So far it’s been an odd fall here. Into the third week of October, it’s well past Thanksgiving, yet Toronto is still reaching daytime high temperatures we typically experience in June. There hasn’t even been a whisper of nighttime frost in town. The geraniums still bloom vigorously and peppers continue to redden on my north-facing balcony garden. Endless summer? Dire climactic implications aside, I for one am thankful for this cold weather reprieve, soon to be over, I suspect.

The GTA’s first Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA), presented by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, will be well under way by the time you read this. The festival’s first concert was held at Koerner Hall on October 28, featuring a double bill with Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai and the Toronto world music group Sultans of String. Ever since its establishment in 2014 the professional CAO has sought to connect expatriate Arabs with classical Arabic musical culture in order to maintain this heritage in the hearts and minds of the present community in Canada, as well as to safeguard it for future generations. At the same time, the orchestra also seeks to engage with non-Arab Canadian communities. FAMA shows both objectives at work.

Arabic Music in Toronto: Rob Simms and George Sawa

To gain further insight into Arabic music today, in both the Arab world and here in Canada, I called Rob Simms, associate professor at York University’s Department of Music, a Canadian ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist specializing in Middle Eastern and West African traditions. Simms reminded me of the devastation to cultural life impacting large swathes of Iraq and Syria as a consequence of the recent invasions and sustained armed conflict in those countries. One of the results of this upheaval has been the displacement of millions of Iraqis and Syrians, many finding themselves as refugees in foreign lands – including recently, Canada.

Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is a prime example of this cultural devastation. It is considered an important centre of Arabic traditional music, historically supporting renowned practitioners of muwashshah, qudud halabiya and maqam (religious, secular and poetic-musical genres). Aleppo was also known for its sammi’a, a cadre of influential cultivated music connoisseurs. This ancient web of music production, patronage and appreciation has been tragically disrupted as a result of the current civil war.

I then followed up on the phone with longtime Toronto resident George Sawa, a renowned scholar, qanun (Arabic zither) player and music educator who holds a doctorate in historical Arabic musicology from the University of Toronto. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the multi-award-winning Sawa has over 50 years’ experience in Arabic music performance, history and theory. “I arrived in Toronto in 1970 to study at U of T,” he recounted. One of the draws was the university’s Robarts and Faculty of Music libraries, which according to Sawa “contain one of the best Arabic music collections in the world.”

George SawaWhat was the Arabic music scene like in 1970 Toronto? “At the time Arabic music was mostly encountered in cabarets and in clubs which featured belly dancing,” Sawa told me. He immediately sought to enrich the scene.

“In 1971 I founded a trio playing traditional Arabic music. Not long afterward, CBC radio recorded for broadcast a concert of Christmas carols sung by (leading contralto) Maureen Forrester, with me on qanun. The trio increased into a quintet, appearing in concert and on CBC over the next few decades. It became known as the Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble.” Sawa also served as the music director of Toronto’s Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra from 1996 to 2005.

Today one of Sawa’s performing projects is Alpharabius, “an ensemble dedicated to exploring the musical interactions of the rich cultures of the Mediterranean. The group is named after one of the great philosophers of classical Islam, al-Farabi (d. ah 339/ 950 CE), who was renowned as both a musical theorist and a practicing musician… The ensemble is a collaboration of musicians trained in the classical Arabic and Western medieval musical traditions.”

He concluded our conversation by observing that the GTA’s “Arabic community has grown considerably in the past few decades. For example, I think it’s very significant and healthy that before securing support from Canadian Arts Councils, the Canadian Arabic Orchestra initially sought patronage from local Arabic businesses who believed in what they were doing. More power to them!”

Charbel Rouhana, oudist

November 3, FAMA in co-production with Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal presents Charbel Rouhana, the Lebanese composer, singer and oudist accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre. This program will be repeated November 5 at the Monument National in Montreal.

Possessing ancient roots, the oud – often placed into three general groups, Arabic, Turkish and Persian – is at the core of much of the traditional music played throughout the Middle East and in regions influenced by its people. The oud, which has numerous morphological variants highly dependent on region of origin, typically today has 11 or 13 strings grouped into five or six courses.

Its performance tradition has been particularly long-maintained in Iraq, where a popular saying honours its high value to the culture: “In the music of the oud lies the country’s soul.” The instrument was once common in Iraqi households, something like the guitar in Canada or the USA. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime however, the increasing power of Islamist extremists who consider secular music to be haram (sinful, forbidden) has forced many oud players and teachers to cease playing publicly, or even forced them into exile in order to pursue their oud-related careers.

Already a virtuoso of the instrument, several decades ago Rouhana established a new method of playing the oud. Published in seven volumes, it has been adopted by the National Conservatory of Music in Lebanon and by other music institutions, securing his standing among today’s leading masters of the Arabic oud. Rouhana is also a prizewinning composer: in 1990 he was awarded first prize in the Hirayama Competition for his work Hymn of Peace. He has appeared in concert with classical Hindustani bansuri (bamboo flute) virtuoso Hariprasad Chaurasia, and also with many other leading musicians.

FAMA Concerts

In addition to the November 1 FAMA concert at the Revue Cinema mentioned in my previous column, featuring the outstanding female Syrian oud player and singer Waed Bouhassoun, and the November 3 Charbel Rouhana concert referred to above, there are a several more FAMA concerts in the first half of November. Here are some highlights.

November 4, the group Golan, its members hailing from Tunisia, France and Palestine, takes the stage at the Lester B. Pearson Theatre in Brampton. Leader Hubert Dupont, Golan’s double bassist, gathered like-minded musicians from all over the Mediterranean, arranging a musical exchange between elements of contemporary European music, jazz and Arabic traditional music. Pascal Rozat wrote in France Musique that Golan is reaching for “an ideal of musical fraternity as much as a hymn to freedom, for an ‘oriental journey’ different from others.”

November 9, FAMA, in partnership with the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto and in association with the Aga Khan Museum and the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, presents the world premiere of Origins at the Aga Khan Museum. Tagged “Indigenous/Arabic,” this new production by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra in collaboration with poet and singer Hassan Tamim and St’at’imc (a.k.a. Lillooet) singer-songwriter and dancer Laura Grizzlypaws is perhaps the most ambitious of the FAMA offerings.

Origins showcases similarities as well as cultural divides between the people of two continents through dance and music, “in the spirit of truth and reconciliation and… peace and harmony through the cross-cultural medium of music.” In addition to Grizzlypaws and the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, Origins presents whirling dervish performers of Rumi Canada for part of the program, enhancing the spiritual journey theme of the work.

November 12, FAMA moves to Mississauga’s Hammerson Hall, at the Living Arts Centre. Iraqi-born Naseer Shamma, among the world’s top oud masters, headlines the concert accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra. Titled “On the Way to Baghdad,” the concert is billed as a veritable masterclass in classical Arabic music.

Born in 1963 in Iraq, Shamma received his diploma from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987. He has composed music for TV, films and plays since. In 1998 he established the Arabic Oud House in Cairo, as well as in Tunis and Dubai. His scholarly research consulting old manuscripts on Arabic music has aided in his reconstruction of the Al-Farabi (c. 870-951 CE) model oud, which can produce an expanded tonal range of four octaves, giving the player a vast improvisational terrain.

Naseer ShammaQUICK PICKS

The Aga Khan Museum hosts four concerts in addition to Origins: Nov 4:Fleur Persane by Perséides” featuring Amir Amiri (santur) and Jean Félix Mailloux (double bass); Nov 18: “Haram with Gordon Grdina” is an evening of indie-rock meets jazz and electronica; Nov 25:” All Rivers at Once: The Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative” is described as “jazz-like arrangements of traditional Israeli and Iranian folk songs.” The ensemble, directed by pianist Noam Lemish, includes Saeed Kamjoo (kamancheh), Pedram Khavarzamini (tombak) and Amos Hoffman (oud). Dec 2:Nazar by Turkwaz,” the Toronto quartet of world music divas Maryem Hassan Tollar, Jayne Brown, Sophia Grigoriadis and Brenna MacCrimmon. Expect Arabic, Balkan and Turkish folk songs in tight arrangements with a sprinkling of new charts.

Nov 22: 12 noon, the COC’s World Music Series continues with “Arabic Coffee House.” The Al Qahwa Ensemble, with Maryem Hassan Tollar (vocals), Demetri Petsalakis (oud), Ernie Tollar (flutes) and Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion), animate the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

I’ll be sure to attend this concert of longtime local practitioners of Arabic and related music, bookending what promises to be an extraordinarily chockablock month of Arabic music in the GTA.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

The heart of musical theatre in any time period is storytelling through the combination of words and music, where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts; and when the right creative team and performers come together the results can be uniquely satisfying.

October’s musical theatre season started strongly with Britta Johnson’s Life After at Canadian Stage debuting to rave reviews, sold-out houses and an extended run (so far to October 29). Audiences were bowled over with the sophistication of the music, the humanity and wit of the book, and the potential of many more new musicals to come from such a talent. An unexpectedly welcome addition to the summer and fall was the classic Euripides drama The Bakkhai (in the recent Anne Carson adapation) at the Stratford Festival, in which director Jillian Keiley made the radical and fascinating decision to have the chorus sing rather than speak and chose Vancouver composer Veda Hille (of the recent Onegin and King Arthur) to create their sound, a sultry, disturbing folk-like music. Back in Toronto, Red Sky Performance continued to assert their strength of vision with Adizokan (a collaboration with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall) that will continue with a remounting of Backbone at Canadian Stage Berkeley Street November 2 to 12.

As October ends and November begins there is even more of a wide range of music theatre offerings to choose from. Personally, I have been immersed in rehearsals for Opera Atelier’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (October 26 to November 4 at the Elgin Theatre) which, in Marshall Pynkoski’s exquisitely detailed commedia dell’arte-inspired period staging, pulls those watching as if through a window into the 18th century, where words, music and movement are inextricably intertwined to serve the storytelling, obliterating the fourth wall and delighting in sharing the space with the audience.

Jake Epstein performing Only the Good Die Young in Uncovered: Elton John & Billy Joel - Photo by Joanna AkyolThe Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered concert series goes to the root of the storytelling concept, deconstructing and reconstructing the songs of popular singer-songwriters to uncover and share the stories at the heart of the songs. Artistic director Mitchell Marcus works side by side with music director Reza Jacobs and the individual performers, experimenting and exploring the material to create new uniquely theatrical arrangements that clarify and heighten the stories they discover.

November 14 to 16 they present “Uncovered: Dylan & Springsteen” at Koerner Hall with an exciting cast of leading musical theatre performers featuring Jake Epstein as Bruce Springsteen and Sara Farb as Bob Dylan.

Wanting to know more details, I approached Mitchell Marcus about how the series started and his ongoing collaboration with music director Jacobs.

Here is our conversation:

WN:What was your initial impetus or inspiration to create the concert series?

MM: The first Uncovered (in 2007) explored the musical catalogue of The Beatles. We both loved The Beatles and loved musical theatre, and wondered how the songs could be interpreted with a group of singing actors. It turned out to be revelatory as audiences started to hear the stories contained in these iconic songs in a way that they hadn’t previously. The combination of a great actor and an examination of the material from the perspective of character and narrative became something we were fiercely passionate about.

Uncovered seems to have become a cornerstone of your season. Is there a connection between your choice of singer-songwriters to feature with the mainstage show(s) that you are presenting in the season or is there instead (or as well) an arc of experimentation in the choices from year to year? How do you choose which songwriters to feature?

There is no specific connection between the Uncovered concert selections and the mainstage shows, except for the hope of always presenting exciting work of the highest quality. The choice of songwriter is a strange combination of intuition and zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s an artist that one of us loves and has been waiting to tackle. Sometimes it’s a circumstance like the death of David Bowie last year which prioritized Bowie/Queen over Dylan/Springsteen (which we had [already] been debating). I think we also try to ensure that the concert doesn’t stay too stagnant from one year to another, which has frequently resulted in alternating between rock/pop and folk music.

Has the shape of the show or your approach to the material changed since the series began?

When we first started, the concert was thrown together much more quickly, so what was onstage was really the version of the song that the artist wanted to try out. Since then, we spend a lot more time in rehearsal and really try to shape the overall evening into something whole rather than feeling like a cabaret. On the musical side, this has meant a more rigorous dramaturgical process of diving into the lyrics of the songs and making clear decisions around whose story we are telling and what story is being told. This becomes the foundation from which all musical decisions are made and the lyrics of the songwriter serve as our guide. Dramatically, we also started integrating text into the concert to serve as a bridge between numbers. We exclusively use quotes from the songwriters we are featuring and it has been a very effective way to capture their spirit alongside their music.

Could you tell us about your decision to sometimes cast female performers as male singer-songwriters, for example, Maev Beaty as David Bowie last year, and this year, Sara Farb as Bob Dylan? 

Ultimately we want to pay tribute to the spirit of the artists and share their words and music with an audience, without – in any way – trying to emulate or impersonate them. As such, the key criteria – whether it’s for delivering text from the songwriter, or singing their songs – is that the artist capture their spirit and intention, both of which transcend gender or age!

There also seems to be a core group of performers who return to take part. Is that just by chance or because they have become part of an Uncovered rep company, so to speak?

Over time we have realized that being a successful Uncovered performer is harder than it looks! Koerner Hall is spectacular, but its acoustics are so good that any imperfections are amplified tenfold. So we need fabulous singers who are also really, really good actors and who collaborate very well in the rehearsal process, since we start with a blank slate and build the arrangements together. We also need a very diverse group of performers so that we can tackle a broad spectrum of songs and styles.

So we try to find the balance between introducing new artists, showcasing returning artists who weren’t in the show the previous year, and bringing back some of the artists from the year prior. Each artist who has ever worked on Uncovered has brought something so unique and special to it. So it’s also a case of just trying to find the group who are interesting as a unit and also right for that particular songwriter.

Do either or both of you find that working regularly on the Uncovered series together has changed the way you work together, or with other collaborators, on other projects?

It has certainly built a very meaningful friendship for the two of us, and a shorthand which I think comes in handy on other shows that we do together. It’s also led to a lot of lessons when it comes to developing our new musicals. Looking at good songwriting from the perspective of narrative arc has come in handy when looking at new musical theatre songs.

Do you see the Uncovered series leading in turn to further experimentation with popular music, perhaps extending to exploring staging – or do you see it staying at the simpler level of song – words and music presented/sung live to the audience with the revelations in the new musical arrangements?

I think Uncovered is meant to stay simple in its concert format, with an emphasis on teasing out stories while just focusing on the words of the songwriter. But I think it has illuminated the power of pop music and so who knows what is possible as we continue to develop new musicals and new musical projects. We wouldn’t want to create a Mamma Mia per se, but I think it’s a very interesting exploration to examine how else pop music can be used to create contemporary and important musical works.

Elsewhere

This month there is a wide range of music theatre to choose from. Music is the medium that transforms Shakespeare’s romance of forgiveness The Winter’s Tale into one of the most effective recent story ballets, through the choreography of Christopher Wheeldon combined with the score of Joby Talbot (the same team who brought us the popular Alice in Wonderland ballet). Winter’s Tale returns to the National Ballet of Canada November 10 to 19, only two years after its debut, because of its great initial success.

On the opposite side of the spectrum the record-breaking Canadian Evil Dead the Musical returns to Toronto yet again (to the Randolph Theatre November 9 to 19), proving that a cult classic musical version of a horror movie can have, perhaps, even greater staying power than the movie itself. Tickets are already selling quickly but at the time of writing there is still room in the “Splatter Zone” for the most ardent fans.

QUICK PICKS

Nov 6 to Dec 31:Young People’s Theatre presents a streamlined (85-minute) Beauty and the Beast, giving fans of one of Disney’s best musicals the chance to catch their favourite story live.

Nov 10 to 12/16 to 18: Word has just come in about another new Canadian musical, Riding Off In All Directions . . . . the telling of lies, about the relationship between Mazo de la Roche and Stephen Leacock at Mississauga’s Maja Prentice Theatre. It will be directed by the well-known stage and screen star Colin Fox, who also plays the part of Leacock. The cast includes Bó Bardós as de la Roche; James McLean as Timothy Findley, and Marion Samuel-Stevens as de la Roche’s cousin and lifelong companion, Caroline Clement.

For more information—call 529-846-2552 or go online to: bit.ly/TellingLies.

Nov 11 to Dec 3, at Factory Theatre: Trace is a one-man show that follows three generations of mothers and sons from occupied Japan to 21st-century Canada combining virtuoso original piano compositions with lyrical text.

Nov 20 to Dec 8: At Crow’s Theatre (345 Carlaw) rock ’n’ roll takes centre stage in the world premiere of a new rock fable, A&R Angels, by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, directed by Chris Abraham.

Nov 10 to 25, at Hart House Theatre, the first of two musical offerings: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Nov 29 to Dec 1: Also at Hart House Theatre, the now-classic Canadian musical inspired by the old Astaire-Rogers films, The Drowsy Chaperone, arrives in a production by the Victoria College Musical Society.

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.

What a way to kick off the fall music season. Although I had often heard of Quartetto Gelato since they first hit the Toronto music scene 25 years ago, I had never had the opportunity to hear them in person. Now, here they were almost on my doorstep, at the classic Uxbridge Music Hall, 15 minutes from home. If you have not heard of Quartetto Gelato, you have been missing out on first-rate entertainment provided by a very skilled, classically trained ensemble with the most unusual instrumentation of violin, oboe, accordion and cello. The group has had numerous personnel changes since 1992 with violinist and tenor singer Peter De Sotto being the only original member still in the group. Alexander Sevastian, who joined in 2002, was the winner of the renowned Coupe Mondiale International Accordion Competition in Washington in 2007. In 2009 they were joined by Colin Maier on a wide range of instruments including oboe, clarinet, violin, five-string banjo, electric/acoustic bass, flute, guitar and musical saw. In that year Elizabeth McLellan also joined the group on cello.

With the unique sounds of this instrumentation, and their years of classical training, the ensemble boasts an eclectic repertoire that ranges from Brahms, Bach and Weber to Argentinian tangos, gypsy music and much more. Initially, from my vantage point in the balcony, I assumed that the accordion was the fairly well-known large piano accordion. After watching the dazzling movement of the fingers of Sevastian’s right hand, I realized that this was not the instrument that I had assumed. It is a rare Bayan accordion where the right hand has an amazing array of buttons. (For those who might be curious about the Bayan accordion there is a 30-minute lecture on YouTube detailing its complexities.)

There was not a scrap of music in sight the entire evening. All of the shows musical and choreographic intricacies were performed by memory, with De Sotto switching routinely from violin to his fine tenor voice. Other than the cellist, who remained on her private podium, the others were often in movement. At one point, with De Sotto playing his violin while kneeling on centre stage, Maier put down his oboe, removed his shoes and socks and began a gymnastic routine flip-flopping back and forth over the violinist. It turns out that he is also a dancer and acrobat who spent a time in his career with Cirque du Soleil.

How does this musical group get away with such histrionic showmanship, and what does this all have to do with this column? The answer: first and foremost, is that, for community bands there is a lesson to be learned here. Quartetto Gelato displays outstanding musicianship. With the music under complete control, then a musical group can afford to indulge in showmanship. Unfortunately, in many community bands, either showmanship takes precedence or remains completely hidden. Either way, the end result can be a lacklustre show.

Musicianship

What’s the best way for a community band or orchestra to achieve their musicianship goals? I’m sure there are many ways, but we just heard of an interesting procedure used by Ric Giorgi, conductor of the Strings Attached Orchestra. Here’s the kind of email message he sends to members of his group after a rehearsal: “1. Keep working to make a difference in the sound of notes according to the staccatos, tenutos, caps or accents etc they have over or under them. The rhythm was starting to sound pretty classy once you started playing these. Check your accidentals and see how far into the section after letter E you can get. 2. After letter E the arranger throws the melody around in bits to different sections, so write in (in pencil) the beat numbers and sub-beat ‘and’s with vertical lines over them so it’s clear how much you have to rest between notes as well as how you play when you have notes. Remember that an accidental affects every note in a bar after the accidental and any note that’s tied into the next bar.”

This may all sound very elementary, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to honour the basics.

While on the subject of Strings Attached, we just received word of their Young Composers Initiative (YCI). In November they will be performing Cassiopeia with the 2016 YCI winner in Orangeville. Last year’s second-place winner (now 12 years old) has said that he’s determined to outdo his previous effort. More power to him.

A trip to London

Next recent musical journey for me was a trip to London, Ontario. The first part of this trip was to sit in as an observer of a class reunion of music graduates from Western University. While I did not attend this university, it was interesting to observe class mates of years gone by. Having not seen each other for years, they soon coalesced into a band and a choir in the morning and performed on stage in the afternoon. Again: musicianship at play.

Henry Meredith with part of his collection.The other part of my journey took me to the home of Professor Henry Meredith, also known as Dr. Hank, the conductor of the noted Plumbing Factory Brass Band. Having donated some of my older instruments to his collection of old brass instruments, I was expecting to see a large array of instruments including some obscure vintage items rarely seen in public these days. Astounding would be a better to describe what I saw. On the ground floor of his house there were a few instruments. Then, in the basement I saw rows of trumpets, cornets and bugles hanging six deep on pegs in one section, with larger instruments in nearby nooks. Then it was off to the two-car garage. There were two cars in the driveway, but no room for them in the garage. Hanging all over were framed pictures of town and military bands from years gone by. How many forms of tubas, sousaphones, ophicleides and other bass instruments could there be? Then we went up to the loft over the garage. More varieties of instruments, row on row, greeted us.

More about all this later, but, in short: I’d say all that Dr. Hank wants for Christmas is a museum to display his collection of 6.000-plus musical instruments.

Eddie Graf

It is with great sorrow that I report on the passing of Eddie Graf. Edwin John Graf was a composer, arranger, musician and bandleader. During WWII Eddie was a band leader in an army entertainment troop in Europe. It was there that he met his wife-to-be Bernice (Bunny), who was at his bedside when he passed away 73 years later. I first met Eddie in the late 1960s when I was acting as MC for many concerts in Toronto parks. Over the past few years Eddie had been gradually declining, but continued playing and writing music. He played in and wrote music for the Encore Band and his son Lenny’s band. He last played his clarinet at a band concert just a few days before his passing.

On my return from London I headed straight to a service to celebrate Eddie’s life. Such services are frequently very sombre memories of a person’s life, but not this time. This was truly a celebration of Eddie by hundreds of fellow musicians and family members. Son Lenny spoke and showed a video which he had compiled about his father. This was followed by music from a small band of friends. I personally met up with many people with whom I had played as long as 50 years ago. Before we knew it, people were dancing to the band’s music. Why, I even had a dance with Resa Kochberg the founder and director of Resa’s Pieces Band. (By the way, Monday, December 4 at 7:30, Resa’s Pieces, which over the years has grown to four distinct ensembles, presents “Music from your Favourite Films” at York Mills Collegiate, 490 York Mills Rd.)

Missed

Too late to attend, we learned of an interesting evening in Richmond Hill called “Notes and Quotes” on October 22. There was a lecture and concert on the music history of York Region by professor Robin Elliott, Chalmers Chair, University of Toronto. This was a partnership with the Richmond Hill Historical Society and Richmond Hill Heritage. The Richmond Hill Concert Band performed a newly commissioned piece by Bobby Herriot.

A different kind of missed concert for me, will be the Northdale Concert band’s 50th anniversary concert which will take place on Saturday, November 4, 3pm, at the Salvation Army Citadel on Lawrence Ave. E., at Warden. Having been a member of the band for several years, I had hoped to be able to attend their special concert but a long-term prior commitment has to be given precedence. On a visit to one of their recent rehearsals, however, I did manage to hear Gary Kulesha’s new Dance Suite for Concert Band and guest trombone soloist Vanessa Fralick’s stunning performance of Arthur Pryor’s Thoughts of Love.

Upcoming

Nov 2 and Dec 7 at 12pm: The Encore Symphonic Concert Band presents their “Monthly Concert” of big band, swing, jazz and film scores. John Liddle, conductor. Wilmar Heights Centre, 963 Pharmacy Ave., Scarborough.

Nov 3 at 8pm: Etobicoke Community Concert Band presents “Movie Magic” featuring current and past motion picture box office hits; Hollywood blockbusters, Disney at the movies, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and more. Etobicoke Collegiate Auditorium, 86 Montgomery Rd., Etobicoke.

Nov 19 at 3:30pm: The Wychwood Clarinet Choir presents “Harvest Song” featuring Claribel by Roland Cardon, The Lark in the Clear Air (arr. Roy Greaves), and many others too numerous to mention; conductor and clarinet soloist, Michele Jacot. Church of St. Michael and All Angels, 611 St. Clair Ave, W.

Nov 25 at 7:30pm: Silverthorn Symphonic Winds open their 2017/2018 season with “Fall Festival” at the Wilmar Heights Event Centre Concert Hall, 963 Pharmacy Ave, Toronto (just north of Eglinton).

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

Margaret Bárdos in Music für das Ende - Blake HannahsonNearly 35 years after Claude Vivier’s abrupt death, something about his musical spirit is in the ether.

Claude VivierIn Vivier’s opera Kopernikus, a child named Agni, recently deceased, is revisited by what Vivier calls several “mystical figures borrowed from stories” – characters such as Merlin, Lewis Carroll, the Queen of the Night, a witch, a blind prophet – all of whom presumably would have been part of the child’s dream repertoire while alive. As she enters the afterlife, these characters gravitate around her, and she becomes the axis around which they revolve – she becomes, as Copernicus’s great discovery did, a new “centre of the universe.” Now, in the wake of a landmark performance of Kopernikus at the Banff Centre this summer by Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, a wave of Vivier’s music is about to pass through Toronto – such that Vivier himself is about to become, much like Agni, the main character in his own drama.

Along with Against the Grain’s production of Kopernikus at Banff, several other local groups will be presenting his music this season. On October 15, Esprit Orchestra will open their season with the Toronto premiere of his large orchestral work Siddartha. There will also be two performances of his string ensemble piece Zipangu: first with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in a show hosted by Soundstreams on October 16, and second in a concert co-presented by New Music Concerts and the RCM’s 21C Festival in the spring. Perhaps most unusually, from October 27 to November 4, Soundstreams is mounting a production called Musik für das Ende, a three-part theatre presentation of Vivier’s music based around his piece of the same name.

There’s no particular reason why these performances are all happening now – and when pressed, the various players involved all insist it’s a coincidence. But it seems less like chance and more like a convergence of like-minded feeling, around a man who many in Toronto’s new music community regarded as a mentor and a friend.

Vivier’s own life was a remarkable one. Born in 1948 in Montreal of unknown parents, Vivier was adopted at the age of three and brought up for the priesthood, before leaving the seminary and devoting his life to composition. Studying in Quebec and abroad – most notably in Germany with Karlheinz Stockhausen – Vivier’s works mirrored his personal life, always circling back to themes of death, ritual, loss, and a wild, sensual understanding of beauty. In a final disturbing parallel, his body was found in his Paris apartment in 1983 after picking up a young man at a local bar – murdered at the age of 34.

Vivier remains one of Canada’s best-known composers, but his works aren’t as frequently performed as one might expect – which makes this present-day convergence around him difficult to explain. Perhaps it’s because on the one hand, his work feels big – slow-moving, mythical soundworlds that have the spectre of death in them. Something about Vivier’s music still reads as monumental: Kopernikus was chosen as the piece to herald a new era of arts programming at the Banff Centre, Musik für das Ende is the keystone of Soundstreams’ 35th anniversary season, and Siddartha, on a concert for which Esprit (also turning 35) has enlisted 93 performers, is in that sense one of the biggest works that the orchestra has ever done.

But at the same time, there’s more to his music than that. Among the individuals involved in the upcoming concert programs of his music, those who knew him personally describe a singular, thoughtful, sometimes reckless man, with a type of music-making that was uniquely his own; those who know him only from his music say the same. Something about Vivier’s music, especially the music he created later in his life, is so independently crafted that it still sounds wholly inhabited by his voice. Something about his work, and the vibrant life that he drew from to create it, feels for many – even over three decades since his death – incredibly intimate, and intensely alive.

Alexina LouieComposer Alexina Louie clearly remembers the blow of Vivier’s death. “I was in Brussels having a premiere of a piece,” she recalls. “I had run into Claude on a street in Montreal, and he was excited because he’d just gotten a Canada Council grant to go to Paris to write. I’d said I was going to be in Brussels at that time and he said, ‘Well, why don’t we meet up [in Paris]? Just give me a call.’ So I was calling him from Brussels and the phone never made a connection. And that was the weekend that he died.”

She also remembers his friendship – visiting him whenever she was in Montreal, and him doing the same in Toronto. “We would talk about music – he had very strong ideas about what constituted good music and bad music, and of course we had little tussles about things,” she says. “But he was a very special person. [And] his tragic death hit our community really hard.”

Thinking back on his life and music, Louie describes a composer who was relentless – someone who stuck to his convictions, no matter what. “He took a lot of criticism for his music,” she explains. “It shifted from this European take to this soundworld that was uniquely his own, based on one melody line with colours that were built around it. Compared to what was going on in European art music at that time it was very simple…[But] now, all of these decades later, it’s that music that he wrote, that is so fascinating, exotic, unusual, that is now being embraced.”

“Not everyone likes Claude’s music,” she adds. “But it’s so strong, you can tell it’s his voice when you hear it.”

One of Louie’s major compositions from the year of Vivier’s death – a large ensemble piece titled Music for a Thousand Autumns, commissioned by Montreal’s Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) – was written, in part, for him. “I wrote two pieces [that year] that were quite important to me at that time,” says Louie. “One was Music for a Thousand Autumns; one was O Magnum Mysterium – in Memoriam Glenn Gould. And these premature deaths really made me reflect a lot about what it takes to be a creative artist. Because – it’s my experience anyway – that it takes every ounce of your being to create a piece that you feel worthy. And both of them did that. They lived life like that.

“I had just moved back to Canada in 1980, and I received a commission from Serge Garant [at SMCQ],” she continues. “I was working with these ideas of eternity and what lives on after the death of a person – and also the fear of writing a piece for Montreal, which at that time was a city where an outsider was not necessarily always embraced warmly. There’s a theme in the piece, Music for a Thousand Autumns, that I connect with Claude. It’s a very simple theme, and it’s got colouration around it, and it’s my call to Claude. I’m calling out to Claude: ‘I need inspiration for your town – I want to write a good piece, I want to write a worthy piece.’ I wrote it with him in mind.”

Louie’s partner Alex Pauk, the founder and director of Esprit Orchestra, was also a close friend of Vivier’s. Louie describes the climate in which she, Pauk and Vivier all came of age: one where no composers had immediate institutional support, and where they were all used to channelling their own determination to succeed. Pauk was president of the Canadian League of Composers at a time when Canadian orchestral music wasn’t being heard on Canadian stages, Louie explains. That was a big part of why he started Esprit. In those first years, without an administrative team or the resources one might expect from an orchestral leader, Esprit was based out of the living room of Pauk and Louie’s home.

In Esprit’s concert on October 15, titled “Eternal Light,” Vivier’s Siddartha is slotted between the music of two other composers. Compositionally, they seem to embody Vivier’s own past and future. Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), a work that combines elements of orchestral composition with Balinese gamelan, seems a predecessor to the fervour for Asian (particularly Indonesian) music prevalent during Vivier’s time. The other piece is a 2016 work titled Spacious Euphony by Christopher Goddard – a doctoral student at McGill studying under a colleague of Vivier’s, John Rea.

Esprit gave its first public concert in August of 1983, just months after Vivier’s death. In the years that followed, Esprit played plenty of Vivier’s music, but never Siddartha – for which now, Louie says, the timing is right.

“Alex knew he wanted to do this piece for a long time,” Louie says. “And it just never happened. But because it’s the 35th anniversary of Esprit, he said, ‘This is the time to actually do it.’”

“Because Alex found Claude’s music compelling, and worthy,” she adds. “And it just felt right.”

Lawrence Cherney - photo by Trevor HaldenbyLawrence Cherney, artistic director of Soundstreams, never knew Vivier personally – but from the moment he first saw his music years ago, he knew that it was something special. “Somehow, I had been given a copy of the manuscript of [Music für das Ende],” he says. “It was literally written in his hand. And every once in a while for a year or two, I’d pull this thing out and think, ‘What have we got here?’

“We began to think about producing it then,” he adds. “But quite honestly, in those early days, I think we had no idea what this was. For me, it was just an intuition that there was something.”

The production this month, created by Soundstreams around Vivier’s music, is in three parts. The first, featuring Québécois actor Alex Ivanovici, is an original monologue inspired by Vivier’s letters. The final section is the title piece: Ivanovici alongside ten singers in a staged version of Music für das Ende. And in the centre will be a performance of the uncanny, eight-minute work Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) – the last piece of music Vivier ever wrote.

“There’s this very eerie connection between what he wrote [and his life],” says Cherney. “Always this flirtation with life and death and beyond.”

This particular Soundstreams production has been a long time in the making – seven or eight years of planning, with rehearsals that have been going since August. “It’s immersive theatre, in a way that we’ve never really done before,” Cherney says. “I’m very proud of the things that we’ve done over the years and it isn’t about better or worse, but this is definitely different.”

Cherney describes how Musik für das Ende is structured: highly precisely, but with a lot that depends on interpretation. It was crafting that interpretation and developing it with the cast that proved to be one of the company’s biggest challenges. “It takes place in this twilight between theatre and music and opera...and it’s not any one of those, and yet it’s every one of them,” he says. “In terms of what a vocal ensemble can do, there’s a tremendous freedom in that.

“All that I can say about this is that I feel a little bit like what biographers must feel,” says Cherney. “The more I found out about this work, and about Claude, the more mysterious and the more intriguing it got. It’s not that I got close to him personally, but in a sense that mystery around the piece, and the depth of interpretation that we had, amplified as time went on.

“In a way, [Vivier’s music] keeps receding,” he says. “Every time we think we’re getting closer, there’s another horizon there. I think that’s a good sign.”

Rehearsal of Musik für das EndeThe title page of Vivier’s manuscript for Musik für das Ende bears a dedication, written in German, to “die Leute die heute sterben werden” (the people who will die today). “Living in the midst of beings destined for death I have often reflected upon this,” Vivier writes. “Instinctively I see these beings no longer in life but in death. In my dreams I was living more and more the strange ceremony of beings who vanish for ever, who become an ‘infinite moment’ in the eternal silence.”

If you trace the coming performances of Vivier’s music throughout the year, what you seem to get is a series of moments that are suspended in time. This fall at the Soundstreams season opener on October 16, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra will collaborate with Indigenous choreographer Michael Greyeyes on a new interpretation of Vivier’s Zipangu. Later this season, Zipangu will be reprised by New Music Concerts, the group that first commissioned it in 1980, alongside a new work by Brian Harman that was inspired by it. For Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, Esprit Orchestra’s performance of Siddartha on October 15 feels like a bridge between the past and the future, and a way of treasuring the memory of a friend. And for the second Soundstreams production of the season, Musik für das Ende from October 28 to November 4, Lawrence Cherney and his team have been forced to confront these ideas of legacy and immortality onstage, dredging up the past in ways they hadn’t expected.

In the days before his unexpected death, Vivier’s work Do you believe in the immortality of the soul? was concerned with asking about life, and about the permanence of the loss he saw all around him. In his music, he seemed to be searching for a way to not vanish after death, and to move from silence towards a new type of sound. It would seem like he’s found it.

Benjamin Grosvenor - courtesy Patrick Allen: operaomnia.co.ukBenjamin Grosvenor has an uncanny knack of getting to the essence of any piece he plays. Add to that a burnished tone (he is one of the supreme colourists performing today) and impeccable, unfettered, seemingly effortless technique and you have one of the best pianists on the current concert stage.

Grosvenor is a unique creator of sound, worlds within worlds, attentive and nuanced; a riveting performer with keen musical insights. In the public eye for more than half of his life, the 25-year-old returns to the Jane Mallett Theatre November 7 for his third Music Toronto appearance since March 2014. The following email exchange took place in mid-September and focuses on that upcoming recital.

WN: You became the youngest-ever winner of the keyboard section of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition when you were 11. How life-changing an event was that?

BG: I think the competition cemented in my mind the idea that I would like to be a pianist. It was a great experience at the time, in particular the final which gave me the opportunity to play with a professional orchestra for the first time. The attention it brought began my career, although in those early years I did not give many concerts as naturally I needed the space for schooling and simply to grow as a musician.

Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child? Who were the first performers you fell in love with?

The first composer I really fell in love with was Chopin, and the first piece I played that I felt a significant connection with was by him - one of his waltzes. The first performers who had an attraction for me were those that I saw playing live (Stephen Hough and Evgeny Kissin, for example) as well as Argerich, Horowitz and Lipatti, who were artists whose recordings we had in the house. It was only in my early teens that I began to listen more widely to other pianists and musicians and discovered many other names both current and historical, becoming fascinated by artists such as Cortot, Feinberg, Schnabel and others.

You said in a 2013 YouTube webcast that your attraction to composers like Chopin, Beethoven and Bach initially came from listening to recordings by pianists from the first half of the 20th century. Are you still inspired by these giants of the piano? What has been inspiring you recently?

I still find these pianists to be a source of inspiration - I was recently listening once again to some of Cortot’s Schumann recordings which are a marvel. I find these days though that I have less time for listening than I would like, and particularly not enough time to attend live concerts. Something I often relish about playing with orchestra is the opportunity to hear the second half of the program.

Our previous email exchange was prior to your 2015 Toronto concert with its Baroque rearview-mirror quality. Your program consisted of most of the pieces you recorded shortly thereafter for your Homages CD. I’d like to focus on your upcoming Music Toronto recital, beginning with Mozart’s Sonata No.13 in B-flat Major, K333 “Linz.” What in Mozart speaks to you in general? And what in the “Linz” sonata in particular?

There is a distilled quality to Mozart’s music - it has such purity and directness of emotion. But it is not just gilded, elegant music, rather music that teems with energy, complexity and life, with such a range of character and emotion. He had an extraordinary gift for juxtaposing diverse ideas and elements in ways that seem natural and effortless, and it is music always filled with the surprising and the unexpected.  

The piano sonatas are fascinating works to play in that there is such vivid characterization of the material. His ingenious uses of textures make the most of the instrument’s limitations, and the music seems so often to refer to other timbres and instrumental combinations. With one instrument responsible here for the whole dialogue, the writing is even more varied than that of the piano concerti (where the piano only needs to be a piano!) and though written in a pianistic context, one can imagine wind solos, quartets and tuttis. The Linz sonata is a great example of this. The outer movements have a tremendous sense of nervous energy and joie de vivre, both rich in thematic material and character. The last movement seems - with its written-in cadenzas and apparent solos/tuttis -  almost like a piano concerto without orchestra. The slow movement is incredibly tender and lyrical, with wind serenades and string quartets, and has a particularly unsettling and affecting middle section.

Brahms’ Four Pieces for Piano, Op.119 are so contemplative, eloquent and emotionally rich. Clara Schumann famously described the first as a “grey pearl, veiled and very precious.” How would you characterize them?

They are four singular and contrasted works. The first has a sense of sadness and resignation, with a large amount of dissonance, particularly in the opening bars which give the piece from the start a particularly searching and doubting atmosphere. The second is agitated in the outer sections, with a luminous waltz in the middle, all based on the same material. The third intermezzo is light-hearted and humorous, and the Rhapsody is largely defiant and joyous, though it ends with darkness and agitation in the tonic minor.

Brett Dean conceived his Hommage à Brahms as three interludes to be played interspersed between the Op.119 Piano Pieces. What moved you to take the audience on that journey?

I worked with Brett as a conductor in Australia when we did Mozart K466 together. I was at that point considering programming Op.119 when he sent me these pieces, written for Emanuel Ax. I thought it was very effective as a set, with the pieces providing illuminating contrasts to the Brahms works, and that it was fascinating to have this juxtaposition of old and new.

The second half of the recital begins with a piano arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Did you discover it through George Copeland’s 1918 recording? Is it a variant of Leonard Borwick’s arrangement? What attracted you to it?

I had been interested in playing some more Debussy, and a friend pointed me in the direction of the Copeland recording which I thought was very effective in capturing the spirit and essence of the piece. There is an interesting quote from Copeland about his transcription: “I spoke to [Debussy] of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano – music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. This has always seems to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.”

 However, examining the scores of the original and these two transcriptions, I came to the view that Copeland was a little sketchy in places, almost as if a reminiscence of the work; Borwick better preserved compelling subtleties in these passages. What I have ended up playing is mostly Borwick, with a few touches of Copeland and of my own.

I find it intriguing that the original version of the Debussy was written in 1894, just a year after the Brahms Op.119, and that the final two works on your program, Berg’s Sonata Op.1 and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, were both written in 1908. How did you decide on the repertoire for the Toronto concert?

This was part of the idea for the construction for the program. Indeed, with the Mozart as a kind of preface, there are four seminal works here that were written within two decades, and I think it fascinating to hear them together.  The Debussy, with its whole-tone scales and unstable tonality, is the bridge in that sense. Indeed, Pierre Boulez called it the beginning of modern music.  

What drew you to the Berg sonata?

I have loved Berg’s music since playing some of his early songs during my studies at the Royal Academy. I had also had a good experience getting to know his violin concerto by reading it through with a friend who was preparing it. I love this rich and dense harmonic world, with its tonal ambiguity, whole-tone scales and chromaticism. It is an emotive work, dramatic and uneasy, with a sense of tension that stretches from the first cadence until the final coda when the tonic triad is finally reinstated.

Gaspard has been a staple of yours for many years and it appears on your first Decca CD (2012). What fascinates you about it?

Gaspard contains some of the most evocative music written for the piano. In playing this music, you feel somewhat like a painter, with so many colours at your disposal, but it is perhaps above all about invoking atmosphere – casting a spell. The poems by Bertrand always add a particular fire to the imagination. I think my favourite piece of the set remains Le Gibet, which is so hypnotic and awe-inspiring. There is one phrase in particular in the middle of the piece which I never cease to find deeply moving, where – among all this that seems larger than the individual – suddenly there emerges this sense of personal vulnerability, and of incredible sadness.

I’ve read that you find the stage to be liberating. Please elaborate.

Performing onstage can feel liberating, but I think performances feel very different from occasion to occasion. I would say the form of music making I find most consistently liberating is chamber music.  You are making music with others - all striving for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts - yet the intimate scale means that it is a true partnership of equals. It can be entirely magical!

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