable debut in the Jane Mallett Theatre in November 2015 and their return is eagerly anticipated.

Feb 25 and 26: Canzona Chamber Players give us another chance to hear Brahms’ great clarinet quintet (along with with Hindemith’s) with Canzona co-founder Jonathan Krehm joining Csaba Koczo, Jessica Tong (violins), Robin Howe (cello) and Pocket Concerts’ Rory McLeod (viola).

Mar 1: Lang Lang, recovering from tendinitis in his left arm, will share the keyboard with 15-year-old Maxim Lando (a Lang Lang International Music Foundation Scholar) in a piano four hands arrangement of Gershwin’s exuberant Rhapsody in Blue. Peter Oundjian conducts the TSO. 

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Reading a survey of “The History of Classical Music” is an experience similar to reading the Toronto Transit Commission subway map. Broken down into its basic elements, our subterranean transit system is a series of independent and direct lines with clear paths and destinations that intersect at a relatively small number of major junctions. These junctions are occasionally chaotic (think Bloor Station at 8:30am, with an obligatory delay or two) and often confusing, with the uninitiated and unfamiliar wondering just how to get from that yellow line to that green line without being trampled by a stampeding horde of commuters.

Our conventional understanding of the history of classical music is, much like our system of underground transport, often considered in linear terms – take the Yonge line to Bloor, Bloor line to Bathurst – directional, but reading more like the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren… or, Buxtehude begat J.S. Bach; and J.S. Bach begat C.P.E. Bach; and C.P.E. Bach begat Mozart... These linear streams of music history intersect, like our Bloor and Yonge lines, relatively rarely (once every 150 years or so) often landmarked by a creative supernova: the masterworks of J.S. Bach; the creation and subsequent development of sonata form by Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; the operas of Wagner; the invention of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony. These are the junctions which, we are told, changed the course of history and introduced the world to the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern eras, respectively.

Nothing, however, is as simple as it seems. Once we reach the surface and take a bird’s-eye view of these systems, we find that they are infinitely more complex and intertwined than we initially thought. Anyone who has been redirected out of Toronto’s subways (Line One is closed from Lawrence to Bloor this weekend) and forced to take shuttle buses, streetcars, or any other form of surface transportation, immediately realizes, in addition to the linear and direct lines which run underneath the city, there is an entire network of surface routing which connects our city in much more complex, thorough and occasionally hard-to-navigate ways. This is what real-life music history looks like, the apparently direct connections and creative supernovae actually consisting of myriad local and international interactions, increasing in fascinating complexity until our historical concept of “begotten-ness” is replaced by the understanding that everything is connected in one way or another

Once these connections are drawn and acknowledged, we see that it is no longer possible to parcel the history of classical music into comfortable categorizations. National musical schools, for example – Lully the Frenchman, Purcell the Englishman, Monteverdi the Italian, Bach the German – are no longer satisfactory criteria, for we often see that the country of one’s birth is significantly different from the country (or countries) responsible for one’s artistic development and inspiration. With a little bit of insight, broad categorizations, scholastically practical and academically satisfying though they are, are replaced by fascinating tales of professional musicians who worked, travelled, learned and borrowed from other countries and cultures, preserved and passed down through both musical and historical artifacts, such as Bach’s transcriptions of works by Vivaldi or the documented success of composers such as Zelenka and Heinichen, Bohemian composers who thrived within the courts of Dresden.

It is from this perspective that music, particularly the music of the Baroque, comes to life, the world of 17th-century Europe drawing from within itself to produce works of unbelievable creativity and breadth while simultaneously echoing a sentiment written by the Sherman brothers for Walt Disney 250 years later: “It’s a small world after all!”

Continental Contacts

This February is a wonderful month for fans of Baroque music – with the passing of December’s overwhelming musical offerings, the start of a new year gives ensembles time to rehearse, prepare and produce new and exciting programs. There’s something for everyone this month, but remember: whether you prefer your music with a touch of French grace, Italian joviality, German complexity, or English propriety, it’s all connected!

Rezonance: Last year Toronto’s newly-formed Rezonance Baroque Ensemble presented a fascinating concert which put the spotlight on partimenti, the study of improvisation in the Baroque era, drawing parallels between modern jazz and 17th-century classical music. The group is back on stage February 3 with “Versailles Confidential,” a multidisciplinary presentation featuring actress Ariana Marquis as the Marquise de Sévigné. With music by some of the French Baroque’s most esteemed composers including Rebel, D’Anglebert, Couperin and Jean-Baptiste Lully, official court composer of Louis XIV, this performance should be a delightful exploration of life in Baroque France.

Melos: For those further east in Ontario, Melos Choir and Period Instruments ensemble performs in Kingston on February 9. Their concert, “A Venetian Carnevale,” puts the spotlight on period vocal and instrumental music, theatre and dance from the time of Carnevale celebrations of Baroque Europe. Featured composers include Gabrieli, Lassus and Telemann, a musical kaleidoscope coloured by some fascinating bits of history. The Gabrielis were a dominant musical force in Venice and bridged the transition period between Renaissance and Baroque eras. Giovanni Gabrieli studied with Orlando di Lasso (Lassus) in Munich and subsequently taught the German composers Hans Leo Hassler and Heinrich Schütz, who brought Gabrieli’s works to Germany and ultimately influenced the music of later composers such as Bach and Telemann. An innovator of the highest calibre, Gabrieli is attributed with being the first to use specified dynamics (forte, piano, etc.) in his compositions, as well as introducing the concept of instrumentation!

Thomas Hobbs. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.Alexander’s Feast: George Frederic Handel is another composer whose influence on later generations of composers cannot be understated, his oratorios and operas crafting a path for the development of an entire genre of dramatic expression. Handel was an international artist himself, German by birth but writing enormously successful works in English such as Messiah, and Italian operas including Giulio Caesare. This month (February 22 to 25), Tafelmusik’s orchestra and chorus unite to perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music with soprano soloist Amanda Forsythe, tenor Thomas Hobbs and baritone Alexander Dobson. In addition to his concert appearances, Hobbs will host a masterclass on February 24 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, where he will work with advanced students and professional musicians on Baroque vocal repertoire as part of Tafelmusik’s Guest Artist Masterclass Series. Masterclasses are fine opportunities for the public to see how much care, attention and preparation it takes to put together even the smallest amount of musical material at a professional level, a rarely seen peek behind the curtain.

St. Matthew: The works of Johann Sebastian Bach are, perhaps, the pinnacle of an individual’s internal musical synthesis, the product of an encyclopedic knowledge of musical styles coupled with a tremendous intellect and prodigious propensity for high-quality compositional output. One of Bach’s most immense, profound, and legendary masterpieces is his St. Matthew Passion, which will be performed by Chorus Niagara and the Talisker Players on March 3 in St. Catharines. If we look beyond the staggering creativity displayed within this work, it is, furthermore, incredible to think that Bach wrote such a staggering piece to be played within the context of a church service, surrounded by all the additional elements of Lutheran liturgical ritual (including a proper Protestant sermon)!

QUICK PICKS: Choir and Organ Music from Canada and Beyond

While on the topic of church music, there are two concerts taking place this month that focus on music written by legendary church musicians, one highlighting works by Healey Willan, the “Dean of Canadian Composers,” the other the inimitable organ music of J.S. Bach:

Matthew Larkin in recital on the Casavant organ in St. Matthias Anglican Church, Ottawa. Photo by Judith van Berkom.On February 16 at 8pm, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene hosts “Willan 50,” a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Willan’s death. With the combined forces of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and organists Matthew Larkin, Simon Walker and Andrew Adair, this is bound to be a heartfelt, musical and moving tribute to one of Canada’s most renowned and influential compositional characters who considered himself “English by birth; Canadian by adoption; Irish by extraction; Scotch by absorption.”

Two days later, on February 18 at 4:30pm, fans of Bach’s organ music will be treated to an appearance by British organist David Briggs at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Belleville. Briggs, former artist-in-residence at St. James Cathedral in Toronto and a renowned performer and improviser, will play Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G BWV541, Pièce d’orgue BWV572, Passacaglia BWV582 and more, as well as an improvisation. If you missed the chance to hear Briggs in concert as part of the “Splendours of Notre Dame” concert at St. James Cathedral last month, take advantage of this opportunity; he is a delightfully skillful player!

As always, I encourage you to explore the full range of listings in this issue of The WholeNote – in addition to these few highlights, there are a great many fine concerts and events taking place in our city this month! Your feedback is always welcome, either in person or, if you prefer to spend the month of February in solitary hibernation, emerging only when the trees are budding, send me a note at

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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