tyniec cropAndréa Tyniec. Photo credit: Sasha Onyshchenko.“Almost Unplugged,” Soundstreams’ latest Ear Candy concert on February 1 at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Cabaret, was an experience in contrasts. Two very different violinists –  Andréa Tyniec and Jesse Zubot – took the stage to present their own mini-concerts, then came together at the end in a structured improvisation.

First up was Andréa Tyniec, a passionate performer raised in Montreal and currently pursuing an international career both as a soloist and a collaborator in dance and theatre. Her set featured two works by Canadian composers – Love Song for MAD by Terri Hron and Stand Still by Michael Oesterle – and began with a 1923 composition by Eugène Ysaÿe, a Belgian violinist, composer and conductor who was regarded as “the King of the Violin” in his day. Tyniec performed the Prelude of his Sonata No. 2 with agility and virtuosity, moving around the sixteenth-note passages with ease. Direct quotations from one of Bach’s partitas appeared throughout. Tyniec is one of the fortunate violinists in Canada to be loaned a violin from the Musical Instrument Bank of the Canada Council for the Arts, so we were treated to sounds played on the 1689 Baumgartner Stradivari violin.

The Ysaÿe composition ended up serving as a link to Hron’s 2013 composition, created in collaboration with Tyniec. Hron asked Tyniec to record something so she would have the violin sound in her ear as she composed, and Ysaÿe’s composition was the one chosen.  Hron states that the piece became a key element in her compositional decision-making. Love Song for MAD is part of Hron’s Sharp Splinter cycle, a project dedicated to an exploration of her family archive of letters, audio cassettes and films. These were documents made by her parents and grandparents, particularly during the time they were separated by the Iron Curtain. The four-movement composition is scored for audio playback and solo violin and features the sound of a typewriter along with excerpts of conversations between her sister Madelaine Hron and their parents. Tyniec’s solo performance ended with Oesterle’s four-movement Stand Still (2011), which was full of fast rhythmical and repetitive patterns that created intense pulsations of sound.

Jesse Zubot. Photo credit: Jessica Eaton.Jesse Zubot and his violin have an intense connection, and are like an extension of one another. Added to that mix was a series of foot pedals controlling an array of effects that Zubot danced his way around. The end result was something akin to “violin-plus-plus” – and that’s not a criticism at all. In fact, the sonic world that Zubot created was mesmerizing and fascinating – an endlessly-changing kaleidoscope of colour, with the violin sound almost fading into the background at times. Having only heard him live as a member of Tanya Tagaq’s band, this gave me a chance to listen with focused attention for each new twist and turn of his imagination as he navigated his way through one seamless improvisation that never wandered. At several points he moved his bow so rapidly across the strings that the bow became a blur, creating a fluttering sound somewhat like the movement of a hummingbird’s wings.

Zubot grew up studying classical music but has diversified over the years to explore multiple forms. He produced Tagaq’s Polaris Prize-winning Animism album and her 2016 shortlisted follow-up Retribution. Improvisation is his great love and passion, which was so evident onstage. The concert ended with a structured improvisation that Zubot created for himself and Tyniec to play, titled Collab. Just before they began, Zubot quipped that he hoped he didn’t get lost in one of the sections; however, to my ears, everything flowed with ease as they moved between scored material, at times in unison, and improvisational material. It was a most satisfying way to end the evening, with two extraordinary and distinctive violinists coming together to create a flurry of acoustic sound on two unplugged violins.

Soundstreams presented “Almost Unplugged,” featuring violinists Andréa Tyniec and Jesse Zubot, on February 1 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

chelsey cropChelsey Bennett (right). Photo credit: Michael Grondin.On Friday, January 26, singers Chelsey Bennett and Joanna Majoko performed with their respective bands as part of Burdock’s Piano Fest, now in its third year. The premise of Piano Fest – procure a high-quality grand piano for the week, book piano-centric acts in complementary double bills – is fairly simple, but it has provided a welcome outlet for musicians during a month, following the eggnog-soaked fever dream of December, that is typically light on festival programming. It has also, judging by the packed house on the 26th, become a prime destination for live-music patrons, although the credit must, of course, be shared with Bennett and Majoko, both of whom perform regularly in Toronto and beyond.

Bennett – who is also a pianist, and played on the baby grand for the duration of her set – performed first, joined by keyboardist Darryl Joseph-Dennie, bassist Peter Eratostene and drummer Julian Clarke. Her show began with a looped, a cappella introduction to a bluesy, funky 4/4 piece, rounded out by solos from all four members of the band. The second song was “Don’t Use Your Eyes,” a minor-key, backbeat-focused original that evoked Jill Scott, both melodically and rhythmically, and was followed by “Missed Connections,” a song about the wistful aftermath of chance encounters, featuring an athletic solo from Joseph-Dennie.

Bennett is a natural, engaging storyteller, and her easy affinity with the crowd served her well in the intimate setting of Burdock’s Music Hall. This affinity was used to full effect in “My Place,” a 12/8 original dedicated to the warmth and comfort of the urban apartment, which Bennett performed alone, accompanying herself on acoustic piano. It was fitting that a song about the relationship between an individual and her environment was a solo performance – and it resulted in one of the most compelling moments of the evening, as the extra space gave Bennett the opportunity to showcase her dynamic range as both a singer and pianist. Rounding out her set was the original “No End,” a 6/8 gospel-tinged number about a shared sense of limitless possibility within a romantic relationship. The fact – which Bennett shared with the appreciative audience in another funny introduction – that the particular relationship that inspired the song ended soon after it was written, and that the song itself served as the last song of her set, only added to its charm.

Joanna Majoko.Taking the stage with guitarist Andrew Marzotto, pianist Ewen Farncombe, bassist Mark Godfrey and drummer Jon Foster, Joanna Majoko began her set with an arrangement of the jazz standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Bennett and Majoko share some musical similarities – but where Bennett sings R&B and neo-soul, Majoko sings modern vocal jazz with R&B and neo-soul influences, with an emphasis on harmony, individual soloing, and engaging rhythmic interplay between band members. All of these elements were used to full effect on “I Hear Sounds of Africa Calling,” a 6/8 Majoko original that featured a strong piano solo from Farncombe, and “These Nights,” an original ballad, sung by Majoko with a plain, delicate vocal quality that showcased the range and accuracy of her voice.

Majoko played the caxixi – a basket shaker used widely in Brazilian music – throughout much of her set, but never quite as impressively as in her wordless arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” in which she superimposed a consistent 3-beat figure on the 4/4 song while singing both the melody and a scat solo. Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” saw Farncombe taking another confident solo and Foster doing some of his strongest work of the evening, and the original “You Are Bold,” which began with a beautiful keyboard and voice introduction, gave Marzotto the space to stretch out on an excellent guitar solo.

“Where You Are,” a funky, swung-sixteenths original, served as the evening’s penultimate song, and showcased Godfrey’s electric bass skills, both as a thoughtful soloist and as a rock-solid timekeeper (he held down the low end on upright, for the majority of the evening). It should be noted that the sonic balance of Majoko’s set was really top-notch, a testament not only to the maturity of Majoko and her band, but also to Burdock and its consistently outstanding front-of-house sound. Finally, Bennett returned to the stage to join Majoko for Roy Hargrove’s “Forget Regret,” which featured both singers sharing the melody and trading scat solos over the rhythm section’s confident playing, eliciting enthusiastic applause and bringing a joyful night of music-making to a close.

Burdock presented Chelsea Bennett and Joanna Majoko in a double bill as part of its third annual Piano Fest, on Friday, January 26, 2018.

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

Alison Mackay’s Safe Haven: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra with guests Diely Mori Tounkara (kora) and Maryem Tollar (narrator, vocals). Photo credit: Jeff Higgins.Immigration and the status of refugees continues to be a global issue. Whether through the discourse and dissent on the fate of “Dreamers” on our own continent or the mass displacement of tens of thousands due to climate change, war and societal unrest around the globe, refugee-related concerns continue to receive increasing attention from media, politicians and the public as a whole.

A fundamental element of immigration debates, particularly in North America, centres on how our individual and massed views of outliers – our understanding of the foreigner – are often based on incorrect and stereotypical perceptions of how those different than ourselves will impact the social structures around us. We hear how immigrants will “steal jobs,” infiltrate our cities, poison the minds of our youths with “radical agendas,” and pose a threat to the very fabric of a democratic society which we have treasured since the Great Philosophers.

These arguments, presented everywhere from internationally-televised political speeches to private dinnertime conversations, are not new; many of these anti-immigration rationales have been used, in some form, for centuries. Running January 18 to 23, 2018 in Toronto, Safe Haven – Tafelmusik’s latest multimedia concert and the brainchild of bassist Alison Mackay – countered these age-old prejudices, exploring the overwhelmingly positive influence of refugee populations on their adopted cultures over the past four centuries. Working with guest performers Maryem Tollar (narration/vocals), Diely Mori Tounkara (kora) and Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) to create a unified multimedia presentation incorporating music, words and projected images, Tafelmusik revealed how several significant developments in the Baroque era were the result of immigrant-based cultural collaborations.

Beginning with religious refugees from France fleeing Louis XIV’s revoking of the Edict of Nantes, Safe Haven first focused on the influence of the Huguenots, French Calvinist Protestants, on the rest of Europe. These refugees were welcomed by many, but others were concerned about the influx of these strange people, citing their religious beliefs, strange language and unusual headdresses as reasons why the entry of Huguenots should be prevented.

Weaving a thread through the music of Vivaldi, Lully, Goudimel and Purcell, we saw the influence of the French carried to Italy and England, intellectual exchanges resulting in the dissemination of Lully’s operas and suites, and the adaptation of these dance forms by Italian composers. By highlighting the influence of the French on German musicians, particularly through the introduction of the oboe (hautbois), we learned why J.S. Bach was so enamoured with the instrument and its rich, novel sound. Bach also utilized French suite forms in his compositions, writing works of astounding complexity and inventiveness and arguably stretching the style to its limit through works such as the Six Suites for solo cello.

Another significant Huguenot emigré featured in Safe Haven was the Amsterdam-based publisher Éstienne Roger. Beginning his trade by producing grammars and dictionaries, Roger started engraving music in 1696; by 1722 Roger had published over 500 editions of works by composers like Corelli, Albinoni and Vivaldi – a musical superconnector whose craft resulted in widespread distribution of these composers’ works.

Other notable religio-political conflicts which resulted in social diasporas and subsequent musical developments include the 17th-century expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands and Poland, as well as the outlawing of Catholicism in England by Elizabeth I. Poland, with its Warsaw Federation Act guaranteeing freedom of worship to all, became a cultural melting pot, a contact hub for Jews, Catholics and Roma that influenced numerous composers – including Telemann, who transcribed a number of Roma melodies and later used them in his orchestral compositions.

From a musical perspective, the standard of Tafelmusik’s performance was particularly impressive, especially given the changing stylistic elements throughout. Placing concerti by Vivaldi and Corelli cheek-to-cheek with a Lully suite or Bach oboe obbligato cantata movement requires immediate yet subtle changes in approach, and the orchestra’s fluency and expertise in all styles was on full display. The blended use of smaller chamber works and larger concerti to highlight instruments and their combinations was very effective: Elisa Citterio’s Winter solos glittered; Charlotte Nediger’s Sweelinck was subtle and sublime; and Marco Cera’s oboe lines sung in Bach’s Sinfonia from Cantata 156.

Alison Mackay’s Safe Haven: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra with guests Diely Mori Tounkara (kora), Maryem Tollar (narrator, vocals) and Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion). Photo credit: Jeff Higgins.One performer that cannot go unmentioned is kora player Diely Mori Tounkara, a native of Mali and resident of Montreal. Tounkara’s virtuosity and musicality added another dimension to this performance, most notably with his first solo, mesmerizing everyone in Jeanne Lamon Hall with his total immersion in the music and his instrument. The kora, a plucked instrument that resembles an upright lute (it’s actually a hide-covered calabash with a neck and 21 strings) flourished within the Mali bardic tradition, and its inclusion in Safe Haven presented a fascinating cross-cultural collaboration that was likely a new and novel sound experience for many in the audience.

A highly effective and tightly-woven tapestry of words, music and art, Safe Haven used all three forms of media in such a way that the entirety was far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Removing one component would have caused the whole to unravel, like the pulling of a thread: without the words, the musical selections would be decontextualized, disconnected, and discombobulating; without the music, we would have a dramatic lecture; without the images, another entire layer of contextualization and visual engagement would be lost. It is new and innovative presentations such as Safe Haven that help us appreciate what a wonderful culture and community we live in – one where creative, experimental and profound concepts and ideas can be realized onstage, to the benefit of all.

Tafelmusik presented Safe Haven January 18 to 23, 2018 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre and Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

notredame2The interior of the Notre-Dame de Paris.From the earliest days of Western musical civilization to the present, Notre-Dame de Paris has played a prominent and pivotal role in many of music’s finest moments and housed some of its most brilliant minds. In the 13th century, Pérotin le Grand, one of the Medieval era’s most respected and influential composers, developed the organum, the first exploration of polyphony in European church music. Through his organa, Pérotin pioneered an entirely new style of music, expanding previously monophonic chants (single lines sung in unison, such as Gregorian chant) into two-, three-, and four-part compositions, thereby paving the way for choral music as we understand it today.

In 1900, more than six centuries after Pérotin le Grand, Louis Vierne was appointed principal organist at Notre-Dame de Paris. By this time the tradition of excellence in church music at Notre-Dame was firmly established, continuously developing and thriving, despite changing social conditions and political unrest. Nearly blind from birth due to congenital cataracts, Vierne studied with César Franck and was assistant to Charles-Marie Widor before obtaining the highly-regarded and equally highly sought-after organist post at Notre-Dame. (To this day, the position of titulaires des grandes orgues is considered one of the most prestigious in France.)

Vierne maintained this high standard, playing hundreds of organ recitals and inspiring generations of future composers and organists through his concert and service playing, powerful and skillful improvisations, and extraordinarily emotive compositions. Vierne was so closely connected to Notre-Dame that he passed away during what was to be his last recital, his 1750th, suffering either a stroke or heart attack on the bench of the great Cavaillé-Coll organ in his beloved church.

Organist David Briggs.Upon entering Notre-Dame de Paris and hearing the organ for the first time, the majesty and grandeur are overwhelming. The enormity of space and sound, working together in perfect synchronicity, produce an unparalleled and profound effect. On January 19 in Toronto, the Choir of St. James Cathedral, led by director of music Robert Busiakiewicz and organist David Briggs (former artist-in-residence at St. James), sought to recreate this powerful atmosphere with their concert The Splendour of Notre Dame, featuring music by composer-improvisers connected with Notre-Dame in the 20th and 21st centuries: Louis Vierne, Pierre Cochereau, Maurice Duruflé and Yves Castagnet.

The first work of the program, Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, Op. 16, is a personal favourite. Written the year before his appointment to Notre-Dame, this piece opened the concert in an extraordinarily powerful way: majestic, imposing, dissonant C-sharp minor played on full organ, answered antiphonally by the choir. Originally composed for two organs and played by two organists (the Grand-Orgue and the Orgue de Choeur), Briggs masterfully adapted the score for solo performance on St. James’s pipe organ, making the necessarily rapid adjustments seamless throughout. The Cathedral choir, although comprising only 18 voices, held their own against Vierne’s weighty writing, maintaining their presence, balance and impressive tuning, even with the Trompette en-chamade blaring from the West end of the building!

One of the finest performers on the international pipe organ scene today, David Briggs followed the Vierne Messe with his own transcription of Variations sur ‘Alouette, Gentille Alouette’ by famed organist and improviser Pierre Cochereau, organist of Notre-Dame from 1955-1984. Cochereau’s improvisations, renowned for their innovation, technical challenges and sheer complexity, are a nightmare for any transcriber – by his own estimation, Briggs spent “about six months, at an average pace of 4 hours to transcribe one minute of music” – and the Cochereau Variations were well over 10 minutes in duration! A piece of staggering complexity, the Variations were astounding in every way: the thought that Cochereau could compose, let alone improvise such a work – and that Briggs had the patience and determination to transcribe it – lent the performance an even higher degree of impressiveness.

Although never titulaire at Notre-Dame (he held an identical post at the nearby Saint-Étienne-du-Mont), Maurice Duruflé was an influential member of the Paris organ scene, an established composer, performer, and teacher whose pupils included Pierre Cocherau. A severely self-critical composer who continually edited his works (there are only 12 published with opus numbers), Duruflé’s Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, op. 10 are miniature gems, and the St. James Cathedral Choir shone in their interpretations of these works. As with the Vierne Messe, the choir’s intonation, dynamic contrasts and phrasing were masterfully executed, and Busiakiewicz’s choices of slightly quicker tempi helped compensate for the Cathedral’s relatively dry acoustic; dry, at least, in comparison to the great churches of Paris!

The evening’s joyful exploration of Notre-Dame’s 20th-century choir and organ music came to a rousing conclusion with the performance of Yves Castagnet’s Messe Salve Regina, based on and including excerpts from the great 11th-century Gregorian chant. Castagnet is the current Organist of the Orgue de Choeur at Notre-Dame where, since his appointment in 1988, he accompanies daily masses and plays choral accompaniments; he is also a gifted composer, as his Messe demonstrated! Demanding a great variety of timbres, textures and sonorities from both organ and choir, Castagnet’s love of Notre-Dame, its instruments and its choirs shines through his music, as both organ and choir play equal roles in the declamation and interpretation of the traditional Latin Mass texts.

Clearly demanding and intricate but never superficial or indulgent, the Messe Salve Regina was a splendid way to conclude a concert that did exactly what it promised to do: bring the splendour of Notre-Dame and its inimitable traditions and musical pedigree to Toronto. For a little while, it felt as though we too could turn around and savour the stunning rose windows of that great gothic structure.

The Cathedral Church of St. James presented “The Splendour of Notre Dame” on January 19, 2018 in Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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