Adam Fisher, singing “Lenski’s aria.” Photo credit: Amanda Hadi.Going to hear live opera – or classical music in general – can be daunting to the novice. On your first outing to the opera or the symphony, you will question everything from what to wear to when to clap; you will feel pressure to remain silent, to stay for the whole performance, to not wear scented products, and so on. There’s a pernicious brand of purism and elitism that surrounds this type of music, and in my observation, it deters potential listeners. There’s this impression – this illusion – that there’s a minimum base of knowledge that’s prerequisite to understanding and enjoying classical music, that’s only possessed by an elite few.

Of course, that’s nonsense. The only thing that’s required for a person to enjoy a type of music is to listen to it. If it moves you, it moves you, and it if doesn’t, it doesn’t. Sure, exposure and familiarity, as well as deeper knowledge, will help to enhance your appreciation. But ultimately, the music should speak for itself, regardless of what you know, where you are, what you’re wearing, or when you clap. In my view, it is the responsibility of the performers of this music to actively fight against elitism, and to make classical music accessible again.

That’s where Against the Grain Theatre’s Opera Pub comes in. Opera Pub takes place at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club (ABC for short) on the first Thursday of every month, excluding their summer hiatus from June to September, and costs precisely nothing (though there is a tip jar). The pub, which resides in the same building as the Old Spaghetti Factory, is the kind of place you’d expect to see a blues-rock band, an open mic, or amateur stand-up comedy. A bar, a few booths, nice food but nothing too fancy. The stage is only slightly elevated, and upon it sits a piano with a colourful mural painted on the audience-facing side. That piano, which was a lucky Craigslist find, belongs to the AtG troupe.

The man at the piano is David Eliakis, a thoroughly experienced accompanist, who, for the duration of each 15-20 minute set, adeptly accompanies a series of arias and songs. While the majority of the programmed repertoire is operatic, there is the occasional song from a musical, and there was, when I went, one Beatles song accompanied by, in addition to Eliakis’ playing, various snaps, slaps and taps from the audience, designed to sound like rain. And this diversified repertoire is in good hands. This is not amateur hour; the featured performers are skilled operatic singers and actors, often with established careers in the field.

Opera Pub isn’t much of a production; obviously effort was put into the show, but the vibe isn’t of some big, fancy spectacle. It’s of a group of friends having fun and making music together. There aren’t really any props, nor are there elaborate costumes. Some of the performers are in formalwear, but at least one was wearing jeans. The arias come in an order, but there doesn’t seem to be an overall story arc. Yet there’s a subtle drama behind every duet sung which makes the meaning clear, even when it’s in a different language.

Alex Dobson, singing at the May 4 Opera Pub. Photo credit: Darryl Block.Sometimes there’s choreography, such as in Papageno and Papagena’s duet from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which the singers began from the audience, popping up in different places like a game of Whack-a-Mole to sing their playful “pa” sounds at the opening before making their way to the stage for a romantic reunion. Rather than explain the context within the opera, host Topher Mokrzewski explained that it was “a song about ornithological mating.”

It’s the contrast between the informal presentation and setting – a Craigslist piano on a bar stage, friends making jokes with each other, people walking around, ordering drinks, coming and going at will – and the highly disciplined artistry on display, that I find so fascinating and endearing about Opera Pub. The next one will be happening on Thursday, October 5, 2017 at Amsterdam Bicycle Club on The Esplanade by the Old Spaghetti Factory. I couldn’t sing its praises highly enough, but – please excuse the pun – perhaps one of AtG’s featured sopranos could!

AtG's final Opera Pub of the season, on May 4 at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club, featured a variety of repertoire sung by Alexander Dobson, Jeremy Ludwig, Julie Ludwig, Adam Fisher, Gwenna Fairchild-Taylor, Emma Char, Jonathan MacArthur, Andrew Love and Ellen McAteer, with David Eliakis on piano.

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

 

Echo Women's Choir. Photo by the author.The Church of the Holy Trinity is a gem of the Anglican tradition in Toronto, steeped in history and activism. There are few barriers in the open space, and art and displays clearly stating “this is a place of social justice and a place of God” – open and welcoming at the same time. As their April 30 concert at the Church of the Holy Trinity demonstrated, Echo Women’s Choir is much the same way: an open and welcoming ensemble that proves that music is a surefire way to not only build community, but also to leave it changed.

This is not going to be a typical concert report, because something along the lines of what Echo brings cannot easily be summed up by just performance alone. There’s a history and a story in the faces of the choir; these are activists, community changers, and beacons of a world we wish to see. Under the leadership of Becca Whitla and Alan Gasser, the ensemble has access to folk, historical, and contemporary music arranged just for Echo. The choir was also joined by Juno-nominated Annabelle Chvostek as artist-in-residence, and for this performance, by musical satirist Nancy White and her daughter Suzy Wilde. There’s a community at play here – bringing people together, sharing music, and being political.

It is often said that privilege allows one to be apathetic, to disregard the plight of others and to not be involved in politics. In this concert, Echo Women’s Choir is anything but apathetic. First they excel in the old North American church hymns adapted by Gasser and other arrangers. The singers get the right drawl and swoops for the effect of this early church music. The spread vowels with a slight nasal resonance are perfect for the music. Some choristers provide additional passages to a Timothy Swan tune, Poland. All of this sets up the audience for songs telling stories of environmental degradation and mining. There are also two gems of Georgian tradition, providing some amazing minor chords and intervals well-executed by Echo.

Nancy White and Suzy Wilde provide a fun two-song set: Big Fish, a commentary on Starbucks and Walmart and on Canada being the “little fish” to the US; and the incredibly charming Les Belles Belles Fesses, a French and English story of a man with a gorgeous butt.

Chvostek then conducts the choir in her arrangement of her song Firewalker. She describes it as “a song for intense times…[inspired by a] dream of being in a warzone with people I love.” It’s evocative and scary, very much telling the story of Syrian refugees seeking safety around the world today. It is a story of drones, robots and flames. The blend of folk music into choral arrangements is one of Echo’s strengths, and Chvostek is a real pleasure to see in action.

And then we come to the final song of the concert – and it is the most powerful by far. MILCK’s Quiet has become a bit of a firebrand amongst singing ensembles, having come to prominence at the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017 and part of a campaign called #ICANTKEEPQUIET. Choir! Choir! Choir! brought MILCK to Toronto, where the work was learned and performed at the Phoenix Concert Hall in February. Echo has sung this work now at City Hall and for the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. As they don their Pussy Hats and gear up, they start singing and you can’t help but be changed.

Near the start, “Shut up and smile, don’t spread your legs,” I’m already covered in goosebumps. With “if I don’t say something, if I just lie still” I’m emotional, thinking about all the people for whom this is their story. By “I can’t keep quiet, for anyone, not anyone,” the song becomes personal. With Chvostek at the front of the choir, leading the insistency and power of the song, the singers are louder, righteous indignation flowing, a declaration and celebration: “There’ll be someone who understands, let it out, let it out now!” With clapping and stomping from the audience, they roar: “No! I won’t keep quiet.” And they shouldn’t. Even after 25 years. They should never keep quiet and neither should we.

Echo Women’s Choir, with special guests Nancy White, Suzy Wilde and Annabelle Chvostek, performed “We Can’t Keep Quiet!” on Sunday April 30 at 3pm, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto.

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

Payadora, at a previous performance at the Four Seasons Centre. Photo credit: Chris Hutcheson.Except for the occasional touring tango group, Toronto’s Payadora Tango Ensemble doesn’t seem to have much regional competition. It’s true that Quebec’s Quartango is in its third decade of mining the tango motherlode, but Payadora may well be the sole GTA group dedicated to the Buenos Aires genre. And while the group has been actively performing around town since 2013, except for visits to their YouTube videos, their April 25 Gallery 345 concert was this listener’s first live taste of Payadora’s artistry.

During an earlier stage of its development the tango was often played by an ensemble known as the orquesta típica. It included at least two violins, flute, piano, double bass and two or more bandoneóns. The concertina-like bandoneón has a fascinating lineage and current geographic distribution. Of 19th-century German origin, it’s been essential to most tango ensembles from its earliest days – as well as in the folk music of Lithuania.

Payadora’s instrumentation however is much leaner than the orquesta típica. The quartet’s lineup includes violinist Rebekah Wolkstein, accordionist Branko Džinović, pianist Robert Horvath and Joseph Phillips on double bass. These highly skilled, classically-trained musicians all pursue successful Toronto-based music careers when they are not performing tango.

But what is tango? The dance and the music which accompanies it originally developed in Argentina in the late 19th century among former communities of African slaves and European immigrants. The resulting hybrid dance, earmarked from early references for its sensuality, its complexity and couples’ improvisation, became a mainstay entertainment in the underclass urban districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The music for the tango was a hybrid of various European music genres, its performers making use of popular European instruments of the day: the guitar and the aforementioned bandoneón being perhaps the most characteristic.

By the early 20th century the tango was attracting professional Argentinian musicians, bandleaders and composers. Payadora’s repertoire includes key works of this period by Eduardo Arolas (1892-1924), Julio de Caro (1899-1980), Osvaldo Pedro Pugliese (1905-1995), Aníbal Carmelo Troilo (1914-1975) and Horacio Adolfo Salgán (1916-2016). In its April 25 concert, Payadora focused on instrumental tangos designed for listening in a concert setting rather than those intended for dancing.

While it was initially part of the soundtrack for the lives of Argentinian urban criminal groups and the poor, tango achieved wider national social acceptance and global recognition only later, when tango groups began to tour internationally. In the years just prior to the First World War, a veritable tango craze swept European and American cities. Payadora’s Wolkstein mentioned at the concert that the tango was especially popular in early 20th-century Paris where it was cultivated in a gentrified form, its attractions appealing to all classes. It was then subsequently reintroduced back to its homeland, becoming finally socially acceptable to a much wider audience.

Payadora performed tango compositions of the so-called “golden age” (roughly 1930s-1950s), but it also played a composition by perhaps the most famed composer who emerged from the tango world: Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the very influential bandoneón virtuoso and bandleader. His piece Escualo (Shark) is imbued with a jittery version of the characteristic tango rhythm. It also deploys musical features reflecting his cosmopolitan compositional influences and tastes. These include rhythmically angular melodic lines, harmonies and instrumentation which may remind listeners of Stravinsky’s work, plus timbral textures produced via slaps on the bass and scrapes on the violin strings behind the bridge. Escualo serves as a good introduction to nuevo tango, Piazzolla’s signature extension of the genre, making use of extended forms, harmonies, dissonances and counterpoint.

Centred on the large repertoire drawn from the Buenos Aires tango tradition, Payadora has not neglected homegrown talents, premiering its pianist Horvath’s first tango composition Tavasz. Meaning “spring” in Hungarian, the composer’s mother tongue, it was a timely seasonal homage. The work began with a slow free tempo exploration on the piano, but then gained steam propelled by the tango rhythm, relying on virtuoso interplay between all four instrumentalists.

In addition to tango, Payadora also performed two Argentinian vernacular dance music genres. The zamba is set in a slow 3/4 meter – or is it in 6/8? – while yet another couples’ dance, the chacarera, also plays on similar hemiola syncopation. These two standards of Argentinian folklore received polished, sophisticated renderings by the musicians and served to expand the audience’s appreciation of that country’s musical expression beyond that of the tango.

The intimate Gallery 345 concert closed with an enthusiastic encore. It was clear that Payadora’s fans – attracted by its musicians’ playful unforced technical virtuosity, rhythmic precision, and evident commitment to the tango repertoire and ethos – are ready for much more.

Payadora Tango Ensemble performed at Gallery 345 in Toronto on Tuesday, April 25.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

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.

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