Daniel Houck in Strad Style.There are at least 20 films with a significant musical component in this year’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, which runs at various Toronto venues from April 27 to May 7 (hotdocs.ca). There are must-see movies and others of more than passing interest among the several I’ve already seen; many promising titles are tucked away among the 230 in the 2017 lineup.

My review of Integral Man, Joseph Clement’s vivid portrait of the late mathematics professor, LGBT activist and orchestral violinist, James Stewart, can be found in the May issue of The WholeNote. Stewart’s unique Toronto home, Integral House, built into the side of a ravine with royalties from his best-selling calculus textbook, is integral to the documentary, as is footage of Measha Brueggergosman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs in the house for Stewart and his guests at his own living wake.

Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour rich exploration of The Grateful Dead, presents a definitive picture of the iconic band including its cultural and musical origins (from Jerry Garcia’s early connection to the Beat Generation of the 1950s to Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests of the 1960s). There are many nuggets to chew on: one in particular from Joe Smith, the Warner Brothers executive in charge of The Dead and a fount of key information. He recalled that the film crew whom he hired to document the band’s 1974 European tour were continually being given drinks by the band members; he said that he would never accept a drink from The Dead (because more often than not they would be laced with LSD; one of the band’s central tenets was to have fun). Needless to say there was no film of that tour.

Stefan Avalos’ Strad Style 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 Niccolò 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 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.

The Genius and the Opera Star, Vanessa Stockley’s no-holds-barred depiction of the love between a 92-year-old former opera singer, Ruth Berk, and her 55-year-old daughter, Jessica, proves convincingly that parental love goes both ways. Living in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment that’s often occupied by the daughter’s empathetic boyfriend, their days are marked as much by Ruth’s singing along to Sinatra records as by Jessica’s complaining. The vintage home movies and tapes add another layer.

Raise Your Arms and Twist, Documentary of NMB48 takes you deeper than you may ever want to go inside the bizarre phenomenon of the Japanese pop idol groups. NMB, from Osaka, is at the top of the charts, with nine of their first ten songs Number One hits. Dozens of teenage girls dressed like dolls in short skirts are coached and choreographed to appeal to their thousands of adoring fans; management is all-knowing and all-pervasive, down to the handshake events in which fans get approximately ten seconds of intimate conversation with an idol. One singer after shaking 3000 hands in a nine-hour session said: “It gives me energy; it’s like spending the whole time with your friends.”

The Road Forward chronicles decades of Indigenous activism in Canada through song, print and struggle. The Native Voice newspaper (since 1946) and the Native Brotherhood (which began in 1931 in BC’s fishing villages) both fought for Native rights. Archival footage is amplified by several Indigenous performers who carry on an oral tradition that reaches out inclusively beyond the personal.

The Batwa Music Club in Ghosts of Our Forest.Daniel Roher’s Ghosts of Our Forest follows a 24-year-old Ugandan Batwa (pygmy), who has formed the Batwa Music Club to perform the spiritual and traditional music of his people, all of whom were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in 1992.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World devotes its energies to ten Indigenous North American musicians who made considerable contributions to the musical life of the last century. Taking its cue from Link Wray’s influential 1958 guitar instrumental, Rumble, Catherine Bainbridge’s doc includes blues great Charley Patton, songbird Mildred Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and more. Bainbridge is best-known for Reel Injun, her examination of the movies’ treatment of Indigenous people.

La Chana is a portrait of a Catalan flamenco legend and her triumphant return to the stage after years out of the limelight.

Chavela recounts the story of the legendary Mexican chanteuse, who defied sexual convention and challenged macho cultural norms with her music and her love affairs.

Fatou Seidi Gahil performing in Illighadad, Niger in A Story of Sahel Sounds.A Story of Sahel Sounds follows Oregonian Chris Kirkley as he travels to Niger in search of musicians he’s never met to be part of his Sahel Sounds project. The soundtrack looks to be a keeper.

Give Me Future uncovers the ingenuity with which Cubans share banned music while ostensibly focusing on a concert in Havana by Major Lazer in front of half a million people.

A poor African-American family in North Philadelphia opens up their basement music studio to the neighbourhood in Quest, an in-depth portrait filmed over the course of ten years.

Resurrecting Hassan studies a family of blind Montreal buskers who fall under the spell of a Russian mystic who they hope will resurrect their sighted son/brother, a drowning victim. The heartfelt passion of the wife/mother’s singing reflects more than the grief over her loss.

Tony Palmer, this year’s recipient of Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Award, has made more than 100 documentaries. Six of the seven being shown here have a musical component. Palmer had unlimited access to Leonard Cohen for Bird on a Wire, an intimate look at Cohen’s 1972 overseas tour; it’s essential viewing. All My Loving, Palmer’s second film, was facilitated by his friendship with John Lennon. Conceived as a means of getting performers like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Eric Burdon and The Who onto the BBC, when it finally aired in 1968, its effect was transformative. All You Need Is Love (Ep.14 The Beatles) is taken from Palmer’s 17-part 1976 historical series; The Beatles and World War II (2016) combines war footage with covers of Beatles songs. Margot, Palmer’s film about England’s greatest ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, would strain credulity as fiction given her tragic life history. The Harvest of Sorrow (1998) is a compulsively watchable portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff, much of it told by the composer’s own words spoken to great effect by Sir John Gielgud. Archival footage, talking heads and modern performances (pianists Mikhail Pletnev and Valentina Igoshina; Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) combine to produce an insightful portrait of one of the most popular figures of the 20th century.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Trio Magnifico. Photo credit: Vladimir Kevorkov, c/o Show One Productions.There are few of us about – the Netrebko timbre sceptics: music lovers who are more puzzled than attracted by the colour of the voice by the world’s best known soprano, Anna Netrebko. There are going to be even fewer here after her Toronto and Canadian debut on April 25 at the Four Seasons Centre, in recital with tenor Yusif Eyvazov and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under the baton of Jader Bignamini. I must admit I went in as one, but came out finally able to understand much of her scenic appeal. Anna Netrebko live is a veritable bête de scène, that rare performing artist who is at absolute ease on stage, well-prepared and spontaneous both, always generous, with something of a serene childlike instinct for play.

Hers is an unusually dark and cavernous soprano, with ample lower register and confident and equally ample bright top. In live performance, it’s a voice-kaleidoscope with never a dull moment. Her repertoire has changed over the years from the bel canto of the youthful years to Verdi, the Russians, and the first Wagner forays recently – and there’s a Strauss Salome in the near future. At the FSC recital presented by Show One Productions she sang the Act 4 Marfa’s aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride; Cio-Cio-San’s ‘Un bel di vedremo’ – usually sung by brighter and smaller-engined soprano voices, so this was a treat; ‘Stridono lassù’ from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci; and a luxurious, dramatically precise Moon aria from Dvořák’s Rusalka. With Yusif Eyvazov, she sang a cheerful little duo from Lehar’s Das Land des Lachelns, ‘Tu che m’hai preso il cuor’. The duet and the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin closed the concert.

The audience that packed the FSC was rowdier and more enthusiastic than is the Toronto operatic average, which was a welcome change. The Hvorostovsky fans were particularly vocal and it’s no wonder: as the baritone is not yet taking on a full performing and touring schedule, every concert is an occasion to relish. He sang Rigoletto’s ‘Cortigiani vil razza dannata’, an aria each from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Rubinstein’s The Demon, the famous “Tri karty” aria from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, and in the encore on behalf of the entire trio, probably the best known Russian romance song of all times, ‘Ochi chyornye’, while Netrebko waltzed around the stage. (And does she got rhythm. Can we have more of the dancing Netrebko on stage, opera directors?)

All that said, it was Yusif Eyvazov who actually stole the show. Is it ungentlemanly to say that the diva’s husband, when it strictly comes to singing, impressed the most? Because I am about to say it. Perhaps because he is still fairly young and up-and-coming with more to prove than either of the two established star colleagues, Eyvazov came spectacularly well-prepared in a program that had two of the best known tenor arias of all time – ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca, and ‘Vesti la giubba’ from I Pagliacci. He made both of these frequently recorded and performed arias uniquely his own. Eyvazov’s tenor is of a rare beauty of tone and consistent throughout the range, with a free and secure top. Volume is always impressive and impressively controlled. What he has in common with his spouse is the unfussy presence in the singing role – there is no withholding and no distance. To the lesser-known tenor arias ‘E la solita storia’ from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana and ‘Prosti nebesnoe sozdanye’ from Pique Dame he immediately gave a living, breathing character. There is much to look forward to from Eyvazov in the years to come.

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

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song. Photo credit: John Lauener and Dahlia Katz.When asked what was the initial inspiration for Century Song, Neema Bickersteth says she wanted to see if she could sing and dance at the same time. 

From that initial experimenting grew a beautiful, moving, and yet enigmatic piece of music theatre that defies definition. It is part opera, part dance, part video installation, and all intriguing collaboration by Bickersteth and her creative partners both onstage and off. Musicians Gregory Oh on piano and Ben Grossman on percussion and computer are visible and intimate partners in the live experience, and Kate Alton (choreographer), Ross Manson (director), and video creators fetFilm, Germany Hinrichs and associates Cameron Davis, Kaitlin Hickey and Jeremy Minnagh, have worked together with Bickersteth to create a seamless combination of many elements into a short (50-minute) but satisfying whole.

Without being too specific or detailed, Century Song gives us a glancing glimpse of the history of black women in Canada over the last century, in a format that references and evokes Virginia Woolf’s Orlando without losing its own identity. There is a deep seriousness to the piece and yet also a sense of fun that grows as it moves along the timeline from the early 1910s through the later 20th century to the modern day. Interestingly, the fun elements come mostly through some very clever time-hopping and era-juxtaposing video sequences, featuring Bickersteth in many guises.

The decision to stick with vocalises – wordless songs – felt right, though by the end I felt that if there was a longer version, or a companion piece, that I would want words to be back in the recipe. I had first encountered Neema Bickersteth back in 2010 as a talented singing actor in both Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis at the SummerWorks Festival and then in Staniland and Battson’s dramatic oratorio Dark Star Requiem at Luminato, so I was curious to see her in this concentrated spotlight and in the role of creator as well as performer. Century Song is a great showcase and an intriguing hors d’oeuvre to what she may create in the future. The answer to her beginning question? Yes, she can sing and dance at the same time, and beautifully.

Century Song has toured across Canada, the UK, and to Belgium and runs in Toronto until April 29 at Streetcar Crowsnest, Crows Theatre’s very attractive new home at Dundas and Carlaw. $15 Rush tickets are available in person half an hour before the show.

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.

IMG 1898 300All my life I’ve vacillated between mathematics and music,” James Stewart says in Integral Man, a film by Joseph Clement premiering in this year’s Hot Docs film festival. “Mathematics unfolds over a period of time and tells a story. So does music.” And so does Clement’s film, which documents its extraordinary subject so vividly.

Stewart was a professor at McMaster University when two of his students encouraged him to write a book since his classroom explanation of calculus was so much more helpful than the textbook the course prescribed. He took up their suggestion and 13 hours a day, 364 days a year and seven years later, he had written what became the best-selling calculus textbook in history. With the proceeds he decided to build a house that would reflect his aesthetics and also serve as a place to host concerts, a venue for charitable and arts organizations to raise money.

“When you move through the house, it also tells a story,” he says. Stewart’s own story includes the fact that he was an accomplished violinist, concertmaster of the McMaster Orchestra and member of the Hamilton Philharmonic string section. Along with others he began the Hamilton Pride movement in the 1970s and continued to champion LGBTQ rights throughout his life.

He spent almost a decade from conception to completion with his architects, Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, before he moved into the five-storey structure (built into the side of a ravine overlooking the Don Valley) in 2009. It’s an extraordinary edifice, world famous, and Integral Man documents it from its imposing central staircase to its striking infinity pool. Since Clement didn’t begin filming until 2012, in order to tell a fully fleshed-out story, he incorporated Edward Burtynsky’s striking footage and photographs of the demolition and creation of Integral House into Integral Man.

The imaginative design filled with curves and glass reflected Stewart’s personality: the rational, ordered, precise classical side and the dreamer, dynamic, irreverent side open to almost anything; these two sides to his character had to be reconciled in the house. As the camera follows him through the house Stewart explains how he wanted curves and a performing space but gave the architects free reign. Suddenly we come upon a dinner party which is followed by a private concert; a typical evening. It was the love of music that brought the famous (Philip Glass and Steve Reich, for example) and the rising stars - Pocket Concerts’ Rory McLeod and the magnetic young violinist Blake Pouliot each appeared through Stewart’s fondness for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada - to the house on Roxborough Drive.

“The house is fundamentally like being in a landscape,” says Stewart. “Your relationship to nature changes. It’s dynamic, like space in motion. The house moves away and above and beyond you.” Stewart believed curvature to be essential and that the exceptional natural light in the house was a mirror image of the way the nearby forest receives light.

Midway through filming (which began in 2012), Stewart was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. As his condition worsened he planned for his funeral and his legacy, deciding in the process to host his own wake. We see him seated in the front row delighting in Measha Brueggergosman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs (with piano accompaniment arranged specifically for the wake) a few weeks before he died in December 2014 at 73.

Two chance meetings with Brigitte Shim in 2009 and 2011 changed the course of Clement’s life and led to his directorial feature debut with Integral Man. Clement told me that Integral House represents a risk-taking endeavour that he considers to be very un-Canadian in its boldness. “It represents a vision, a passion and a willingness to go above and beyond the expected,” he said. “It represents the highest form of contribution one can make to philanthropy in a totally involved and engaged way.”     

When Stewart’s illness was diagnosed, it wasn’t difficult to continue, Clement said. “When I approached Jim about the future of the film, Jim being an incredibly pragmatic individual, insisted that the filming continue and that his death would be integral to the story.”

The spacious electronica score by Dan Goldman and Shaun Brodie complements the images without intruding. Accomplished musicians, they’ve played with Arcade Fire, the New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene and many others. Clement said that it was a back-and-forth process between editing the film and developing the music. “It was a fairly symbiotic relationship.”

Not unlike the relationship between the Integral Man and his Integral House.

Integral Man has its world premiere in the Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival May 2, 3 and 5.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

2208 Feat Jumblies

In the well-known Edward Lear nonsense poem from which Ruth Howard’s unorthodox Toronto community arts organization derives its name, the Jumblies set off to sea in a Sieve, less than than adequately provisioned, and thirsty for adventure. On their return some twenty years later, everyone remarks on how they’ve grown. In this conversation Howard traces Jumblies’ journey from its early roots in the Community Play movement, to their May-June 2017 Touching Ground Festival which, while true to the company’s twenty year tradition of professional caliber neighbourhood-based art-making, breaks new ground both for Jumblies and offers new perspectives, and hope, for traditional arts organizations seeking fundamentally new ways of engaging with the communities in which they are based.

To hear the full conversation with Ruth Howard click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcasts for the entire list.

Or click here to download the podcast. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

briggs bannerDavid Briggs at the organ.With his late-Romantic, bombastic sound, Mahler is a composer known for his ability to write for huge instrumental forces. He's also known for being uniquely able to build those forces up to key musical moments, shape a denouement that is never sudden, and allow a contemplation that washes over listeners in an often profound manner. But the Herculean efforts required for most Mahlerian symphonies have made it next to impossible to imagine an effective staging of the symphonies in intimate venues or anything less than a grand hall. What instrument and single player could possibly invoke and create the effect of a massive orchestra?

Well, the largest instrument of them all – the organ.

David Briggs is an internationally-recognized and celebrated organist who currently serves as artist-in-residence at St. James Cathedral in Toronto. A project of his has been working through transcriptions of the Mahler symphonies and other Mahler works. His most recent transcription, of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 "The Resurrection", was commissioned by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City, in honour of the late Dr. John Prior. Briggs has already completed transcriptions of symphonies 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8; however, he is quick to point out that these are not “reductions” of the work but instead, transcriptions or translations of the work from their original into a new format. Nothing is lost. “Reduction implies a diminution,” he says. “I don’t see it as a diminution at all. It’s a translation, not a reduction.”

There is a great deal of thoughtfulness and effort that Briggs has put into this enterprise. The Mahler 2nd transcription took him nine months. He copied out each and every single bar while making his artistic choices. “Every bar, you have to make important decisions.” he shares. “What can be left to allusion? What really is essential? Some things have to be left to implication because two hands can’t necessarily do ten things at once. We can get the density on the organ but we can’t necessarily have more than three or four things going on at the same time.”

The Canadian premiere of this transcription, at St. John the Evangelist in Elora, was part of the Elora Winter Festival in 2015. “The fact that you’re able to do Mahler 2 now in somewhere like Elora you could never fit an orchestra in that church. But we presented the transcription and was very successful,” says Briggs. This flexibility is exciting to think about. Where in Elora the choir was about 25 singers, the recording in Blackburn Cathedral, UK was 140 singers strong. Briggs is hopeful this transcription will lead to more performances of the work in new, formerly-inaccessible venues.

The music itself is remarkable and incredibly pleasing to listen to. For Briggs, “it’s really like looking at [Mahler], right in the eyes. There’s no mask, there’s no façade. This music has every emotion, from the most radiant music, glorious music, totally uplifting. Perhaps more uplifting than anything else he ever wrote.” Briggs also shares that in an interview, Sir Simon Rattle once said that hearing Mahler’s 2nd at age 14 was what made him decide he wanted to be a conductor.

Briggs is not surprised by the power of the symphony, nor the power of an organ to convey the music. “It’s extremely thrilling played on a great pipe organ. An organ, like we have at St. James, has a breadth and a tonal palette that maybe even has more breadth than an orchestra. And the ending is just overwhelming…There are over 5000 pipes and 150 different stops. There’s a lot to choose from in keeping the colour visceral and exciting all the time. You should leave an organ concert the same as when you leave the TSO. You should be different when you leave. Enriched and moved.”

Briggs will present his organ transcription of Mahler’s Symphony 2 “The Resurrection” at St. James Cathedral, this Wednesday, April 19. Joining him will be the St. James Cathedral Choir under the direction of Robert Busiakiewicz, with soprano Julia Morson and mezzo-soprano Christina Stelmacovich. “The text describes the human experience,” Stelmacovich shares. “We are all vulnerable, flawed and seeking respite from the pains of life. As much as the music is riddled with angst, there is an equal amount of comfort and joy…Mahler has captured this sentiment so brilliantly through his word painting.” She has the challenging role of introducing the start of the vocal lines in the fourth movement. “The challenge of this is that after riding this incredible emotional rollercoaster, the mezzo’s aria ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) has to seemingly come out of nowhere, singing the first three words ‘O Röschen roth!’ (O rosebud red!) a cappella and in a different key.” The effect of her voice, which David Briggs calls “chocolatey [the real-British-Cadbury-kind], rich, coloured, beautifully interpreted,” emerges and invites listeners on a journey that lasts another 40 minutes, including the most tumultuous and thick orchestrations of the fifth and final movement.

Briggs and Stelmacovich both relish in the endless discoveries of Mahler. “No matter how often I listen to or perform this symphony, I discover something new and invigorating each time,” says Stelmacovich.

Briggs feels the same. “The more I get to know it, it never seems long to me. It never seems, in any sense, [to have] overstayed its welcome. There’s always lots of new stuff, around the corner. That’s the thing about Mahler, he’s so skilled at leading listeners forward.”

Everything should align for a most uplifting performance.

“Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 ‘The Resurrection,’” transcribed by David Briggs, is performed by David Briggs (organ), the St. James Cathedral Choir, Robert Busiakiewicz (conductor), Julia Morson (soprano), and Christina Stelmacovich (mezzo-soprano) on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 7:30pm, at St. James Cathedral, Toronto. The performance coincides with the release of a recording under the Chestnut Music label. Following Wednesday’s performance, the next Briggs Mahler transcription premiere will be Symphony No. 4, Tuesday June 13, 1pm at St. James Cathedral with Julia Morson (soprano).

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Translating a Symphony:

David Briggs’ Organ and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2


Mahler wrote for organ, articulating with the instrument in key moments like the end of his momentous 2nd symphony. Known for his late-Romantic, bombastic, huge sound, Mahler is also uniquely able to build to those moments, shape a denouement that is never sudden, and allow a contemplation that washes over listeners in an often profound manner. But, the Herculean efforts required for most Mahlerian symphonies have made it next to impossible to imagine an effective staging of the symphonies in intimate venues or anything less than a grand hall. What instrument and single player could possibly invoke and create the effect of a massive orchestra?


Well, the largest instrument of them all – the organ.


David Briggs is an internationally-recognized and celebrated organist who currently serves as artist-in-residence at St. James Cathedral in Toronto. A project of his has been working through transcriptions of the Mahler symphonies and other Mahler works. The transcription of the 2nd was commissioned by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City, in honour of the late Dr. John Prior. Briggs has already completed transcriptions of symphonies 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8; however, he is quick to point out that these are not “reductions” of the work but instead, transcriptions or translations of the work from their original into a new format. Nothing is lost. “Reduction implies a diminution,” he says. “I don’t see it as a diminution at all. It’s a translation, not a reduction.”


There is a great deal of thoughtfulness and effort that Briggs has put into this enterprise. The Mahler 2nd transcription took him nine months. He copied out each and every single bar while making his artistic choices. “Every bar, you have to make important decisions.” he shares. “What can be left to allusion? What really is essential? Some things have to be left to implication because two hands can’t necessarily do ten things at once. We can get the density on the organ but we can’t necessarily have more than three or four things going on at the same time.”


The Canadian premiere of this transcription, at St. John the Evangelist in Elora, was part of the Elora Winter Festival in 2015. “The fact that you’re able to do Mahler 2 now in somewhere like Elora you could never fit an orchestra in that church. But we presented the transcription and was very successful,” says Briggs. This flexibility is exciting to think about. Where in Elora the choir was about 25 singers, the recording in Blackburn Cathedral, UK was 140 singers strong. Briggs is hopeful this transcription will lead to more performances of the work in new, formerly-inaccessible venues.


The music itself is remarkable and incredibly pleasing to listen to. For Briggs, “it’s really like looking at [Mahler], right in the eyes. There’s no mask, there’s no façade. This music has every emotion, from the most radiant music, glorious music, totally uplifting. Perhaps more uplifting than anything else he ever wrote.” Briggs also shares that in an interview, Sir Simon Rattle once said that hearing Mahler’s 2nd at age 14 was what made him decide he wanted to be a conductor.


Briggs is not surprised by the power of the symphony, nor the power of an organ to convey the music. “It’s extremely thrilling played on a great pipe organ. An organ, like we have at St. James, has a breadth and a tonal palette that maybe even has more breadth than an orchestra. And the ending is just overwhelming…There are over 5000 pipes and 150 different stops. There’s a lot to choose from in keeping the colour visceral and exciting all the time. You should leave an organ concert the same as when you leave the TSO. You should be different when you leave. Enriched and moved.”


Briggs will present his organ transcription of Mahler’s Symphony 2 “The Resurrection” at St. James Cathedral, this Wednesday, April 19. Joining him will be the St. James Cathedral Choir under the direction of Robert Busiakiewicz, with soprano Julia Morson and mezzo-soprano Christina Stelmacovich. “The text describes the human experience,” Stelmacovich shares. “We are all vulnerable, flawed and seeking respite from the pains of life. As much as the music is riddled with angst, there is an equal amount of comfort and joy…Mahler has captured this sentiment so brilliantly through his word painting.” She has the challenging role of introducing the start of the vocal lines in the fourth movement. “The challenge of this is that after riding this incredible emotional rollercoaster, the mezzo’s aria ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) has to seemingly come out of nowhere, singing the first three words ‘O Röschen roth!’ (O rosebud red!) a cappella and in a different key.” The effect of her voice, which David Briggs calls “chocolatey [the real-British-Cadbury-kind], rich, coloured, beautifully interpreted,” emerges and invites listeners on a journey that lasts another 40 minutes, including the most tumultuous and thick orchestrations of the fifth and final movement.


Briggs and Stelmacovich both relish in the endless discoveries of Mahler. “No matter how often I listen to or perform this symphony, I discover something new and invigorating each time,” says Stelmacovich.


Briggs feels the same. “The more I get to know it, it never seems long to me. It never seems, in any sense, [to have] overstayed its welcome. There’s always lots of new stuff, around the corner. That’s the thing about Mahler, he’s so skilled at leading listeners forward.”


Everything should align for a most uplifting performance.


“Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 ‘The Resurrection,’” transcribed by David Briggs, is performed by David Briggs (organ), the St. James Cathedral Choir, Robert Busiakiewicz (conductor), Julia Morson (soprano), and Christina Stelmacovich (mezzo-soprano) on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 7:30pm, at St. James Cathedral, Toronto. The performance coincides with the release of a recording under the Chestnut Music label. Following Wednesday’s performance, the next Briggs Mahler transcription premiere will be Symphony No. 4, Tuesday June 13, 1pm at St. James Cathedral with Julia Morson (soprano).


Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Bechdel Tested's last panel talk, on women in comedy. Photo credit: Akemi Liyanage.When it comes to how we treat women in the music industry, we can do better.

The classical music scene is no exception—in fact, in many cases it lags further behind than most. In a world where the Met programming an opera by a female-identifying composer makes international headlines, and where audiences still start scandals around the kinds of dresses Yuja Wang wears to her concerts, there is a long way to go before women in music have the platform, and the community, they need to succeed.

Erica Shiner certainly thinks so. She comes from a communications background but has long been an advocate for women in the music scene—and at the upcoming event in her film series Bechdel Tested, she’s using cinema as a springboard for starting feminist discussion within our music community. The concept for the series is simple: based on the Bechdel Test—a test named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel that requires a work of fiction to feature at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man—each edition of Bechdel Tested screens a women-centric film, alongside a panel discussion about the larger structural issues referenced in that film.

Hosted on Sunday, April 23 at the Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles (where Shiner is a member of the board) and co-presented with Toronto Women in Music, “Bechdel Tested: Women in Music” is the series’ sixth installment. This month’s event will feature panelists Robyn Phillips of Vallens, rapper Michie Mee, and Tao-Ming Lao of Billions Corporation, moderated by Aliya Pabani of arts and culture podcast The Imposter, and will screen 1954 film Carmen Jones.

“I wanted to use cinema as a vehicle to foster and support feminist community and networking for women in different industries,” says Shiner, who started the series one year ago. “I love the concept of the Bechdel Test, and I thought the brilliance of that concept would translate well into a series that does more than just screen movies that pass the test.”

“A lot of film programming is catered toward cinephiles, and that's fine, but I wanted to create an experience where cinema is a platform for women in all sorts of different fields,” she adds. “Each event brings together a different type of audience, whether it's those who work in the particular industry, people interested in the film we're screening, or just those interested in building feminist community.”

Shiner points out that in the music industry, where many women work in the public eye, toxic gendered frameworks can be especially ubiquitous, and especially insidious. “Music is an industry that's much less insular than others, in the sense that nearly everyone actively consumes music of some sort,” she says. “So the ways that women are both represented and repressed within the industry are very visible to everyone. You look at Kesha's legal issues after being assaulted by her manager, the Ike and Tina Turner story, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Nannerl Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn—these women were either ignored or devoured by the music world. You have a lot of really prominent women in the spotlight, but an absolute dearth of women behind the scenes. It's inevitable that this dynamic will create a culture of gendered exploitation. At every Bechdel Tested panel we want to look at these structural issues and brainstorm solutions.”

Still from the film Carmen Jones.The film, Carmen Jones, is a 1954 movie version of Oscar Hammerstein II’s Broadway musical of the same name, and is an adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen set in the 1940s American south. Dorothy Dandridge, who plays the role of Carmen, was nominated for an Oscar—the first African-American woman to receive a nomination—for her performance in the film.

“Representation, not just of women but of POC and the LGBTQ community, is paramount to what we are doing with this series,” says Shiner. “I always prioritize WOC when we are selecting panelists but we weren't paying enough attention to this in terms of our film selections. Our last four films all had white women leads, and so it was a necessity that we found a film that featured a WOC, and when I discovered Carmen Jones I was shocked that I'd never heard of it before. [...] There's really no reason other than so many decades of racism that this film isn't a well-known classic. I'm so glad that I found it and we have the opportunity to screen it.”

The screening this month is one in a string of Bechdel Tested events, each of which highlights the work of women in a different profession. And for Shiner, it’s proven a powerful way of using her connection with the Revue to reach out to women from an array of communities across Toronto.

“As with all of our events, more than anything I want to provide our audience with a sense of belonging and empowerment,” she says. “Women are frustrated and alienated by the sexism that pervades nearly every profession out there. We want to bring women together to inspire them to carry on and to strengthen their resolve to push for the changes we all need to grow and thrive in our respective fields.”

It’s a worthy goal—and a film worth watching in the process.

“Bechdel Tested: Women in Music” takes place at the Revue Cinema on April 23 at 7pm. For details and ticket information, visit the event’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/events/1235168683199338/.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

 

Update, April 17, 11am EST: This article previously contained errors regarding the nature of Shiner's connection to film and to the Revue, and has been updated to correct this. 

2205 Feat Hughs 1After months of difficult discussions, music venue Hugh’s Room is back in business.

Hugh’s Room was one of several Toronto music venues slotted to close so far this year, after former owner Richard Carson announced a state of insolvency this January. Now, headed by a new committee of volunteers and rebranded as “Hugh’s Room Live,” the venue has relaunched as a community-based not-for-profit, and will be opening its doors again later this month on April 22.

In some ways, this new incarnation of Hugh’s Room is the story of a successful community rallying cry. Hugh’s Room was a much-loved space for Roncesvalles residents and for the music community at large. After Carson’s January announcement, a working group quickly came together to discuss the possibility of turning the space into a not-for-profit arts organization, several members of which plan on becoming eventual board members of Hugh’s Room Live. And the GoFundMe page for Hughs Room Live already boasts over $114,000 in contributions from community members who want to see the company back on its feet.

As Lauren Pelley from the CBC notes, making that happen will be an “uphill climb.” The organizing committee has their work cut out for them if they want Hugh’s Room Live to stay open in a sustainable way; there are several looming problems ahead. For one, while the announcement of upcoming concerts at the space is a refreshing change, the venue is still far from fully booked. There are also issues to sort out involving the shift of ownership from Carson, who will serve only in an advisory role with Hugh’s Room Live, to a new council. And the building that Hugh’s Room Live belongs to is also now under new ownership—something that the working group wasn’t aware of until after the site changed hands. It means that, at the end of Hugh’s Room Live’s current three-year lease, it’s highly possible that the organization might have to find a new home.

In the meantime, though—for the first time since January—there are concerts. The new Hugh’s Room Live reopens on April 22 with a show by folk singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor, a show by the Paul Deslauriers Band on April 26, and a gala concert and fundraiser on April 29, plus seven different shows slotted so far for the month of May. It’ll be a long and difficult road ahead before Hugh’s Room Live can lay claim to a financially stable future—but it’s a start.

Hugh’s Room Live reopens to the public on April 22, 2017. For details on their upcoming shows or on how to support the organization, visit their website at http://hughsroom.com/.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

Hello, Hugh’s:

One Toronto music venue makes a comeback 

St. George's of Montreal's "G Major" show choir. Photo credit: Victoria Schwarzl.You don’t know what you’re missing if you’ve never seen the Show Choir Canada competition. It’s every bit as intense and crazy as you imagine, and more – but also mostly just plain fun. This marks the seventh year that producers George Randolph (Founder of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts [RAPA] in Toronto) and Peter Dacosta (of Dacosta Talent) have been hosting Canadian and international show choirs in competition. There’s a friendly air and a spirit of collegiality, but make no mistake: the competition is real.

Each performance is about 20 minutes long. No one performs any one song or any one style. Music theatre, pop, rock, soundtrack...anything really, if the choir can make it work. The songs blend together, sometimes more gracefully than others, sometimes a hard stop and a new scene begins. Fame, a show choir from Woodbridge, does a set of Beatles songs including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Help.” Each song is a distinct new scene. Throw in dancing, acting, staging and lighting and these are little mini shows, made up of skits all focused around music.

Hours of group rehearsal, dance classes, acting workshops, singing lessons and personal rehearsal time are behind every show choir. Participants love it. Sophie Koren, from St. George’s “G Major” show choir from Montreal, QC, says, “I joined when I was in grade 7; this is my fifth year. There are only a few of us that have been doing that this long.” G Major are the defending champions, having taken the grand trophy in 2016. But everyone is wary of the American group this year.

The Totino-Grace choir. Photo credit: Victoria Schwarzl.Totino-Grace High School “Company of Singers” is leading off the evening performances. From Fridley, Minnesota, the Americans are bringing a much longer history and institutionalization of show choirs to the competition. From the minute they start, you can see what that means. Their performance was called “Ready Set Go,” featuring “Shut up and Drive” by Rihanna, “For Good” from Wicked, “Change in Me” from Beauty and the Beast, and several other songs. Dazzling costumes, a company of almost 50, a full band in regalia, and artistic staff backing it all up. There’s a lot of money behind this ensemble and it’s obvious compared to the others.

“Show Choirs are big business in the States,” shares Randolph. “However, with our competition, we have judges from the US as well. What they like about our competition is that it isn’t just about extravagant sets…it’s stripped down to a more pure state. Show choir is about the voice. Bottom line. It’s about the vocals.” A recurring theme in the commentary from the judges is too much unison singing. There are songs being sung in too low a key, major triads being built on top of minor keys, and a mismatch between music and style that affects the overall performance. And unfortunately, just a lack of male voices in harmonies, even amongst the co-ed groups. 

After each choir the judges provide feedback. Three judges, Linda Southard of Chicago, Kevin Chase of Iowa City, and Jeannie Wyse of Toronto, lead the evaluations. Steve Lehmann judges the live bands where applicable. The evaluations are affirming and fair, looking to improve rather than admonish. It’s tough to get feedback on the spot like that. But these performing artists are anything but ordinary.

Totino-Grace winning first place at the Canada Show Choir competition. Photo credit: One For The Wall Photography.Everyone is bringing their A-game as best as they can. Koren, of G Major, speaks more about being a defending champion. “Returning to defend is a different feeling,” she says. “But last year, being overall grand champions was wow! [This year] we had to kick ourselves in the butts. We need to stay strong. Our director even said to us, winning the first time is not the hard part. Winning the second time in a row is the hard part.” But she feels confident. “It’s a struggle, but we did our best. Our absolute best. We fully left everything on the stage. We’ll see what happens.” G Major ultimately wins second place, the first place prize going to Totino-Grace.

Randolph shares the story of the success that he hopes the competition continues to foster. He mentions Jahlen Barnes, currently part of the Shaw Festival and signed talent with DaCosta. “This, giving someone the opportunity…for Jahlen, getting into a show choir, getting a full scholarship to RAPA, signs to Dacosta, and now, he’s singing for Stephen Schwartz at the Panasonic.” This is the dream.

It’s a dream that many others are aspiring to. Carter Djam, from Totino-Grace, tells me about getting into show choir. “I play basketball, football, and track – all about sports,” he explains. “But one of my friends kept asking until I finally had to say yes. I fell in love with it at that point. This is my life now. I want to go to school for performing. My life has changed around the subject.” You can see him onstage, acting on point, dancing with all the right energy. He’s still got many years of show choir competitions ahead of him, years more of performing arts.

For Randolph, “It’s about sharing in the creative process, meeting new friends, new relationships...what the students directly benefit from is more self-esteem, confidence. It’s very self-empowering. Because they have found a place that can identify with and have a voice, and be understood.”

The 2017 Show Choir Canada competition took place on April 7-8, 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto.

Full 2017 Grand Competition Results available online:
http://www.showchoircanada.com/championships/results

Full 2017 Junior-Mid Level Competition Results available online:
http://www.showchoircanada.com/jr-mid/results

Non-Arts Large Ensemble

GRAND CHAMPIONS – Totino-Grace, “Company of Singers” (Best Vocals, Best Choreo, Best Combo)
2nd Place – St. George’s of Montreal, “G-Major” (Best Show Design)
3rd Place – Beaconsfield CHS, “BHS Crescendo”
4th Place – Richmond Hill HS, “Vocal Fusion”

Arts/Community Division

1st Place – Milton Show Choir “Gleam” (Best Vocals, Best Choreography, Best Show Design)
2nd Place – Unionville High School “Synergy”
3rd Place – Fame School of the Performing Arts

Non-Arts Small Ensemble

1st Place – Our Lady of Lourdes, “The Pitches” (Best Choreo, Best Show Design)
2nd Place – All Saints CHS, “Flash” (Best Vocals)
3rd Place – J. Clarke Richardson, “Vocal Thunder”
4th Place – Michael Power/St. Josephs, “Power House”
5th Place – York Mills, “Cheat Notes”
6th Place – St. Francis, “Sound FX”

Individual Awards

Top Vocalist : Brendan from All Saints CHS
Top Dancer: Emily from Unionville HS
Top Male Triple Threat: Ryan from St. George’s
Top Female Triple Threat: Mojo from J Clarke Richardson

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

David Lynch.Filmmaker Jon Nguyen spent 25 weekends over almost three years interviewing David Lynch in his studio – painting, sculpting, smoking, drinking coffee and talking – to produce the new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life. The result is a compelling autobiography from a working artist who literally makes art every day, when he’s not occupied with filmmaking or writing his new Twin Peaks TV series. Lynch leads us on his life’s journey as an artist, from childhood to the AFI grant that enabled him to produce his fabled first feature Eraserhead.

This “private memoir” is dedicated to Lynch’s young daughter Lula, who was about three and a half when seen with her father in his workshop. (His daughter Jennifer, the offspring of an early relationship, is seen in a home movie from the late 1960s.)  Lynch’s unforced lilt as he narrates his life reminded me of John Cage’s one-minute storytelling cadences in Indeterminacy. Danish composer Jonatan Bengta’s electronically-based soundtrack over a hypnotic percussion beat etches a deep groove that moves symbiotically with the film’s natural rhythms. Bengta wrote on his Facebook page just before The Art Life premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September: “As a teen I tried to copy his hairstyle and twang my voice similarly. I then learnt how to talk like the elephant man and finally started to drink black coffee like Agent Cooper.” Lynch’s own blues-based music – I Have a Radio, The Night Bell with Lightning and Sparkle Lounge Blues, all with collaborator Dean Hurley – makes a few pointed appearances as well.

Filled with family anecdotes illustrated by old photographs, Lynch takes us through a happy childhood in the American Northwest and an unhappy adolescence triggered by a move to Virginia, all of it seemingly focused on his past, present and (implicitly) future life as a hardcore artist. An early key was his prescient mother who recognized something in her son that led her to forbid his use of colouring books because their rigidity would restrict his creativity. In high school it was the painter Bushnell Keeler, the stepfather of a friend, who became a mentor and later rented Lynch space in his studio. Keeler was the embodiment of “the art life,” which for the teenaged Lynch meant “smoking, coffee and painting.” Now at 71, he’s still blowing smoke into the haze of memory, stoking the creative process.

Among the priceless stories the film relates: Lynch inviting his father down to the basement of their house to show him his prized collection of rotting fruit and decaying insects and animals which prompted his horrified father to advise him never to have children; and then there’s the time when he was a boy at play in the street and suddenly saw a naked woman walking towards him – a striking correlation to the memorable scene from Blue Velvet. Tellingly, he always kept his friends separate from his family and his friends separate from his art friends, a compartmentalization that resonates in such films as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

David Lynch and his daughter Lula. This is must-see stuff not only for Lynchian aficionados but also for anyone interested in the creative process.

David Lynch: The Art Life is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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