Sam ShalabiThough he now splits his time between Montreal and Cairo, guitarist, oudist and composer Sam Shalabi was born in Libya to Egyptian parents. He and his family immigrated to Canada when he was five. He started his musical career in Montreal in the mid-90s, and has played guitar and oud with a number of different groups, including the critically acclaimed Shalabi Effect, which he has led since its inception in 1996.

On Saturday, March 24, Shalabi’s Land of Kush will play at the Aga Khan Museum as part of the institution’s Global Conversations Series, presented in partnership with the Music Gallery. Land of Kush is a large ensemble, with over 20 members slated to play at the Aga Khan, and will feature as special guest artists the Cairo-based musicians Nadah El Shazly (vocals) and Maurice Louca (keyboards), both of whom are frequent collaborators of Shalabi’s.

Land of Kush will be performing Shalabi’s Sand Enigma, the latest in a series of six large-scale compositions written specifically for the ensemble, three of which so far (Against The Day, Monogamy and The Big Mango) have been released by Montreal’s Constellation Records.

WN: Sand Enigma will have its world premiere here at the Aga Khan at the end of March?

SS: Yes.

So this will be the fourth release for Land of Kush, is that correct?

I think it’s going to be a release at some point… but it’s going to be logistically difficult to record it, that’s the only thing, because Maurice and Nadah … they live in Egypt, and they’re going to go back to Egypt, and so it’s going to be a bit difficult to record it. But in terms of the fourth piece, it’s not the fourth piece, actually. There’s actually six pieces, only three of which have been [recorded].

And so the last recording that was released would have been The Big Mango.

That’s right.

Nadah El Shazly - photo by Alan Chies

Two of the prominent themes [of] The Big Mango were gender and Arabic culture. I was wondering if those figured into Sand Enigma – and if not, what are some of the themes that came into play when you were writing and conceptualizing this work?

[Sand Enigma] is kind of an unusual piece, in that in some ways it’s probably the least explicit piece that I think I’ve done, partially because the piece … was meant to be a solo album. And so the pieces were kind of written in a weird way, [in that] they were not meant to be played by humans (laughs).

… [It] started its life first as pieces that I wanted to do with Nadah El Shazly, and then that didn’t really work out due to time, because we were working on her album. And then I thought, well, “I’m going to take these pieces and adapt them to a solo album,” because there is a kind of thematic continuity with the pieces. And then as I was working on it, I realized that it might be interesting to try something which I’ve never done before, which is to take solo pieces, and somehow try to adapt them for Kush, which took a little while to do for the reason that some of the music was not meant to be played by [other] people. So I had to simplify it and re-notate it and tweak it.

In terms of the theme, there is a theme to [Sand Enigma], but I’m kind of resistant to say what it is …[it’s] a kind of a mirror, in a way; the piece has kind of a mirror quality to it, to whoever is listening to it or experiencing it. That’s all I’ll say.

Kind of like a theme, or perhaps a collection of themes, that reveals itself within the actual performance of the piece [in front of] an audience?

Yes, exactly, exactly.

Maurice Louca

So what do [Maurice Louca and Nadah El Shazly] – the special guests for this particular performance – bring to this piece that’s unique, and maybe different than some of the previous things that you’ve done with this ensemble?

Well, they bring the sand (laughs). Part of it is a natural thing, I guess, a natural collaboration, and part of it is a desire of mine to have more of that [as] part of what I do in Kush. Since at least Monogamy, or just after Monogamy, I’ve been working with Maurice, and that’s become a big part of what I do. I play with him in two bands, and tour with him a lot, and we’ve collaborated a lot. And then Nadah, we’ve worked a lot in Egypt, and collaborated on her album, and collaborated on other things, and so… it [seemed] like a sort of natural progression to work with two musicians I love working with, and two friends. But the other part of it, I think, is that I can kind of do things with them that I might not necessarily be able to do without them, in that I can do more maqam … They just bring out another set of references that I have been working with in my solo stuff. In terms of the more Arabic, Egyptian sounds… it’s a little bit more foreign for a lot of the members of Kush to completely dive into that, so I think with Nadah and Maurice I was more free to write music that I knew, and in particular [music that] Nadah would be able to sing, because she’s used to singing stuff like that.

You’ve said about modern Egyptian classical ensembles that, even though they incorporate a fair number of Western sounds or Western instruments, they’re not exactly fusion ensembles; that they’re taking from other practices in order to evolve from within, to grow of their own volition. I was wondering if that’s an accurate description of Land of Kush, and what you think about the terms “fusion” and “world music.”

I think that the important thing is to do something that feels somewhat natural, and feels somewhat right. So I think that, in terms of the fusions, or the music, whatever I do obviously my Egyptian background and my Arabic background is a big part of it. But it’s not the only thing.

I think, basically, you have to have something interesting to say. It doesn’t necessarily have to be earth-shatteringly meaningful, but it should be something that at least for you, as a writer or as a musician, is interesting. And I think that requires delving into yourself, delving into why you would even have anything to say. And so to say that what I’m doing is fusion, or is world music, at this point, I don’t really care if people describe it as that. There’s stuff that I’ll do that sounds like it could be Western music, or stuff that I do that sounds like it’s completely Arabic music. I think the interesting thing for me is how to tap into something that is a synthesis of all that, that is already in myself or in an individual, and that feels or sounds not contrived, to myself and to whoever else is involved in it, or is listening to it.

I definitely need something to say … there has to be some reason. Hence the space between Kush pieces, why there’s a certain number of years between the pieces, and why we almost never do the same piece more than twice. We almost never perform these pieces more than once or twice, because I think they are kind of something that I need to do, as opposed to something that I feel like I should be doing.

And so that’s what it is. It’s sort of a re-engagement with who I am, as a writer, as a musician, a person, whatever; and trying to do that every time, if that makes sense. I don’t know if that makes sense (laughs).

Absolutely, it makes sense. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how someone else might describe it, what you’re trying to do is to create something that feels honest and relevant to you as an individual.

Yeah, exactly, exactly, exactly. And so those elements are there because those are interests that I have. They’re not conscious. If they were, it would be something that I would be less interested in.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at, on Instagram and on Twitter.

In this exciting month Toronto will see the world premieres of two new Canadian operas. The first, The Overcoat by James Rolfe, opens March 29 and is covered elsewhere in this issue. The other is The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by Victor Davies, which will be presented March 24 and 25 by VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert. Having interviewed Davies last month and pored through his background paper for the work, the opera looks to be one of his most important compositions.

Victor Davies - photo by Graham Lindsay Wavelength MediaAs a play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga is considered one of the classics of Canadian drama. It premiered in Vancouver in November 1967 as a Canada Centennial project. As Davies explains: “Its impact was electric, as no Canadian play had been written which confronted issues head-on between Indigenous and mainline society.” In simple terms it follows the life of Rita Joe, who leaves her reservation in search of greater freedom in the city only to face racism, drugs, prostitution, rape and murder. Ryga uses the word “ecstasy” to refer ironically to her final moments before death. Interwoven with Rita Joe’s life is that of her friend Jaimie Paul, who also meets a tragic end. 

The play has had many subsequent productions, most recently at the National Arts Centre in 2013 with an all-Indigenous cast. In 1971 the Royal Winnipeg Ballet produced a ballet based on it choreographed by Norbert Vesak to music by Ann Mortifee, revived most recently in 2011.

In answer to the question of how Davies came to create an opera based on the play, he writes in his background paper: “The genesis of the idea, that I should make an opera of the play, came from the insistence/encouragement of two dear friends: well-known Indigenous stage and screen actor August Schellenberg, the original Jaimie Paul in the premiere production of the play in 1967, and director/producer John Juliani who produced the CBC radio adaptation of the play for which I composed the music. Both were convinced the play contained an opera.

“Ultimately, my two friends were right. The play is wonderful material for an opera. It is richly textured and contains vibrant larger-than-life characters, a classic tragic love story, the theme of young ideas and ambitions thwarted, the clash between value systems, both societal and generational, pathos, moments of wonderful humour, the underlying inner drive which calls for music to emerge in song, and richly poetic dramatic prose to inspire heightened lyric melody.”

Nevertheless, Davies was still concerned whether today a self-described “old white guy” should write an opera about Indigenous people. To determine if he should undertake the project, he consulted Rebecca Chartrand, a singer and friend with whom Davies collaborated for the Indigenous music in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg and who is the Aboriginal Consultant for Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg.

As Davies explains, “Her immediate reaction was that I must write the opera. She said it spoke directly to the current and important discussion about the missing and murdered Indigenous women. This was a turning point for us both. Since this initial meeting until the present she has been a constant force in urging us to bring the opera to life.”

In addition to Chartrand, Davies consulted and was encouraged in the creation of the opera by such members of the Indigenous community as playwrights Thomson Highway and Kevin Loring, and the chiefs of various First Nations including Chief Len George (son of Chief Dan George, who appeared in the play’s premiere).

In answer to the question why the play should become an opera, Davies lists four goals: “to bring the story, characters and their issues to new life powered by music; to put the story into a new frame to engage new publics; to create an important and viable vehicle for Indigenous opera singers; and to be a catalyst in the discussion about issues between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society at large.” 

A further question Davies addresses is why a play from 1967 should become an opera now. “This opera speaks to the important topic of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Fifty years since the play’s creation, many serious issues are still unresolved in Indigenous life: tensions between the reserve and the city and the values they represent regarding stewardship of nature vs. modernity, conflicts between generations, the Indigenous world vs. the legal system, and prejudice against Indigenous people in general, all issues which underpin the problem of the missing and murdered women, and the residential school system.”

Davies says that Chartrand and Chief Isadore Day in Toronto and Chief Nepinak in Winnipeg “all spoke about how important they felt the opera would be in bringing Indigenous issues to mainline audiences in a new, more powerful way. They felt that bringing their story to the stage for audiences to whom the Indigenous story was nothing but a TV clip or a newspaper footnote would have an enormous impact. With characters with whom the audience could identify, who were alive, had aspirations, humour, and though their lives have a tragic end, the portrayal of these lives powered by music would bring home their story.”

Davies approached Opera in Concert three years ago about producing the work, and OiC organized a two-day workshop focusing on the libretto, which he also wrote. In transforming the play to an opera Davies made many changes. One was to eliminate the character of the Singer, a figure present in the play primarily to satirize the lack of understanding of liberal white people about what is happening to Indigenous people. While the action shifts back and forth in time, Davies’s libretto tells the story in chronological order. The five times Rita Joe is called before a magistrate become part of the libretto’s organizing structure. 

In commenting on the score, Davies says: “This work will be unlike anything I have done, rooted in the ethos of the contemporary worlds of the reserve, the streets and the city. There will be no actual Indigenous music or language, but I will create music which reflects Indigenous music, the characters themselves and their place in both reserve and city with the necessary contemporary grit, energy and texture of the 60s. However melody, rhythm, accessibility and immediacy are hallmarks of my music and will be in this work too. The score will be eclectic in style as befits characters and action.” Davies says that the music will range from the tonal and melodic for arias for Rita Joe and Jaimie Paul to the atonal and dissonant for scenes of violence and conflict. The music is not organized through leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense, but it is shaped through the use of recurring themes associated with certain characters and actions. 

Marion Newman - photo by Ellen NewmanFor the VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert production, all the principal roles will be sung by Indigenous Canadian artists. Mezzo Marion Newman, who also served as an advisor, will sing the title role. Baritone Evan Korbut, a recent Stuart Hamilton Memorial Award winner, will sing the role of Jaimie Paul. Mezzo Michelle Lafferty will be Sister Eileen, baritone Everett Levi Morrison will be Father David Joe and mezzo Rose-Ellen Nichols will be the Old Woman. The Opera in Concert Chorus will take on a wide array of roles: members of the court, street women, women on the reserve and in jail and more. 

For the OiC production Guillermo Silva-Marin will serve as dramatic advisor. Robert Cooper will conduct the cast, the OiC Chorus and an ensemble of piano, cello, violin, clarinet and saxophone. The latter four instruments Davies says will add more “colour and weight” to the music than would piano alone. (While his last opera for Manitoba Opera, Transit of Venus (2007), employed an orchestra of 68, Davies says that for a full production of Rita Joe, he would be happy with an ensemble of 16.)

Attending the OiC performances will be representatives of Manitoba Opera and Vancouver Opera who may determine whether Davies’ opera moves on to future productions with their companies. For now, Davies is filled with gratitude. He writes that he gives “many thanks to dear friends both past and present who have given me... the passion and joy to search for the truth in the beautiful poetry of George Ryga. My hope is that those who see it as it emerges, will feel the same.”

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at

I recently had an email exchange with Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the celebrated Takács Quartet, in anticipation of the Takács’ upcoming recital in Koerner Hall on March 25. I began by congratulating Dusinberre on his recent book, Beethoven for a Later Age (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), which I found to be a wonderful reading experience, rich in its multi-layered outlook and filled with keen insights into the string quartet experience in general and his in particular. The way he integrated the historical context of Beethoven’s own involvement with his quartets into the narrative was novel and instructive. And tying the history of the Takács to specific performances of specific Beethoven quartets was, I told him, an organic and deft touch.

The Takács Quartet: (from left) Geraldine Walther, viola; Edward Dusinberre, violin; András Fejér, cello; Károly Schranz, violin.WN: Does the quartet still rehearse four hours at a time? How much rehearsal time per week? Your Koerner Hall concert on March 25 begins at 3pm. What effect will that have on your rehearsal process?

ED: I’m glad you enjoyed the book! We rehearse between three to three and a half hours a day, five days a week when we are at home. On the road it’s more a matter of “maintenance” rehearsals, tweaking things here and there. The hard preparation work is done in Boulder. For an afternoon concert we usually meet two hours before the concert.

Please speak about the importance of conveying emotion in the music.

Conveying emotion is the end goal, but each audience member’s emotional response to a piece is unique. So we spend a lot of time discussing what character we want a phrase, section or movement to convey. The means for achieving that are of course many: bow stroke, type of sound, pacing, dynamic contrast, body language, etc. We hope if the characters are vivid and immediate, then the emotional responses they inspire will be stronger.

How does the Koerner Hall acoustic influence your playing there?

What a gorgeous hall and acoustic! Such a space creates the possibility for more varied dynamics and colours of sound: in particular it is more rewarding to play very quietly. Also timing can be affected. The last chord of a slow movement will fade beautifully into silence, where in a less good hall it might stop abruptly, so one is encouraged to linger.

You wrote extensively about the interpretive challenges and your various approaches to Beethoven’s string quartets in your book. “Performing Opus 131 is always an adventure,” you wrote. And: “Of all the Beethoven quartets, Opus 131 is the most ambitious.” Please elaborate on those two statements.

The emotional range of the piece is staggering. And often the juxtapositions of fiercely contrasting emotions require a nimble approach from the performers. For example, after a lyrical fourth movement full of whimsy and fantasy, one is hurled into a helter skelter scherzo which requires fast fingers and finesse. Immediately after that, the sixth movement is a lament, again with the minimum of time to prepare. The piece is an adventure because traversing such a range of emotions feels a bit different each time.

What is your approach to Opus 131 today? How might it change on March 25 in Toronto? How does the energy of the audience bear on it?

The opening bars of the piece are like the beginning of a long story. Sometimes the opening feels introspective, sometimes more overtly despairing. This is music that can accommodate many different approaches, just like a Shakespeare play. The purpose of rehearsing Opus 131 is to feel comfortable enough to be open to minute changes of character, balance and pacing that can occur spontaneously onstage. Beethoven modestly remarked that in this music there is “less lack of fantasy (imagination).” It is hard to predict from one concert to the next how our feeling about performing the piece will change but our job is to be open to how that fantasy may unfold.

How would you characterize the two other works on your Koerner Hall program – The Haydn E-flat Major, Op.76 No.5 and the Shostakovich No.11 in F Minor, Op.122?

The Haydn is a wonderfully varied piece with a luminous slow movement worthy of a late Beethoven quartet. The outer movements are full of surprises. The first movement starts rather gently before delivering a rambunctious coda. The last movement is full of high spirits, comic turns and pregnant pauses – one of our favourites.

The Shostakovich is an extraordinary piece. Like Opus 131, the movements are played without a break. And like Beethoven, Shostakovich takes simple thematic material and transforms it in imaginative ways, creating a satisfying narrative arc.

Speaking of Quartets (2): The Rolston String Quartet’s international profile has recently been raised even higher, having been selected as the recipient of the 2018 Cleveland Quartet Award, the first time a Canadian ensemble has received this prestigious biennial award which honours young string quartets on the cusp of a major international career. It is given out by the Cleveland Quartet, Chamber Music America and eight notable chamber music presenters across the United States. Winning quartets receive a concert tour of the United States, including performances at Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian in Washington DC. The prize is the latest in a string of accolades for the fast-rising ensemble since winning the top prize at the 12th Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2016. Currently the fellowship quartet-in-residence at the Yale School of Music, the Rolstons now join the ranks of previous Cleveland Quartet Award winners Brentano, Borromeo, Miami, Pacifica, Miro, Jupiter, Parker, Jasper, Ariel and Dover Quartets.

As Bill Rankin wrote in La Scena in June 2017, Barry Shiffman, a founding member of the St. Lawrence Quartet and associate dean and director of chamber music at the RCM’s Glenn Gould School (GGS), recognized the group’s adventurous spirit from the outset. “There’s a bit of craziness to them, which I like in a young quartet,” he said. “They’re risk takers. They don’t play it safe. They have a concept, and they go for it.”

“Some people think of a string quartet as a 16-string instrument; others see it more as four individuals, with a very distinct identity and characteristics. We lean more toward the latter,” Rolston cellist Jonathan Lo said.

Cellist Norman Fischer, an alumnus of the Concord Quartet and a specialist in contemporary music, explained that at Rice University, the Rolstons found a deeper way of listening. During their three years of study there, they developed “the ability to hear sounds in very specific ways, the ability to hear what’s going on with all the players around you – to be able to anticipate changes in the music, but also to be able to anticipate changes from one another and to quickly respond. This is really complicated perceptual training.

“You’re always looking for that X factor, the exceptional thing in the playing that you’re not expecting, that makes the performance of music at the moment something memorable, and the Rolstons have that capacity.”

Shiffman says: “They bring a joyous A game to everything they do. I’m sure at times they’re tired and crabby and they don’t want to be on the road. But you would never know it. They’re as excited to play for you whether it’s Carnegie Hall or it’s Timmins, Ontario.”

The Rolston String Quartet plays at the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society March 7, the Jeffery Concerts in London March 10, the Burlington Performing Arts Centre March 11 and the Royal Conservatory’s Mazzoleni Hall April 8. The programs will include combinations of Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy and Tchaikovsky in support of Schumann’s hugely popular Piano Quintet.

The Eybler String Quartet came together in late 2004 to explore the works of the first century of the string quartet, with a healthy attention to lesser-known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold Edler von Eybler. The group plays on instruments appropriate to the period of the music it performs. Violinist Julia Wedman and violist Patrick G. Jordan are members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; violinist Aisslinn Nosky is concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society and principal guest conductor of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra; Wedman and Nosky are also members of I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. Cellist Margaret Gay is much in demand as both a modern and period instrument player. Their March 9 Heliconian Hall recital includes early Haydn, late Mozart and their contemporary Franz Asplmayr (1728-1786).

The Elias String Quartet has been together since they were students in Manchester in 1998. Music Toronto’s Jennifer Taylor brought them here in March 2015 for a memorable local debut which I chronicled in these pages: “French sisters Sara and Marie Bittloch on violin and cello set the tone for the quartet’s intimate sound and its impeccable sense of ensemble. Equally attentive were second violinist Scotsman Donald Grant and Swedish violist Martin Saving. Together the foursome brought heavenly pianissimos and wonderful silences that allowed Mozart’s music to breathe in his ‘Dissonance’ Quartet K465 and unrelenting anger and passion to Mendelssohn’s last string quartet without losing the ruminative lyricism of its slow movement.” Their upcoming recital for the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto on March 8 features three pillars of the repertoire: Schubert’s Quartettsatz, Janáček’s heartfelt String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters” and Beethoven’s mighty String Quartet No.12 Op.127. The following day the Elias performs the same program in Carnegie Hall.

The Penderecki String Quartet, currently celebrating their 25th year as quartet-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, returns to Music Toronto March 15 for a concert of Schumann’s String Quartet No.3, Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Oblique Light (2016), commissioned as a sesquicentennial project by the Pendereckis and meant to depict the quality of light in our northern land, and Elgar’s Quartet in E Minor Op.83, which captured the spirit of his country cottage where it was written at the end of WWI. As we go to press Music Toronto has announced their 2018/19 season. Highlights include two appearances by Marc-André Hamelin: a season-opening solo piano recital and a Valentine’s Day chamber music concert with the Juilliard String Quartet; and Cleveland Quartet Award winners, the Ariel Quartet, who make their local debut.

Assorted Strings. The final concert of the Academy Concert Series season on March 10 sees the return of violinist Scott St. John and guitarist Lucas Harris, joining cellist Kerri McGonigle and violinist Emily Eng in a remounting of one of ACS’ most talked about and popular concerts from five years ago, “A Portrait of Paganini.” The repertoire will include a Paganini guitar quartet – he wrote 15 – his amiable Terzetto Concertante (for viola, cello and guitar) and one of his 24 virtuosic solo violin caprices. The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society brings together the estimable Lafayette and Saguenay (formerly the Alcan) Quartets on March 25 for a rare evening of octets for strings by Mendelssohn, Niels Gade and Russian-Canadian composer Airat Ichmouratov. (Music Toronto will present the identical program March 14, 2019.) A completely different string confection will be served on March 31 when 5 at the First Chamber Music Series presents Arensky’s String Quartet No.2 for violin, viola and two cellos; Jocelyn Morlock’s Blue Sun for violin and viola; and Dohnányi’s String Sextet in B Minor.

Dénes Várjon - photo by Andrea FelvégiAnd a Pianist. Dénes Várjon, admired by professional musicians and European audiences but less well-known in North America, makes a return visit to the Jane Mallett Theatre on March 27 under the auspices of Music Toronto for a recital laden with music by his Hungarian countrymen Bartók and Liszt. It begins with Beethoven’s late Bagatelles Op.126, the composer’s final music for the piano. Beethoven described it as “Six bagatelles or trifles for solo piano, some of which are rather more developed and probably the best pieces of this kind I have written.” Fiona Maddocks wrote in The Guardian in February 2012 that Várjon’s ECM recording of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor “demands attention for its grandeur, clarity and incisive virtuosity. Várjon makes rigorous sense of the work’s episodic structure, showing powerful ease in the fugue but enjoying the rhapsodic nature of the rest.” It will be exciting to hear him play it live.

TSO and Friends. Stéphane Denève, recently appointed music director of the St. Louis Symphony (effective 2019/20) leads the TSO in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s last completed work. Fun facts: it was the first time Rachmaninoff wrote for the saxophone and he got advice from violinist extraordinaire Fritz Kreisler on string bowings. Also on March 28 and 29, versatile German pianist Lars Vogt is the soloist in Brahms’ ravishing Piano Concerto No.2.

Born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, violinist Ray Chen won the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition in 2008 and the prestigious Queen Elisabeth [of Belgium] Music Competition the following year. Adept at social media and elegantly clad in Armani, Chen is the epitome of a modern musician. He is the soloist April 5, 7 and 8 in Bruch’s beloved Violin Concerto No.1 under Sir Andrew Davis, who also leads the orchestra in one of Mendelssohn’s programmatic concert overtures and Sibelius’ magnificent Symphony No.5.

Then, on March 24, the TSO cedes the Roy Thomson Hall stage to the National Arts Centre Orchestra and its conductor Alexander Shelley for performances of a new work, Earworms, by Vivian Fung, Brahms’ serene Symphony No.2 and Shostakovich’s lively and sardonic Piano Concerto No.2 (with Russian-born Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, winner of the 2013 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition).

The Associates of the Toronto Symphony present “The Companion’s Guide to Rome” on March 26, featuring Amanda Goodburn, violin, Theresa Rudolph, viola, Emmanuelle Beaulieu Bergeron, cello, and Samuel Banks, bassoon, in Mozart’s Sonata for Bassoon and Cello K292, Devienne’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings Op.37 No.3 and Andrew Norman’s string trio, The Companion Guide to Rome.


Mar 10: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts presents the exceptional pianist Jan Lisiecki.

Mar 18: Salzburg-born-and-raised cellist Clemens Hagen (of the celebrated Hagen Quartet) and Russian-born American, multi-faceted pianist Kirill Gerstein perform three of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, Op.5 No.2, Op.102 No.1 and Op.102 No.2 as well as his 7 Variations in E-flat Major on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute; presented by the Royal Conservatory in Koerner Hall.

Mar 22 to 24: In “Sound and Colour: Scriabin and Synesthesia,” Art of Time artistic director, pianist Andrew Burashko, performs Scriabin’s 24 Preludes in conjunction with lighting designer Kevin Lamotte’s light-field show.

Mar 23: Belgian pianist Olivier de Spiegeleir adds his own commentary to his Debussy recital presented by Alliance Française de Toronto, 100 years after the composer’s death.

Apr 6: The Royal Conservatory presents “Bernstein @ 100,” featuring German pianist Sebastian Knauer, Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s daughter), mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and the ARC Ensemble. 

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Bekah Simms - photo by Bo HuangOne of the inspiring things about the new music scene in Toronto is the plenitude of presenter organizations and collectives that are constantly springing up, each one with their own unique vision and mandate. One of the newer players in this trend is the Caution Tape Sound Collective, formed in the summer of 2015 by composers Bekah Simms and August Murphy-King. On March 24 in Array Space, Caution Tape will present “Spark to Stone” in collaboration with the Association of Canadian Women Composers (ACWC).

The concert features the work of seven Canadian composers, including five world premieres and two Toronto premieres. I invited Bekah Simms to have a conversation about the concert, the collective and her own compositional work.

Caution Tape has a unique combination of elements in their artistic mandate. One focus is on repertoire development for both underused combinations of instruments and instruments that don’t have a lot of solo works. Another strong aspect of their vision is the incorporation of electronics and influences from sound art and drone music into the repertoire they support. As Simms pointed out: “Toronto doesn’t have much concert activity of electroacoustic music, unlike Montreal for example, so Caution Tape seeks to make the technology more available for younger composers, as well as offering mentoring and pedagogical support for those who wish to combine the worlds of sound art and concert music.”

The core membership of the collective is made up of Simms, Murphy-King, Julia Mermelstein and Patrick Arteaga. They also support a rotational membership, since bringing in new voices is important. There is no core performer ensemble, but they generally draw from the same pool of people interested in new and experimental music, with the key goal being to experiment with creating unusual instrumental combinations. An example of this was an ensemble used in their last season that was made up of bassoon/contrabassoon, synthesizer, piano, percussion and viola. “It sounded really great,” Simms commented. And not least, they are committed to representational programming. Simms explains: “If you are working with living composers in a city like Toronto, the demographics of your concert programming should roughly represent the demographic of your city. This includes gender, race, experience, age, emerging and early career.”

Their upcoming March 24 concert is one example of their focus on representational programming as they join forces with the ACWC, which was formed in September of 1981 with the aim of addressing the lack of women composers being programmed in the Canadian music scene. The Caution Tape/ACWC collaboration is a natural one: Simms has served on the board of the ACWC, and together they put out a call for works – both existing as well as proposals for new pieces. As a result of this call, the Spark to Stone concert will include works by composers Amy Brandon, Sarah Reid, Ivana Jokic, Hope Lee and Lesley Hinger, along with Caution Tape core members Simms and Mermelstein.

Mermelstein’s work is an acousmatic piece, a form of electroacoustic music that is specifically created as a listening experience using only speakers, as opposed to a live instrumental performance. She has used the mundane and background sounds of everyday life and through various forms of digital processing brought this world to the forefront of an intriguing listening experience. Brandon’s work uses a soundscape created from unique piano preparations – nylon fishing wire attached to the wall and woven into the lower strings of the piano. Jokic’s piece uses the concept of the palindrome, a sequence of events that reads the same backward as forward. There is an allusion to matryoshka dolls, the Russian nesting dolls, as the snaking palindromes weave their way throughout the ensemble. Reid, a trumpet player who is both an improviser and composer, created a piece for prepared piano, cello, and amplified objects performed by a percussionist. This includes the playing of the grain of a piece of wood that has been covered with contact mics, a pair of vampire-like chattering teeth and a cassette player. Lee’s work …I, Laika…, composed in 1996, will finally receive its Toronto premiere. A 20-minute work for flute, cello and piano, the piece is based on the idea of doomed flight, referencing Laika, the first dog launched in space by the Russians, as well as the loss of Lee’s father who went missing in a military plane in China.

Hinger’s participation is an example of the value of putting out a call and connecting with unfamiliar voices. Once the jury for the concert heard her music, they unanimously agreed that her work must be selected. Hinger’s piece for solo violin is informed by her current studies in spectralism and focuses on slow microtonal unravelling over time.

The concert will also present the world premiere of Simms’ piece Granitic, a word she was initially exposed to a few years ago when used by her composition professor to describe one of her compositions. Surprised by this unfamiliar word which means “unyielding firmness and aversion to soft emotions,” she decided it resonated with her and wanted to explore more of what was stylistically emerging for her. Granitic is her Toronto Emerging Composer Award-winning composition, and is scored for a large ensemble including electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, synthesizer, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, trumpet and flute. In this piece she explores the world of just intonation, a tuning system based on pure or just intervals between the notes of the scale, rather than the standard equal temperament system that uses the same or equal distance between intervals. For the performers, this means playing in microtones, something that is difficult and challenging to do when playing on instruments designed for equal temperament. Simms described her emerging style as “event and sound based. I don’t map out harmonies or melodies, but rather focus on timbre, colour and the unravelling of initial ideas. I’ve become interested in distortion, quotation and using degraded allusions to other styles of music, using noise-based techniques on instruments and transitions from noise to sound. Electronics also help to obscure the original source material.”

As for future directions, what drives her is to integrate more complex and intricate technologies into her music. In a recent mentorship with Montreal acousmatic composer Martin Bédard, she was able to learn a variety of electroacoustic techniques, and had an opportunity to work with live diffusion, the process of moving the sound amongst a multi-speaker system. The next step for Simms will be to work in partnership with a programmer to create an intuitive interface to perform live processing of instrumental sounds. The composition she is creating will be scored for solo cello, electronics and orchestra, and is scheduled to be performed by Esprit Orchestra in February 2019 during their New Wave Festival. Having a skilled electronics performer working alongside her is her ideal situation, for it allows her to focus on composing the electronic component, which can then be realized externally by an expert.

Representational Programming

As mentioned above, Caution Tape is committed to representational programming. One reason for this is that “we found the local programming disappointing” Simms acknowledges. As an example, she mentions the upcoming 21C Music Festival that promotes itself as bringing forward fresh new sounds and ideas. Looking at this year’s press release, of almost three dozen premieres being programmed (which includes both world, Canadian, Ontario and Toronto premieres), there is only one work by a woman composer. (I noted in my February column a similar thing occurring in this years New Creations Festival happening from March 3 to 10, with only one composition by a woman being programmed, despite last year’s festival having highlighted diversity.)

Simms notes the tendency for presenters to be satisfied with having had one successful experience and then to stop thinking about it. “You have to be actively questioning your programming every step of the way. It’s so easy to find good and interesting work by women that if you’re not programming it, you’re just being lazy.” She mentioned a 1990s article in the Toronto Star that noted the lack of programming of works by women amongst the new music organizations – and that was 25 years ago!

Caution Tape attempts to “be steadfast about our programming. If one concert ends up being a 70/30 mix between male and female composers, we shuffle things around in the overall season to get closer to 50/50.” She noted that it’s easier for chamber music groups to have more diverse programming, and that many local groups regularly program music by women on every concert. “The problem is with the larger ensembles, that’s where the numbers are the worst. You hope that your efforts in the chamber music realm will bleed into the larger sphere of orchestral music,” Simms says, mentioning as an example, that the rising star of orchestral composition globally is Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir who was chosen in 2015 as the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer. The Philharmonic will give the world premiere of Thorvaldsdottir’s latest commissioned work, Metacosmos, on April 4 to 6.

(Coincidentally, during the writing of this column, I received a press release regarding the Chicago Sinfonietta’s concert on March 11 celebrating women composers. This orchestra is dedicated to modelling and promoting diversity, inclusion and racial and cultural equity in the arts. In light of these initiatives, it feels like Toronto is lagging behind; all the more reason why the Caution Tape Sound Collective is a much-needed voice in the city.

Vivian Fung

An important footnote to this conversation about orchestral programming: I would be remiss not to mention two upcoming orchestral performances of works by composer Vivian Fung. On March 24, the National Arts Centre Orchestra will give the Toronto premiere of her newly commissioned piece Earworms, and on March 3, Fung’s 2011 piece Dust Devils will be performed by the TSO as part of the New Creations Festival. 

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

From its earliest years York University fostered a unique music environment which embraced what was then the fringe. Experimental music, research into biofeedback as a musical controller, interdisciplinary performance studies, jazz, improvisation, period musical performance and world music were all on the curriculum. Did geographic isolation encourage and help incubate such an adventurous and exploratory musical spirit?

York University Subway StationYork’s Keele campus is located in northwestern Toronto. Back when I first attended, it felt a world apart from the downtown classical music scene anchored in the established programs at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. The sheer distance between the two institutions and the time it took to travel between them emphasized the cultural gulf. Yet in the traffic between the two universities’ world music ensembles there are threads we can trace, via the public transit web that connects both institutions.

There has been talk of a York University subway station on the Keele campus ever since the Music Department was incorporated in 1969 as part of the Faculty of Fine Arts. Rumours continued to rumble as the decades rolled on about a York subway stop until the new TTC Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE), finally opening to great fanfare on December 17, 2017, made it a reality. For the first time, downtown travellers can take the subway beyond the city limits – and vice versa. Significant reductions in travel time are being touted by the TTC for their beneficial long-term impacts. Asked for her comments as to what these longer-term impacts of the TYSSE may be on music and other kinds of performances at the Keele campus, York University media relations spokesperson Janice Walls put a positive, if fairly obvious, spin on things in an email: “Now that the subway stops at York University, it makes it much easier for people to access the many music and theatre performances available on campus.”

Equally obvious, perhaps, but perhaps less spin-worthy, York students can now also take the subway to an evening concert at a downtown venue and then get back home at a reasonable time!

The Advantages of New Frontiers

Already evident during its foundational 1970s decade, among the York Music Department’s strong suits were its world music ensembles. In 1970, the first year they were offered at York, I took the Carnatic, Hindustani and kulintang ensemble classes. But what exactly are the roots of this kind of ensemble?

The concept of the world music ensemble can be traced back to the late 1950s at UCLA, when it entered the discipline of ethnomusicology partly being developed there. It was introduced by American ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood (1918-2005), a specialist in Indonesian music, who took on the mission of bringing the fieldwork and academic study of ethnomusicology into the realm of practical musical experience and eventually performance. (I well recall a visit by the dramatic, black cape-wearing Hood to my undergraduate York music class circa 1970, the visit arranged by Sterling Beckwith, the Music Department’s first chair.)

The world music ensemble was one way in which Hood’s notion of bi-musicality, a term he coined in a 1959 paper, could be acquired within an educational institution. His approach encouraged the researcher to learn about music “from the inside,” and thereby experience its technical, conceptual and aesthetic challenges. Another of its aims was to enable the learner to better connect socially with the community being studied and have increased access to that community’s performances and musical practices. Many institutions all over North America have since incorporated a myriad of world music ensembles, presenting many music genres, into their course offerings.

York’s Music Department was among the world music ensemble’s very early Canadian adopters, in part perhaps because of its need to make an adventurous virtue of its isolation from the well-established downtown musical mainstream. Its world music courses have continued to grow in number and variety over the decades. I’m a first-person witness to that evolution as a member of the first Music Department undergrad class, and then later establishing its first Javanese gamelan music performance course there in 1999.

Perhaps what is most significant, however, is not so much the individual careers of professors or their courses, but that collectively they and thousands of their students have in many ways fed the interest and appetite for world music discovery, creation, appreciation, making and public performance in our community. In this way, York’s world music ensembles have served as a sort of R&D studio. They have made a substantial contribution to establishing the Toronto region as one of the most welcoming and productive hybrid music-friendly places on the globe – a real music city!

York University Music Department’s World Music Festival

Every year the Music Department holds a series of late winter concerts celebrating its near five decades of introducing yet another cohort of students to learning musics new to them. It also affords audiences – potentially coming from across the region care of the shiny new TYSSE – to explore musics they may never have heard live in student performances. Bonus: it’s all free.

This year the World Music Festival includes ten concerts representing many music traditions at halls located in York’s Accolade East Building, just south of the new giant white boomerang-shaped subway station.

(Please refer to the WholeNote listings for exact concert times. But here’s an appetizer.)

March 15 promises to be a long world music-rich day at York. Audiences can take in six concerts, starting at 11am with the Cuban Ensemble, directed by Latin music scene veteran Rick Lazar and Anthony Michelli at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. It’s followed by guitarist and dedicated klezmer expert Brian Katz’s Klezmer Ensemble, upstairs in the Martin Family Lounge. All the remaining concerts also alternate between these two venues

After lunch, master Ghanaian drummer and longtime gifted instructor Kwasi Dunyo directs the “West African Drumming: Ghana” concert, then the Escola de Samba takes the stage, directed by the multitalented Rick Lazar.

At 4pm the West African Mande Ensemble performs, directed by Anna Melnikoff. The day closes with Lindy Burgess’ Caribbean Music Ensemble in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall.

York’s World Music Festival continues the next day, at noon on March 16, with the Korean Drum Ensemble directed by Charles Hong at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. Sherry Johnson then directs the Celtic Ensemble, followed by the Chinese Classical Orchestra directed by Kim Chow-Morris. The festival wraps at 7:30pm with a performance of ethnomusicologist Irene Markoff’s Balkan Music Ensemble.

Master drummer Kwasi Dunyo leads ensembles in both festivals.

World Music Ensembles: Spring Festival, University of Toronto

Now just a 13-stop, single-line subway ride south from York U to Museum Station, U of T’s Faculty of Music also has a rich history of offering world music classes and engaging Toronto audiences in their performances. I attended world music ensemble concerts at Walter Hall in the 1980s and in following decades. I always encountered new and ear-opening music that enriched my multicultural palette.

The Faculty of Music’s World Music Ensembles website states that the “program at the University of Toronto has for many years enriched the musical lives of our students and has provided alternative perspectives on learning and making music by offering training in various world traditions. The ensembles vary from year to year. We have also been able to take advantage of an ensemble led by our annual visitor in the World Music artist-in-residence program [between 2007 and 2016].”

So we continue our “world music goes to college” theme back downtown, with a concert March 23 at 12 noon featuring the popular, long-running African Drumming and Dancing Ensemble. Under the dynamic direction of the Toronto-based master drummer Kwasi Dunyo, the event takes place at Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building.

A couple of weeks later, on April 7 at 2:30pm, other World Music Ensembles take the Walter Hall stage in the Faculty of Music’s annual spring concert. The Latin American Music Ensemble, directed by veteran percussionist and composer Mark Duggan, and Steel Pan Ensemble, directed by pan music educator, percussionist and arranger Joe Cullen, have been confirmed.

It’s far too soon to tell what the impacts of the TYSSE will be, positive and negative, on the health of nodes of local culture within the region.

But for sure I’ll be taking the subway more often in search of music. In both directions. clip_image001.png

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

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