Jake Epstein. Photo credit: Jacob Cohl.On July 12, I went an hour and a half early to Kensington Market in the hope of being first on the waiting list to get tickets for the brand-new solo musical at the Toronto Fringe Festival: Boy Falls From The Sky: Jake Epstein at Supermarket. Others had beaten me to it and I was number 3 in line, but I took my chances and waited.

The run had sold out very quickly, perhaps because of how well known Jake Epstein is from his time starring on TV in Degrassi: The Next Generation, and more recently on Designated Survivor and Suits – or perhaps because he was so brilliant as Bruce Springsteen in The Musical Stage Company’s 2017 theatrical concert Uncovered: Dylan and Springsteen. In any case, the word of mouth from long before the start of the Fringe was that this was a “must-see” production.

Written and performed by Epstein and supported onstage by music director Daniel Abrahamson on  piano, the show was developed with director Robert McQueen (Fun Home, Life After) and is produced by Derrick Chua for Past Future Productions. 

This is Jake Epstein’s first solo show, and is based on his own experiences of both the highs and unexpected lows of following – and achieving – his dream to be a performer on Broadway. The stories, interwoven with songs throughout, start off with relatable memories such as family road trips to New York, Epstein and his sister singing along in the back seat to recordings of Broadway cast albums from Lion King to Les Mis, imitating the voices of their favourite performers. Inspired by the audience reaction to the child performers they see in the musical Big, he auditions back home for the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and soon is auditioning for professional productions in Toronto and landing the role of the Artful Dodger in the Mirvish production of Oliver. Later he wins a leading TV role on Degrassi: The Next Generation, but when he auditions for the Juilliard School in New York he doesn’t get in – just one of the many self-deprecating stories about unexpected setbacks that he shares with us along the way. However, meeting with two strangers on the street outside Juilliard, they ask to take a selfie with him because they love him in Degrassi and he is inspired to stay in New York  and soon lands leading roles in North American touring productions of cutting-edge musicals American Idiot and Spring Awakening.

When in 2012 he is cast as the alternate for the lead in the troubled Julie Taymour/U2 musical Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, it’s a dream come true (complete with actually flying around the Broadway theatre), but he gets hurt and doesn’t want to tell anyone back home. A year later he has another iconic chance – to create a leading role in a new Broadway musical, Carole King’s husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin in Beautiful. Once again there are brighter and darker sides to the story, and as a result he spends more time back home in Toronto.

A recurring theme in Boy Falls From The Sky (yes, the title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to his role in Spiderman) is Epstein not wanting to seem ungrateful for his luck and the success he has achieved, marked by the repeated singing of snatches of “give them the old razzle dazzle.” Luckily for us in the audience, eventually he did tell the full stories of what his life on tour and on Broadway was really like, and friends and family encouraged him to turn those stories into this show.

This is excellent musical theatre storytelling by a performer with natural star power – including the ability to make everyone in the audience feel as though he is talking to them alone. Add to that the edgy energy of a BYOV “Bring Your Own” Fringe Venue in Kensington Market and the fact that the star and writer is a hometown boy made good, and the 70 minutes speed by too fast and are over too soon.

Jake Epstein's Boy Falls from The Sky is from the first moment engaging and fun, his presence electric and yet relaxed, his timing perfection and the laughs strongly rooted in self-deprecating honesty. I loved this show – as I had hoped I would.

Boy Falls From The Sky: Jake Epstein Live at Supermarket ran from July 4 to 13 at Supermarket, Toronto, as part of the 2019 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

The Dover Quartet in Koerner Hall. Photo credit: James Ireland.The afternoon before the Dover Quartet’s concert at Toronto Summer Music in Koerner Hall on July 17, second violinist Bryan Lee gave a public masterclass in Walter Hall that offered a preview of the Dover’s approach to performance. The masterclass presented three chamber music works by Debussy, Mozart and Dvořák played by fellows of the TSM Academy. Lee thought that the McGill-based Iceberg String Quartet’s playing of the fourth movement of Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor needed more of a sense of gesture – they were holding back, he said. Lee had followed the score without taking notes, giving detail-oriented comments with an authoritative sense of clarity: “Find different types of non-competing sounds so they come out in the texture,” he said. “And do something extremely uncomfortable – it felt really tame.”  It could be really exaggerated – by a factor of ten – he said.

After a second group of fellows played the first movement of Mozart’s String Quintet in D Major, No.5 K593, Lee said: “I think the larghettos need more rhetorical time and the allegro needs more joy and drama.” Later he said that some chords were “kind of crunchy,” provoking some smiles. He told the fellows who played the last movement of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No.2 in E-flat Major, Op.87 that they needed to pick spots to really emphasize, and take more time to appreciate everything going on in the music so that it didn’t feel like a big run-on sentence.

All of which shed light on the masterful performance of the Dover Quartet the next day. They made each note count and every gesture meaningful. Britten’s String Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.25’s nakedly quiet opening bars with Camden Shaw’s expressive cello pizzicatos broadened into a series of distinct voices by the entire quartet, contributing to an implacable sense of unity as the music rose to a level of urgent passion. They played the brief second movement with flair and authority and brought out the achingly romantic melody and profound sense of calm in the third movement, the work’s emotional centerpiece; the finale’s light-fingered passages were simply astounding. With their superb sense of Britten’s sonic architecture, the Dovers’ reading felt definitive.

Intense and propulsive, they held nothing back in Bartók’s String Quartet No.3, mining its igneous beauty. After intermission, they brought out the lyricism and sense of optimism inherent in Dvořák’s popular String Quartet No.12 in F Major, Op.96 “American,” and balanced its folk-infused amiability with a sense of restraint that flowed easily and organically. Typically crowd-pleasing was the second movement’s melt-in-your-mouth tune that seemed to dissolve into thin air. A spontaneous standing ovation brought the Dovers back for a sublime take on Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood.

Joel Link, violin; Charles Richard-Hamelin, piano; Camden Shaw, cello; Milena Pajaro-van Stadt, viola. Photo credit: James Ireland.Two days later on July 19 in a sold-out Walter Hall, three members of the Dover Quartet – first violinist Joel Link, violist Milena Pajaro-van Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw – joined pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin for what turned out to be my personal highlight of TSM 2019 thus far: an impassioned performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op.25. Lush and warm, well-balanced – no one was hiding – with an intensity that conveyed the score’s riches (including hints of the composer’s Second Piano Concerto), the first movement set the stage for what was to follow. The grace of the second movement and the lyrical wonderland of the third led to the angular, animated, assertive finale with its wild abandon. No standing ovation was ever more deserved. 

The Dovers brought out the best in Richard-Hamelin, who began the evening with Rachmaninoff and Chopin. He has an agreeable tonal disposition for chamber music, his round tonal texture making each note meaningful, but always within the boundaries of the ensemble as a whole. His solo Rachmaninoff – the composer’s five Fantasy Pieces, Op.3, written when he was just 18 – was lyrical and warm, with a balanced rubato that enhanced the music’s melodic core. The famous second piece, Prelude in C-sharp Minor – a piece that audiences loved and Rachmaninoff grew to hate – was followed by three more, including the tuneful exoticism of the Serenade in B-flat Minor. Richard-Hamelin finished his solo selection with Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22, the dreamy Andante – with its second theme reminiscent of a Ballade – settling into the big footsteps of the Polonaise.

A key element of Toronto Summer Music’s Academy program is the opportunity for its fellows to perform with some of the world-class musicians who act as their mentors during their stay here. In a brief email exchange with Richard-Hamelin [published in the summer issue of The WholeNote], Richard-Hamelin told me that inspiration was the most important thing a mentor can do. “A great mentor, over a very brief period of time, can make you love the music you’re playing to a point where you don’t want to stop working until you’ve done justice to it.” The fruits of Richard-Hamelin’s own mentorship were on display last Saturday, July 20, in Chausson’s Concert for Piano, Violin and String Quartet Op.21. The instrumentation made for many possible pairings – violin and piano, violin and string quartet etc – and the music’s exuberance was contagious, leading to a spontaneous standing ovation. The fellows included the Iceberg Quartet and violinist Gregory Lewis, one of CBC’s “30 Hot Canadian Classical Musicians Under 30.” Richard-Hamelin’s sensitivity shone through and Lewis’ confidence was apparent in a work that ultimately favoured the violin. 

Before intermission, the Dover Quartet’s Camden Shaw and his heartfelt cello playing shepherded two fellows in Dvořák’s charming Piano Trio No.4 in E Minor, OP.90 “Dumky,” one of the most lovable pieces in the repertoire. 

Toronto Summer Music continues at various locations throughout Toronto until August 3.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, pianist Steven Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet. Photo credit: Sean Howard.Toronto Summer Music’s 2019 season opened on July 11 in a festive mood before a full Koerner Hall audience, with a gala roster of performers emblematic of the talent this year’s edition promises.

Artistic director Jonathan Crow astutely chose the CBC’s Tom Allen to host the proceedings, introduce the artists and connect whatever dots needed connecting vis-à-vis this year’s TSM theme of “Beyond Borders.” This Allen did with his inimitable enthusiasm and an engaging and informative patter was – part ringmaster, part colour commentator. His backstory of the Turkish-Viennese linkage, anecdotes of violinist-composers Pablo de Sarasate and Fritz Kreisler, as well as how Ravel came to write Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, brought an extra sense of immediacy to the performances.

The evening began with Jon Kimura Parker’s unpretentious playing of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Major, K331 “Alla turca.” Parker’s unadorned simplicity suited the first movement’s theme, its variations elegantly shaped, the whole an expression of Mozart’s melodic heart. After a brisk Menuetto, the finale’s famous Turkish march put TSM’s celebration of the cross-cultural influences that have pervaded classical music on display, thanks in part to Parker’s fancy fingering and rhythmic integrity.

Adrianne Pieczonka, fresh from her celebrated turn in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met in May and her recent assumption of the post of first vocal chair and head of the vocal department of the Glenn Gould School, soared in Ravel’s Five Popular Greek Songs. Reminiscent of Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne in their wild abandon and evoking the purity of the outdoors, Pieczonka (with pianist Steven Philcox) gave us an experience rich in joy.

Kerson Leong, violin, and Rachael Kerr, piano. Photo credit: Sean Howard.Just before intermission, violinist Kerson Leong (and pianist Rachael Kerr) brought the audience to its feet with a dynamic, kinetic, authoritative performance of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen. Just 22, Leong, a protégé of Jonathan Crow, dazzled the crowd with his command of his instrument and stage presence. He returned after the break with a Kreisler set that began with a tasteful rendering of La Gitana, moved to Kreisler’s arrangements of Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.17, and concluded with the well-judged pyrotechnics of Tambourin chinois.

After Parker came back to perform Chopin’s Ballade No.4 – presenting its evocative sonorities in a compact tonal palette – it was left to Pieczonka to conclude the evening with John Greer’s arrangement for string quartet and piano of Richard Strauss’ ineffable Four Last Songs. Pieczonka, Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet made it memorable. The power of the first song, the joyousness of the second suffused in beauty by its end, and the transformative journey into heavenly bliss by the fourth – this was the outlier to the Crossing Borders theme, unless you consider it the ultimate border crossing. Violinists Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan’s exquisite support of Pieczonka was palpable.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, pianist Steven Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet. Photo credit: Sean Howard.The following evening found the New Orford on the Walter Hall stage celebrating ten years together. Crow recalled before introducing the quartet’s encore, François Dompierre’s lovely, wistful Pavane solitaire, that their first-ever concert had begun with Haydn’s String Quartet Op.20, No.2, followed by a string quartet by Canadian composer Sir Ernest MacMillan and Beethoven’s Op.132. Their concert on July 12, ten years later, began with Haydn’s Op.20, No.4 followed by the world premiere of Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ String Quartet No.5 “The Transforming” and Beethoven’s Op.59, No.3. Such is the cyclic nature of programming.

The New Orford’s playing of the Haydn’s first movement was buoyant and exacting, attentive and cohesive; the immaculate sense of ensemble that resulted typical of their professionalism. The affecting slow movement, filled with yearning, showed off the quartet’s precision and first violinist Andrew Wan’s deftness. After a jaunty Menuetto, the concluding Presto, with its scurrying orchestral quality, was sheer brilliance.

Commissioned by TSM for the New Orford String Quartet, Hatzis’ String Quartet No.5 “The Transforming” is “a deeper view of crucifixion and resurrection as metaphors for everyone’s life and the future of the world,” the composer said in a 30-minute lecture an hour before the concert. His initial reaction to the commission when he heard the name New Orford was that it would be a licence to be “difficult” – such was his admiration for the quartet’s remarkable music-making skills. Hatzis talked about how chamber music can create interpersonal relationships through putting everyone’s ego aside, because a quartet as a whole is a person in its own right; how Beethoven’s late quartets owe much of their power to that characteristic; and how this latest quartet is the culmination of a 25-year cycle that began with his first quartet in 1994.

The first movement, Pesach, came across as complex and mesmerizing, with intense silences and dramatic chords reduced to repetitive three-note phrases. The second, La Pieta (Jerusalem), was inspired by Renaissance paintings but is defined by Hatzis’ use of Hubert Parry’s anthem of the British Empire, Jerusalem, its beauty declaimed by pianissimo descending notes and the inscrutable hymn based on the text by William Blake. “Every time I hear that hymn I get chills,” Hatzis said in his lecture. Regeneration, the final movement, with its celestial arpeggios tuned in just intonation in C, begins with a quiet sul ponticello pizzicato that passes through an intensely calibrated build-up to a new order. The use of quarter tones introduces a new vocabulary. Kudos to the New Orford String Quartet and first violinist Jonathan Crow for their definitive performance.

After intermission, the third of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets brought the concert to more familiar terrain and produced the third spontaneous standing ovation of the opening two concerts. While the first movement was not as surefooted as we have come to expect of the New Orford, the rest of the composer’s middle-period masterwork was a model of elegance culminating in a flourish of a finale.

Toronto Summer Music continues at various locations throughout Toronto until August 3.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Njo Kong Kie, in I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.On the evening of May 17, I had the opportunity to experience the world premiere of Njo Kong Kie's new one-man show, I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. I had been expecting a show of larger scale, as had been suggested by pre-season publicity last spring when Kong Kie's earlier work Picnic in the Cemetery made its Canadian premiere in the same space (Canadian Stage's Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre). However, this is a good space for intimate shows, as the furthest away you can be as an audience member from the stage is 6 or 7 rows—and I Swallowed A Moon Made of Iron is an even more intimate and personal creation than the earlier piece.

The enigmatic title comes from the source material, which, perhaps counterintuitively, is not of a  whimsical fairy-tale nature but the opposite: a collection of almost 200 poems by factory worker Xu Lizhi, detailing the soul-destroying reality for many young workers on the assembly lines at the giant Foxconn manufacturing plant in southern China, where many of the world's cell phones and other personal electronics are made. 

Although he had started to gain some recognition for his literary gifts, Xu Lizhi jumped to his death on the last day of September 2014, when he had just turned 24. He was not the only worker to take this way out of a life he felt was destroying his humanity, and a group of his friends collected his poems and published them as widely as they could to not only celebrate their friend but to open the eyes of the world to the inhumane working conditions at the plant. 

Journalists around the world reported the story at the time. Apparently conditions at the plant have since improved somewhat—but the poems continue to circulate, and a growing number of theatre artists have been inspired by the simple poetic power of Xu Lizhi's words, creating new works of music, movement, and design to make more of us aware of the human cost of gadgets we take for granted.

This February 2019 at Toronto's Factory Theatre (in a co-presentation by fu-GEN Theatre and the Music Gallery), Remy Siu's Hong Kong Exiles presented Foxconn Frequency No. 3. Taking Xu Lizhi’s poems as a starting point, they created a futuristic theatrical event where three pianists competed in what has been described as a “kind of randomized real-time video game” involving three keyboards connected to computers and 3D printers, with webcams adding live footage of the performers' efforts as they compete. Each performance was different depending on the real-time results of the “game.”

While I didn't have the opportunity to see this show live, I have seen excerpts online and read many accounts of the disconcerting effect on the audience of the (thematically simulated) inhumane pressure placed on the three “worker/competitors” as they attempt to keep up with the demands of the “game.” The performance seems to have been a fascinating recreation of the factory life depicted in the poems, also functioning as a warning to the audience of the human pressures of our product-hungry modern world.

Njo Kong Kie, in I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Kong Kie's creation is very different. In contrast, it could be seen as almost old-fashioned in its simplicity. Onstage is a grand piano on a highlighted square of floor, with a screen behind the piano on which the poems and various images are projected. A man (Kong Kie) enters and walks around the square marked on the stage, miming what seems to be a feeling of being constricted by his living and working space. After a while he sits down at the piano and begins to play.

There are several interludes in the 60 minutes of this theatrical concert, where Kong Kie performs other passages of mime, some seemingly-literal depictions of claustrophobia, others more symbolic, such as moving an anonymous cube from the floor to the piano, or raising it into the air with a pulley. These passages help to create a contextual world for the poems, feelingly spoken by Kong Kie in their original Chinese while English translations are projected on the screen behind. The performer's voice is rich and moving without being overly dramatic, and the impact of the poem's words is often enhanced by being spoken first before a blank screen, with a translation only being projected afterwards alongside the music.

The great richness of this theatrical concert is the power of the music, which varies from simple melodies to richly dramatic harmonies to clashing jangles, depending on the poem. Where it fell down for me was in the lack of a strong enough dramatic arc for the performance. The suicide to come at the end, I felt, was too clearly foreshadowed at the beginning, and the middle sequence was too often mired in shapeless melancholy.

In spite of this, the show is an intriguing introduction to the poems and world of Xu Lizhi, and a moving personal response to those poems by a musical artist of great experience and power. Kong Kie was for many years the music director for dance company La La La Human Steps, and many of his compositions here have a plasticity and dramatic tangibility that cry out to be interpreted by dancers. In many ways this felt like a first personal draft of something that may, in the future, grow into a larger work of music and theatre.

Njo Kong Kie’s I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron was presented from May 17 to 26 by Canadian Stage, at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre, Toronto.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Back to top