The extra coverage in this double issue of The WholeNote has prompted me to consider its entire nine-plus weeks of listings as fodder for constructing my personal musical winter wonderland. You are welcome to come along for the ride!

On thewholenote.com I find the LISTINGS tab and click on the indispensable JustASK feature. It’s early in planning my journey so I opt to see the entire listings for the first week in December. (Later in my wanderings, to refine my search I may choose to JustASK specifically for chamber music or piano.) In this case, I decide on a free RCM event, pianist Francine Kay in a Sunday Interludes recital at Mazzoleni Hall on December 3. Chopin’s Barcarolle has always been a personal favourite and its rolling rhythms will get my festive juices running. Besides, the eminent Princeton University faculty member (and Analekta recording artist) will be giving two masterclasses the following Friday in the same space. Depending on what the students will be playing, I may sit in.

My next stop brings me to Koerner Hall on December 5 for a concert I wrote about in the November WholeNote: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, a 20th-century touchstone, played by some of the newest stars in Europe’s musical firmament. I have high hopes for pianist Lucas Debargue, violinist Janine Jansen, cellist Torleif Thedéen and clarinetist Martin Fröst. Next stop, December 10 (and I still haven’t budged from Bloor Street) I’m looking forward to the return of Khatia Buniatishvili. This time she’s opening with Mussorgsky’s majestic and intricate Pictures at an Exhibition before moving on to Liszt showpieces. (And while I’m waiting, there’s the Rebanks Family Fellowship concert December 6 in Mazzoleni Hall, where young musicians on the cusp of professional careers display their craft.)

Sorry to say, you’ll have to JustASK for yourself for the balance of December. That’s because my annual visit to longtime friends in the cabin they built themselves in the middle of a hundred-acre wood will take me through the month. A festive Christmas feast of turkey and trimmings baked in a wood stove will serve all of us well while a curious, sociable parrot provides live entertainment.

January 4 and 6, Ryan Wang: When Ryan Wang was five years old he performed at Carnegie Hall in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition. A charming child with no pretentious airs, his celebrity shone soon after, in his first appearance on The Ellen Show. When not playing a concerto with the Shanghai Symphony, for example, he enjoys biking, road hockey and Harry Potter in West Vancouver. In a YouTube video made last year, he talks about being a piano prodigy who began playing when he was four. “Kids in school think I’m just a famous pianist,” he says unabashedly. “But I’m just an ordinary kid.” He calls Harry Potter his hero “because he’s brave. And if you’re brave, you can overcome anything … Sometimes life is really challenging, but I never give up and never lose hope.”

Martha Argerich debuted at four, Claudio Arrau at five. Ryan Wang at ten has been on the stage for half his life. The Li Delun Music Foundation presents him on January 4 at the Fairview Library Theatre in recital playing Bach’s French Suite No.6 – his Bach on YouTube is refreshingly without any affect – a Haydn sonata, a Poulenc Villageoise, Debussy’s Arabesque No.1, the two Chopin Waltzes Op.64 and a Bartók Romanian Dance. An excursion to North York may be a New Year’s resolution worth keeping. Two days later, January 6, Wang is the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2 with the Toronto Festival Orchestra conducted by Dongxiao Xu in the Li Delun Music Foundation’s “New Year’s Concert 2018” at the George Weston Recital Hall.

January 7, Rachel Barton Pine: She began learning the violin at three; at five she “self-identified as a violinist.” At ten, she performed with her hometown band, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; at 17, she won the Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany. At 20, her violin case straps caught in the closing doors of a Chicago commuter train; the accident cost her part of a leg and mangled a foot. Her determination and discipline from her years of violin study brought her all the way back musically. On January 7, she performs the first Sunday Interludes concert of the year in Mazzoleni Hall.

January 10 to 21, Mozart @ 262: I’m back on Bloor again for some of this next part of my private winter festival. I am about to come face to face with the TSO’s Mozart @ 262 Festival that begins January 10; it will be the TSO’s 14th annual celebration of that prodigy’s genius, and the final one with Peter Oundjian (the festival’s creator) as TSO music director. Roy Thomson Hall (three performances), Koerner Hall (two) and the George Weston Recital Hall (one) will all be involved. On January 17 and 18 concertmaster Jonathan Crow and principal violist Teng Li will be the soloists in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola K364/320d in what might very well be the single highlight of the festival.

Adrian AnantawanOundjian’s sole conducting gig, however (January 19 to 21), is the one program I’m most focused on, though (and the only one that’s in all three venues). Anchored by Mozart’s exhilarating final symphony, No.41 in C Major “Jupiter,” the concert showcases two talented young Canadian artists. Charles Richard-Hamelin will weave his colouristic alchemy in the Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K488 – the understated grandeur of its Adagio served as the main theme of Terrence Malick’s film The New World, underscoring the pristine beauty of its first act. And Adrian Anantawan will be the soloist in the Rondo for violin and orchestra K250/248b “Haffner,” and the Adagio for violin and orchestra K261. Anantawan, who grew up in Toronto, was born with no right hand, only a stunted appendage with tiny stubs instead of fingers. At nine he took up the violin, which proved to be a great equalizer for him. Needless to say, it changed his life. Now in his early 30s, he works with cutting-edge technology to help others; he’s also given a TED Talk. He told CNN in 2013 that “it’s never about the technique or technology that is important, but the desire to live life authentically and creatively. We often forget even ‘traditional’ musical instruments are technological adaptations in their own right – they are tools to manipulate sound in a way that we couldn’t do with our bodies alone.”

January 11, Brentano and Dawn Upshaw: I plan on abandoning Mozart to take advantage of a rare opportunity to hear Schoenberg’s pivotal String Quartet No.2 when Music Toronto presents the Brentano String Quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw in the Jane Mallett Theatre. Completed in 1908, the quartet’s extreme late-Romanticism loses its harmonic bearings by its final movement, a change that can be considered the beginning of atonal music. The third and fourth movements are settings of poems by the symbolist poet Stefan George. Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise talks about the extraordinary moment in the fourth movement when the soprano sings the line I feel the wind of another planet and then the “transformation,” I dissolve in tones, circling, weaving … The Schoenberg is preceded by Respighi’s intimate, lyrical setting of Shelley’s Il Tramonto. Before intermission, the Brentano (without Upshaw) will interweave Webern Bagatelles with Schubert Minuets before performing Argentine-American Mario Davidovsky’s String Quartet No.4 (1980), a piece I look forward to hearing for the first time.

The next morning, January 12 at 10am, Upshaw will give a masterclass in Mazzoleni Hall. I’ve marked my calendar. Maybe I should just move to Bloor Street!

Sunday, January 14, David Jalbert and Wonny Song: these two top-rank Canadian pianists return to U of T’s Walter Hall and Mooredale Concerts following their acclaimed 2014 appearance there, for “Piano Dialogue,” a program inspired by dance, theatre and visual art. Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.1 for two pianos and his four-hand arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz share the stage with Milhaud’s Scaramouche Suite for Two Pianos and Stravinsky’s kinetic Petrouchka, also for two pianos. Elsewhere in this issue Alex Baran writes in his DISCoveries Keyed In column about Jalbert’s latest CD of music connected to what Jalbert and Song are playing in their recital: “[The CD] shows why he’s considered one of the younger generation’s finest pianists. His performance of Dance russe from Petrouchka explodes into being with astonishing speed and alacrity. Jalbert possesses a sweeping technique that exudes ease and persuasive conviction.”

January 23, Stephen Hough: In October 2016 the brilliant British pianist Stephen Hough revealed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island DIscs that he discovered he liked playing the piano when he went to visit his aunt’s house and could pick out more than one hundred nursery rhymes on her piano. After much pestering, his parents bought him a cheap second-hand piano from an antique shop. So began the storied career of this polymath, whose first novel, The Final Retreat, is to be published in March 2018. On January 23, he makes his fourth appearance for Music Toronto since 1996 with a program mixing four Debussy works (two of which, Images Bk 1 and II, appear on his latest Hyperion CD, anticipating the centenary of the composer’s death in 1918) with Schumann’s rapturous Fantasie Op.17 and Beethoven’s colossal Sonata in F Minor, Op.67, “Appassionata.” The next morning, Hough will make the trek north to Mazzoleni Hall for a public masterclass. Having been to two of these, I have no doubt it will be an insightful and inspirational experience.

January 27, the Dover Quartet: The Dovers came to wide attention in 2013 when they won the Banff International String Quartet Competition. I wrote about their memorable Beethoven concert at Toronto Summer Music in 2016: “Musically mature, vibrant and uncannily unified in purpose and execution, the youthful players brought passion and grace to the first two movements [of Op.132], took a decisive approach to the fourth and emphasized the rhapsodic character of the finale.” Chamber Music Hamilton, a top-flight regional series, is presenting the young Americans in a recital of Schumann’s Second, Ullmann’s Third and Zemlinsky’s Second String Quartets, Sunday January 27 at 2pm at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

January 30, RCM and Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (although the name has changed, the address remains Bloor Street) present Stefan Avalos’ compulsively watchable Strad Style, a film I saw at Hot Docs 2017. The documentary chronicles the improbable but triumphant story of a reclusive Ohio violin maker, Daniel Houck, whose confidence that he can produce a copy of “Il Canone,” the Guarneri violin built in 1742 that Paganini played, carries him through an eight-month journey that threatens to be derailed more than once. A violin aficionado who loves listening to old masters like Oistrakh and Heifetz and idolizes violin makers Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari – all from Cremona, Italy – Houck suffers from bipolar disorder but functions with medication. He befriends Razvan Stoica on Facebook when he discovers the Romanian-born violinist has won the Strad Prize at a Salzburg festival and offers to make him the Canone replica. There is magic stuff here.

After the screening Jonathan Crow will bring out his own Guarneri for what promises to be a fascinating show-and-tell Q&A. And that’s why I’ll be there.

And on into February: The astounding young pianist Daniil Trifonov continues his homage-to-Chopin tour February 1, with a sold-out concert at Koerner Hall. I’m lucky to have a ticket but unlucky to miss the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s annual Music Toronto visit the same evening. Fortunately I can attend the SLSQ’s masterclass in Mazzoleni Hall the next day at 10am.

In 2008, clarinetist Dionysis Grammenos became the first wind player ever to be named European Young Musician of the Year. Two years later at 21, having been guided by Bernard Haitink, Christoph Eschenbach and Robert Spano, he made his conducting debut with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Johannes Debus hired him as assistant conductor for the COC’s 2018 production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio February 7 to 24. “You find in him a musician who exudes an enthusiasm for music from every single pore and who equally has the talent to communicate and share his enthusiasm and euphoria with others – no matter if it’s about an audience or fellow musicians,” Debus says. Grammenos’ appearance at noon on February 7 in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre with Ensemble Made in Canada (they will perform Brahms’ late masterpiece, the sublime Clarinet Quintet in B Minor Op.115) is the last stop in my winter festival.

Given the abundance of live music available to all of us in the Toronto area, there’s an ad hoc personal winter festival out there for the making for every musical taste. How? JustASK.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

November is almost over and two shows stood out for me recently: The Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered: Dylan & Springsteen with its brilliant storytelling through song, and the wild and wacky low-budget silliness of Christopher Bond’s Evil Dead, the Musical – an incredibly clever tribute to and parody of musicals, low-budget horror movies and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise in particular. (Good news is that the latter show’s run has just been extended to January 7.)

Looking ahead to December there is a wealth of music theatre on offer. With the holiday season approaching, there are many family-oriented shows, including at least three versions of A Christmas Carol in which music is integral to the story and production. Ross Petty Productions gives us its usual anarchic take on a classic through the prism of the traditional English panto. At the Grand Theatre in London, new artistic director Dennis Garnhum is introducing himself to audiences through his own acclaimed version of Dickens’ classic, described as “brimming with music, dance, and ... all of your favourite carols.” And the Shaw Festival is joining the fray, with what I believe is their first Christmas season, in a production adapted and directed by new artistic director Tim Carroll with music direction by Paul Sportelli, movement and puppetry by Alexis Milligan, and as Scrooge, Michael Therriault, star of last season’s Me and My Girl.

The Tale of a Town

In and among Toronto’s rich smorgasbord of music theatre offerings to choose from, many of them not tied specifically to the season, two in particular (one in December, one in January) caught my eye because of their unusual – in different ways – weaving of music with text-based elements.

The second of the two, chronologically, is the Tarragon Theatre’s rock-and-roll Hamlet commencing January 2. (You can read my interview with director Richard Rose elsewhere in the issue.)

Lisa Marie DiLiberto and Charles Ketchabaw, with their Storymobile on PEI, July 2013 - Courtesy of Victory PlayhouseThe other is Fixt Point’s production of The Tale of a Town, the creation of husband-and-wife duo Charles Ketchabaw and Lisa Marie DiLiberto which returns to its starting place at Theatre Passe Muraille, December 14 to 17. Since the show’s beginnings, Ketchabaw and DiLiberto have spent three years touring the country in their Storymobile (recording studio on wheels) gathering the stories and songs of communities from the Arctic to the East Coast and creating local performance installations. They also built a national story map that not only forms part of each local show but remains in place in each community, as well as online and as a ten-part series on TVO – a kind of national story archive.

I spoke with DiLiberto as well as with the show’s current music director, Sophia Perlman, to find out some more details of the musical side of this project. What makes it “a musical”? was our starting point, and here is the essence of the conversation that followed:

DiLiberto: I wouldn’t call it a musical per se, but music is an essential part of the process and the show, which features songs and audio and performance moments which are underscored live.

Perlman: You’re right. It’s not a musical, entirely. I am coming at this production from an early background in opera and music theatre, but with the last decade or so of my career being rooted mostly in jazz, blues and improvised music. Part of what I love about this piece is the process that has gone into preparing each show, and the insight that each member of the team brings to the table in terms of how music can help shape the story.

DiLiberto: For me, this is a real homecoming. We began this project at Theatre Passe Muraille, and have since toured to every province and territory in Canada gathering stories. To return back home to this theatre feels like the project is coming full circle. The music is such a huge part of the show. It reveals the essence of where we are, how we feel throughout the journey of the show. It lifts everything up into a heightened space – like in a musical – but in the case of this show it lifts up the audio, the verbatim performances, and helps us get from place to place. I’m so excited to share this epic story here in Toronto where it all began, partly because of how far it has travelled in the meantime. This production is a culmination of several years of touring, story gathering and local installation performances. During the process, we worked with these archives and adapted a lot of the score from the ideas and music created by the musicians who collaborated on these performances locally.

Perlman: And for me, personally, Queen West was one of the first communities that The Tale of a Town gathered stories from, and several places (like the coffee shop I used to go to in Parkdale and the Cameron House) are featured in the story. I lived in Toronto’s downtown most of my life – and only left a few years ago. … After the amazing adventure I’ve had on the first part of this season’s tour, it feels especially wonderful to have the chance to bring this story so close to home.

The WholeNote: So the version of the show we will see at Passe Muraille is still in development?

Perlman: We created a score that was an overall shape for the piece back in August and September. Lisa Marie [DiLiberto] is an actor, performer and musician, and there are songs that are sung by her and guest artists. She also plays cello and guitar! Charles Ketchabaw has a background in radio and audio tech and sometimes in terms of live music my role feels a bit more like leading a silent movie orchestra! But part of what drew me to this piece, creatively, was the fact that while the score has been “set” since August, the time we took in the rehearsal room to understand those choices has meant that everywhere we go the score can be adapted to fit different instrumentation, special guests or new local content.

DiLiberto: Each place we go there will be a new band, featured local guests and some kind of a choir ... Perlman: An amazing ad-hoc of musical collaborators and volunteers, you might say … And that becomes part of the story.

After the Toronto run, The Tale of a Town will hit the road again in January for dates in St. Catharines, Burlington, Milton and Kingston. See their website (thetaleofatown.com) for details or call 416-504-7529.

QUICK PICKS

To Dec 31: YPT’s streamlined production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which started November 6, is aimed particularly at families and younger children and features a young, diverse cast including Celine Tsai, one of The Musical Stage Company’s 2017 Banks Prize winners, as Belle.

Nov 23 to Dec 2: Two productions of the operetta Candide have popped up at the same time. Talk is Free Theatre present theirs at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie. Dec 28, 30, 31 and Jan 5, 6, 7, Toronto Operetta Theatre presents their take on the Bernstein/Sondheim classic at the Jane Mallett Theatre. Will the Barrie version have a more “musical theatre” approach?

Nov 28 to Dec 2: Randolph Academy presents the rarely seen musical Moll, with music and lyrics by Canadian composer Leslie Arden and book by Arden and Cathy Elliott, at the Annex Theatre. This is must-see for fans of Arden and Elliott.

Nov 30 to Dec 23: For fans of the comedy side of musical comedy, Theatre Orangeville presents a new Christmas musical, The Last Christmas Turkey, with book by Dan Needles, creator of the Wingfield plays, and music and lyrics by Clive VanderBurgh.

Dec 9 to Jan 21: For fans of the large-scale musical and for families over the holidays, Mirvish Productions offers a musical version of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax – music and lyrics by Charlie Fink, adapted for the stage by David Greig – at the Royal Alex; while Dec 12 to Jan 7, also from Mirvish, Million Dollar Quartet (which always seems to be playing somewhere) moves into the Panasonic Theatre.

Jan 12 and 13: There are only two days to catch triple-threat and Stratford star Juan Chioran, starring in Podium Concert Productions’ concert version of Nine, the Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit musical based on Fellini’s film 8 ½, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Feb 4 to 25: Coal Mine Theatre, known for its riveting and dark-edged theatre productions, moves into musical territory with Rumours By Fleetwood Mac: A Coal Mine Concert. It will be interesting to see where this falls on the music theatre spectrum, particularly because artistic director Ted Dykstra is also well known for his accomplished work on musicals as both performer and director.

And more: for a more comprehensive overview of musical theatre listings over December and January, visit our music theatre listings on page 63 in this issue.

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.

This sentence notwithstanding, I try not to use too many personal pronouns when writing. Call it a parasympathetic reflex from my student days writing prosaic, academically sourced theses, but words like “I” and “my” seem too personal and isolating to use even in a communal column and publication such as The WholeNote; and I don’t write editorials (although I do express the occasional opinion or two!). This month is an exception, however, for we begin our two-month survey of the Toronto early music scene with two personal anecdotes – disparate occurrences that, although entirely independent in time and place, share a common, relevant and important theme.

A few weeks ago, I gave a recital at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. The program for this little concert contained a blend of jazz, minimalist and avant-garde music, including György Ligeti’s Harmonies for organ. After the performance one audience member approached and asked, “Why bother with such music? You could have played that piece (Harmonies) forwards or backwards and we wouldn’t have known the difference!” It was ultimately a worthwhile question and one that many performers face, particularly in the realm of music written in the 20th century and onwards: why bother playing music that people won’t understand, music that is not necessarily tuneful, pretty, or accessible to the masses?

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Goh in 'Loving Vincent' - Courtesy of Mongrel MediaDays after my recital experience, I saw the new film Loving Vincent, an artistically oriented speculative recreation of the last days of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, incorporating elements of documentary and murder mystery. This film was screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox and is notable because of the way it was made. Each frame – 65,000 of them altogether – was hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh by an international team of artists, then photographed and digitized using animation software, thereby creating a literal motion picture. Before viewing Loving Vincent, I read a synopsis in The Guardian in which the reviewer questioned the painstaking process of producing the film, arguing that an equally visually satisfying production could have been generated using purely digital means without the trouble of hand-painting anything at all. In our digital age, the review queried, why bother with all the unnecessarily painstaking manual labour?

In early music circles, the question “Why bother?” is a relevant one, too. When we look at the frequency with which certain individual works are performed, there are inevitably moments where we question the rationale behind established conventions that have become normalized. For example, now that December is here, why bother playing Handel’s Messiah again across the city – haven’t we been up to our eyeballs in it every year for the past decade? Why bother with another performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Corelli’s Christmas Concerto? Reprising these works year after year seems to be the bad end of a Faustian pact, the lure of a full auditorium paid off with the ceaseless repetition of the same stuff, taxing our ears with all-too familiar strains of “Hallelujah!,” “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” or some other predictable and overdone work – a festive and wintry Groundhog Day, if you will.

These are thought-provoking queries, many of which are difficult to answer. The questions of “Why?” and “Why bother?” will always be applicable to the arts, particularly when something new and unfamiliar (in the case of Ligeti’s Harmonies) or unusual and idiosyncratic (as we see in Loving Vincent) is put on display, but another little anecdote recounted to me by a former teacher may help answer why we always seem to return to the time-tested Baroque classics in December:

Once a conductor was in a dress rehearsal of Messiah – everyone involved had performed the work many times. One singer was rather lackadaisical about his part and seemed lazy and lacklustre throughout, irking the conductor enough that he confronted him about it afterwards.

“Listen,” the conductor said, “I know you have sung this many times, as I’ve conducted it many times, but you have a great responsibility as a performer. Tonight’s concert may be the first time that someone in that audience hears Messiah. And this performance may also be the last Messiah someone in that audience hears.”

My Grown-Up Christmas List

For many, Messiah is as much a quintessential seasonal favourite as mulled wine and a ten-pound fruitcake. With dozens of performers presenting various Messianic adaptations and interpretations across Toronto and its surrounding areas, it can be a tricky task to pick only one! Fortunately, The WholeNote is here to help: read my recent blog post on notable performances, or search for the word “Messiah” in our online listings to get a list of most of this year’s shows. Whether full-length or condensed, HIP or modern, symphonic or sing-along, we have the Messiah for you.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is another classic Christmas composition from the Baroque era, compiled and composed between 1733 and 1734 to celebrate the Christmas season in Leipzig. Although catalogued as BWV248 and now considered a single, freestanding work, this “oratorio” is in actuality a series of six individual cantatas that were performed during the time between Christmas and Epiphany (what we now call the Twelve Days of Christmas) and divided between the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, Leipzig’s two main churches.

Monumental in scope and brilliant in its musical expression of Bach’s beliefs and theology, the Christmas Oratorio is, along with the Passions, the closest Bach came to writing a narrative opera. Geoffrey Butler and the Toronto Choral Society perform the Christmas Oratorio at Koerner Hall on December 6, in what promises to be a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of the commercially overloaded Christmas season.

Continuing their trend of melding old and new, the Toronto Masque Theatre presents their seasonal salon “Peace on Earth” on December 17 and 18. Featuring the performance of baroque Noëls and the Messe de Minuit by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, these Franco-flavoured evenings will explore the simplicity, beauty and joy of the French Baroque Christmas, different in many ways from the immense and intricate forms we find in English and German oratorio.

To complement these French Baroque favourites, TMT also leaps forward into the 20th century with excerpts from The Birth of Christ, a cantata written in 1901 by Canadian composer Clarence Lucas (1866-1947) as well as seasonal readings by from T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. With this medley of music and word on display only one week before Christmas, these performances will surely banish the last “Bah humbug!” from even the Scroogiest of curmudgeonly misers.

But Wait, There’s More! A Taste of 2018

Fast forward to January 2018: Belts are loosened an extra notch (or two); turkey leftovers, eggnog and rum hangovers, and the last few sweet treats all linger longer than expected. New Year’s resolutions are resolutely made and broken, and we start looking ahead to the inevitable wintry weather that is to come. If we somehow ignore the temptation to snuggle up with a cup of cocoa and hibernate until March, there are many exciting events taking place across Toronto in January, including two promising projects by Tafelmusik (who might quite reasonably go into hibernation themselves after their busy December!).

The first is the Tafelmusik Winter Institute, a terrific opportunity for those with a passion for Historically Informed Performance. A one-week intensive for advanced students and young professionals, this year’s TWI culminates in a free public performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall on January 10. Featuring music by French composers Lully, Campra, Marais and Rameau, and this performance presents a rare opportunity to hear top-notch music from the height of the French tradition for an unbeatable price.

Over the last few years, Tafelmusik has pushed the boundaries of the early music concert experience with Alison Mackay’s creative multimedia conceptions and collaborations. This positive trend towards HIP-infused modernism continues with Safe Haven, a program exploring the musical ideas of Baroque Europe’s refugee artists, drawing parallels between 18th-century Europe and present-day Canada. At that time of year when the Christmas chestnuts have come and gone, this concert looks to provide a palate-cleansing leap forward in a genre that occasionally seems to specialize in blasé repetition.

Joëlle Morton Scaramella: While Tafelmusik peers into the future with Safe Haven, period performance group Scaramella looks back in time with their “Ode to Music” on January 27. Featuring Scaramella’s Joëlle Morton and guest virtuoso viol players Elizabeth Rumsey and Caroline Ritchie from Basel, Switzerland, this program uses a variety of 16th-century music for viol consort to explore the impact of the muses on Renaissance composers. This concert provides a wonderful opportunity for viol enthusiasts and novices alike to acquaint themselves with the spectrum of sound these antiquated instruments can produce, living musical relics linking our ears to past centuries.

As winter-themed advertising flashes across our smartphone screens and store windows are redecorated with miniaturized villages and resplendent hues of red, green and gold, it can be overwhelming and daunting to find time to attend a concert; despite the seasonal hustle and bustle, I encourage you to explore the vibrant musical offerings that are on display this December and January. Whether you prefer Handel’s Messiah, Tafelmusik’s Safe Haven, a traditional Festival of Lessons and Carols, or any of the other listings in this double issue of The WholeNote, the richness and depth of Toronto’s classical music scene ensures that no concertgoer ever has to ask, “Why bother?”

Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and New Year, everyone. See you in February! Until then, keep in touch at
earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

It used to be that the only operatic productions that took place in December and January were from the Canadian Opera Company and Toronto Operetta Theatre. Now there are so many new small companies that there is quite a wide range of offerings available to see out the old year and see in the new.

COC: That being said, the production on the largest scale in these two months is the Canadian Opera Company’s remount of Verdi’s Rigoletto for ten performances from January 20 to February 23. The production, directed by Christopher Alden, was last seen in 2011. There is some controversy attached to the production, since Alden had previously created it for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000. The action is set entirely inside a gentlemen’s gaming club in the early 1850s with the chorus onstage throughout the action. The various locations in the libretto are acted out using furniture from the club, the danger being that if people do not already know the story the staging provides no clues to help them. After its unpopular run at LOC, the production was deemed “unrevivable” and LOC now has a popular new production directed by E. Loren Meeker. When the COC and English National Opera approached Alden for a Rigoletto, he simply re-created the one he had done for Chicago.

In any case, the COC has revived the unrevivable and it features Roland Wood in the title role, Anna Christy as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, Stephen Costello and Joshua Guerrero (February 11, 17, 23) as the depraved Duke of Mantua, and Goderdzi Janelidze as the assassin Sparafucile. Stephen Lord conducts.

On a much lighter note, the COC has invited the public to see a new opera for children, The Magic Victrola, on December 1, 2 and 3. The opera also has a Chicago connection in that it was premiered by the LOC in 2015. In the opera, written by David Kersnar and Jacqueline Russell, two children stay at their grandfather’s place for the summer vacation. The grandfather has a Victrola and a set of opera recordings; the children find when they play the records that the characters come alive. The hour-long show includes well-known excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, The Tales of Hoffmann, The Elixir of Love, Lakmé, Gianni Schicchi and Carmen. The opera, suitable for ages five and over, is performed by members of the COC Ensemble Studio and is directed by Ashlie Corcoran, with music direction by Rachael Kerr and Stéphane Mayer.

Toronto Operetta Theatre has been helping Torontonians bridge the old and the new years with operetta for more than 30 years. This year it revives its production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), last staged here in 2007, which the composer himself designated as an “operetta.” The work follows the adventures of the eternal optimist Candide, whose tutor has taught him to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. This belief is sorely tested when Candide barely survives one disaster after another. Tonatiuh Abrego takes on the title role, while Vania Chan stars as his beloved Cunegonde and sings the show-stopping coloratura aria Glitter and Be Gay. TOT favourite Elizabeth Beeler sings the Old Lady, Nicholas Borg is Dr. Pangloss, Cian Horrobin is the Governor and Mikhail Shemet is Cacambo. Candide runs for six performances from December 28 to January 7. Derek Bate conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

Talk Is Free Theatre: This is likely the first time ever that a person can see two different productions of Candide in Ontario in the same month. The second takes place at a non-traditional operatic showcase, Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, which is in the process of presenting the Bernstein work in a run from November 23 to December 2. The cast includes Thom Allison, Holly Chaplin, Gabi Epstein, Mike Nadajewski and Michael Torontow; Richard Ouzounian directs and Lily Ling conducts.

Shi Pei Pu, the original Mr. ShiTarragon Theatre, another non-traditional showcase for opera, is presenting Mr. Shi and His Lover, a one-act work by Njo Kong Kie that runs in Toronto until December 17. In the new year it plays at the NAC in Ottawa from January 3 to 13. Mr. Shi is made up of seven scenes in which two characters, Mr. Shi and Bernard Boursicot, reflect on the the strange but true story of their relationship. Boursicot, a young French diplomat stationed in China in 1964, fell in love with Shi Pei Pu, a male performer of the Peking Opera specializing in female roles, believing that Shi was actually a woman. Amazingly, Boursicot and Shi’s relationship continued for 20 years without Boursicot ever realizing Shi was a man, much less a spy recruited to entrap him. This story is the basis for David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly. Jordan Cheng sings the role of Mr. Shi and Derek Kwan sings Boursicot. Njo Kong Kie conducts the singers and percussionist Yukie Lai from the piano in an eclectic score that ranges from Peking opera to traditional folk song, music hall, pop music, Western opera and the art song. Tam Chi Chun, the artistic director of Macau Experimental Theatre, directs.

Tryptych: Continuing its exploration of standard repertory with large orchestra, Tryptych Concert & Opera presents its final opera in Toronto before its co-artistic directors, Edward Franko and Lenard Whiting, move to Kenora to restart the company there. On December 9 and 10, Tryptych presents a fully-staged production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in English at the P.C. Ho Theatre in Scarborough, with the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Beaches Children’s Chorus. The cast features Meghan Symon as Hansel, Marion Samuel-Stevens as Gretel, Douglas Tranquada as the Father, Mila Ionkova as the Mother, Kira Braun as the Dew Fairy and Sandman and Whiting himself as the Witch. Franko directs and Norman Reintamm conducts. Despite Franko and Whiting’s move, the two plan to stage at least one opera with the CBSO in Toronto every year. Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love is already planned for next year.

Tapestry: In the realm of new music is the welcome return of Tapestry Opera’s popular Opera Briefs. This year’s “Winter Shorts” consists of ten opera scenes developed during Tapestry’s 2016 Composer-Librettist Laboratory. Creators of the shorts have drawn inspiration from current events and contemporary concerns including the Syrian refugee crisis, robot warfare, the 1984 Quebec National Assembly shooting, voyeurism, fairy tales and dysfunctional millennial relationships. This year’s operas include three composed by Afarin Mansouri, three from Iman Habibi, three from Norbert Palej and one from Kit Soden. The librettists are Bobby Theodore, Marcia Johnson, Phoebe Tsang and Jessica Murphy Moo. The performers are Alexander Dobson, Erica Iris, Keith Klassen and Jacqueline Woodley. “Winter Shorts” runs from November 30 to December 3.

Against the Grain: In contrast to Tapestry’s “bite-size” offerings, from December 14 to 16 Toronto’s indomitable Against the Grain Theatre presents a “new” full-length Handel opera in the form of Bound – A Handel Mash-up. AtG’s artistic director Joel Ivany and music director Topher Mokrzewski have collaborated with award-winning composer Kevin Lau to create a pastiche of music from Handel’s operas and oratorios that will focus on current world events. According to the AtG website, “In the wake of the world’s refugee crisis, this workshop will explore the current state of those displaced, dehumanized and mistreated, with texts and stories drawn from real-life news articles and world events.” When I asked Ivany in November what drew him to Handel instead of, say, Verdi, who also wrote about so many dispossessed people, he responded, “There is something in the form in which Handel wrote most of his music which is interesting. His draw to a formula, a repetition of text and simplicity in how he set it, is profound. Yes, Verdi is a master composer, but his music takes on a much more propelling aspect to the storytelling. Handel allows you to reflect, assess and move forward.”

Some of the pieces that Bound draws upon are Acis and Galetea, Alcina, Alexander’s Feast, Ariodante, Orlando, Floridante, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Jephtha, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Semele, Serse and Tolomeo. For the assembled score Ivany has written a new English libretto. The cast includes soprano Danika Lorèn, tenor Asitha Tennekoon, countertenor David Trudgen, baritone Justin Welsh and bass Michael Uloth. Ivany will direct and Mokrzewski will conduct.

Richard Margison and Lauren MargisonHighlands Opera premiere: Meanwhile, there is an important premiere outside Toronto. Opera lovers may know that the Highlands Opera Studio, based in Haliburton with Richard Margison as artistic director, presents opera in the summer. This year HOS will present a new work December 21 and 22, Mishaabooz’s Realm (Le Royaume de Michabous), with music and libretto by Cree composer Andrew Balfour. The opera, a co-production with L’Atelier Lyrique of L’Opéra de Montréal, will have its world premiere performances in Montreal on December 15 and 16 before moving to Haliburton.

The opera’s central figure is Mishaabooz, an important character in Anishinaabe storytelling. Mishaabooz is another name for Nanabozho, the great trickster spirit and shape-shifter, one of whose favourite forms is as a giant rabbit, who is often sent to earth by Gitche Manitou (the Creator) to teach the Ojibwe peoples. (Mishaabooz, in fact, means “Great Hare.”) In his composer’s statement, Balfour describes the opera as “a multi-media and multi-directional work, incorporating classical styles, unique choral and vocal perspectives, Indigenous musical and oral traditions, with a libretto in First Nations dialect, French and English, exploring contemporary issues concerning Canada’s relationship with our First People and the land of Turtle Island, past, present and future.”

Singers include soprano Lauren Margison and baritone Nathan Keoughan. Balfour and Cory Campbell will contribute vocals and play percussion while music director Louise-Andrée Baril will conduct from the piano. The chorus will be drawn from both Montreal and Haliburton. Valerie Kuinka is the stage director.

We clearly no longer have to wait until spring for variety in operatic activity in Ontario.

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

Vesuvius Ensemble - Photo by Scarlet O'NeillIf anything’s desperately needed in Toronto in December, it’s a dash of the south. The Vesuvius Ensemble to the rescue: the trio that specializes in Southern Italian music (mostly from Naples and Campania but also Calabria and Puglia) is preparing a pastoral Christmas program for mid-December, just as the Toronto winter is about to take over.

Vesuvius is a three-lad enterprise: Francesco Pellegrino is the voice of the group, while Marco Cera and Lucas Harris play a variety of plucked string instruments, and are most likely to be found manning Baroque guitar and theorbo respectively. Various other period instruments are added depending on the songs chosen, like tammorra, a large tambourine with bells, or ciaramella, an early oboe with an ear-trumpet-like shape. This instrumentarium is there to accompany the songs both folk and composed, roughly from the same period, the 1500s and 1600s. The most interesting part of the Vesuvius mission is this mix of the popular and the authored material. There have always been song composers open to the influence of the folk, and among those who have used either folk music or folk lyrics you are likely to hear in Vesuvius concerts are Andrea Falconieri (d. 1656), Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (1580-1651), Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730), and Francesco Provenzale (1624-1704).

The study of Italian folk song got a significant boost in the 20th century thanks to recording technology. In the mid-1950s, Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella travelled to villages up and down Italy to record traditional peasant songs sung in dialect. Some of the songs were work songs, some were dances like the tarantella (which, myth has it, cures poisonous spider bites and bilious moods of other kinds), and others were laments, or love songs, or wedding songs. Commercially released recordings of some of the Carpitella-Lomax treasures still exist – the Italian Treasury series of CDs divided into regions is not exactly easy to buy (an Amazon search will yield second-hand, vinyl or MP3 offers) and is best sought out in large and university libraries. Puglia: the Salento (2002), Calabria and Folk Music and Song of Italy: A Sampler (1999), for example, are available at the Toronto Reference Library and each includes booklets with lyrics and translations.

Another important figure of the Italian folk revival of the 20th century is the musicologist, theatre artist and composer Roberto de Simone (b. 1933). In addition to the research and archiving of the popular chant, de Simone incorporated folk practices into his own writing and stage directing and is probably best known internationally for the opera La gatta Cenerentola. (Look for Secondo coro delle lavandaie – The Second Chorus of the Washerwomen – on YouTube.)

Which of the Italian traditional and composed treasures will Vesuvius perform in their Christmas concert? We’ll find out on December 17 or 19 in Heliconian Hall, though a few days earlier is also a possibility since the group will perform a similar program at the Four Seasons Centre’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on December 12 at noon. When I spoke with Francesco Pellegrino for this article in mid-October, the program had not yet been finalized. What is certain is that Tommaso Sollazzo, a connoisseur of the Italian bagpipes called zampogne, will be joining in. The trio performed with him in Italy a few years back and now he’s making the trip to wintry Toronto.

And since the tarantellas and the tammurriatas are so danceable, will Vesuvius let the audience dance during their concerts, maybe preceded by some dance instruction? “Not yet,” says Pellegrino, “but we are expanding this program and in the next couple of years our concerts may also have dancers from Italy who are well versed in tarantella or tammurriata. We’re working on it.”

Outside Toronto, you can hear (though not yet dance to) Vesuvius’ Christmas concert on December 18 in Hamilton and December 20 in Montreal.

January

Twenty-five years after its world premiere, the song cycle Honey and Rue is still regularly performed by symphony orchestras and coloratura sopranos in the US. Carnegie Hall commissioned it and André Previn composed it for Kathleen Battle, who was a keen reader of Toni Morrison and wanted her as a lyricist. We don’t hear the cycle that often in Canada, and it’s St. Catharines, not Toronto, that got lucky this season, with two Honey and Rue performances with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in January. Morrison’s poems are a rich and intense read and should be relished without the music first (keep those programs, concertgoers: the poems are not easy to find).

Young soprano Claire de Sévigné will sing. Last time I heard de Sévigné was in the COC’s Arabella, where she effortlessly produced the coloratura for the Viennese ball ingenue, Fiakermilli. There probably isn’t another Canadian soprano whose timbre more resembles Battle’s. I caught up with the travelling soprano via email to learn more about her take on the piece.

Claire de SévignéWhen I ask her what it is that she likes about Honey and Rue, she starts with the orchestration. “Singing with an orchestra is always thrilling but singing a piece that’s in the style of ‘classical-jazz-blues fusion’ feels like a real jam. The fourth song is a huge contrast to the rest of the cycle in that it is a cappella, and this moment can be magic. I also adore the lyrics. Very strong text with stunning imagery.”

I tell her that my first impression of it was that it was extremely high. Her answer doesn’t surprise me: “I don’t notice it being all that high actually – but that’s coming from a coloratura soprano and my voice lives in the clouds, haha. I think that Previn knew how to write for the voice, since the performer doesn’t notice it being all that high! I actually find the set quite lyric – the highest note is only a B flat, a whole fourth lower than my high notes, and the set sits in quite a nice place for a light soprano’s voice to spin and shimmer while still being able to sing the text… It’s quite a pleasure to sing.”

The cycle was written by an African-American writer for an African-American singer originally, and although it’s still frequently sung by African-American singers, it’s become a cycle for any talented soprano who can meet its challenge. I ask de Sévigné what she thinks of the recent rise in discussions about what cultural material can be performed by who, and in what context. “It’s true, the cycle was originally commissioned after Battle read The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison. The poems of Honey and Rue are different however – they don’t explicitly or exclusively portray the same themes from the book, with the exception of the sixth song, which I would say is outwardly about slavery and abuse.” The final poem is based on the African-American spiritual Take My Mother Home, though with added lyrics and musical material. “The cycle as a whole,” writes de Sévigné, “explores questions around equality, suffering, freedom and acceptance, which are themes that humanity as a whole has experienced and can appreciate.”

This will not be the young singer’s first encounter with the piece. “It’s the second time I’ve been asked to sing it. I first performed it with piano in the Aspen Music Festival concert series in 2012 and have performed excerpts over the past years in several recitals. I find something new every time I perform it. I have found that my best way to interpret the songs is by switching between the first person and the narrator.”

And what is next on her schedule? “I’m currently doing a concert tour in China with the Hantang International Music Festival in collaboration with the Salzburg Festival (writing to you from Beijing right now!). I’m back to Canada in December for the Messiah with the Edmonton Symphony and in February, I’ll be at the Canadian Opera Company singing the role of Blonde in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. There’s also a Mozart C Minor Mass this season, and a Carmina Burana with the Grant Park Festival in Chicago.” 

But as the first thing in the new year, Honey and Rue: January 20 and 21, 7:30pm, with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Also on the program: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Ravel’s Mother Goose (complete ballet). Bradley Thachuck, conductor. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

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