come early
make sure you get a seat
they say

so i do
there’s no one else here

i sit
and wait
and drink

The Dakota Tavern.Two beer, two bourbon – I’m half drunk and the show hasn’t even started yet, but nothing sobers you up faster than Bach.

I’m in the Dakota Tavern, a subterranean bluegrass temple, icons of Willie Nelson and Jim Cuddy on the walls, lit dimly by hanging bulbs, their haze interrupted occasionally by blasts of light as the front door opens at the top of the stairwell. The bar is well-stocked, the stage empty except for a honky-tonk piano against the wall and a chair in the centre, in which our entertainer will sit momentarily.

It’s a small venue, seating 40 or so, but most of the seats are full and, although not a bluegrass crowd (more than half the people are baby boomers with their families), there’s an energy in the air. There are some young adults here, in their mid-twenties to early thirties from the looks of them.

There is no program to be found, no performer biography or souvenir shop, just a menu with three items on it: tacos, baked beans, and nachos. I like the minimalism and appreciate it as a conscious departure from our art music norms. Maybe it’s just cheaper, but I’m feeling decidedly anti-establishment this evening, drunk on beer and culture.

At 7:15 the show starts, and Toronto Symphony Orchestra cellist Roberta Janzen takes the stage. She’s nervous and slightly gauche, plucked from her usual gaggle of celli and put on solo display in this musical exposé. (Theatrical people talk about the fourth wall, but for solo musicians it’s a more cage-like experience, I think, like tigers at the zoo.)

She introduces the first piece, Bach’s Cello Suite No.5 in C minor. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there’s an increased sense of reverence within the audience once Bach’s name is mentioned, like the naming of a great religious figure or pagan deity.

Jesus Christ, Baal, Bach
you can take the composer away from the church
but you can’t take the church away from the composer.

Cellist Roberta Janzen.The suite is comprised of seven movements: Overture, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, two Gavottes, and a Gigue. Janzen plays on a modern cello, which suits the venue and fills the space with its rich, warm tone. Her overture is sharp, slow, and stately, the following fugue contoured and, although fast and demanding, always controlled. The allemande, courante, and gavottes are well played, too. Bach’s writing for cello is so rich and complex, it’s often a challenge to identify the intrinsic characteristics of each dance – I know they’re there, but I sometimes can’t find the forest through the trees. The gigue, however, is unmistakable, resplendent in its minor-key exuberance.

Everything changes with the Sarabande, described by Rostropovich as “the essence of Bach’s genius.” Here, Bach creates a beautiful, angular line that, although only one voice, cries out with the sound of many. I immediately think of the warworn works of Eastern composers, Schnittke and Ustvolskaya, even Shostakovich. Whether she knows it or not, Janzen has given us a taste of what is to follow in the savagely delightful, delightfully savage music of Zoltan Kodály.

Kodály’s Sonata is an undeniably Classical work in its form, three movements (fast - slow - fast) beautiful in their lyricism, yet feral and untamable in their vagrant tonality. Janzen plays from memory, ties her hair back between the first and second movements (oh, the wailing of the Adagio, yearning and lamenting and screeching from the depths of the instrument’s soul!), takes a deep gasp of air before the third, an incessantly vigorous folk dance.

i am sitting close enough that i can hear her breathe as she plays
her thoughts as she labours for the silent audience
feel the friction of horsehair and rosin on gut and steel.

The applause at the end feels restrained and insufficient, and I think we should be dancing a wild pagan dance, rioting in our excitement like that first Rite of Spring audience, but we are a civilized people – two curtain calls will suffice.

why are we not more moved by our art
where are the mosh pits of western art music?

Outside the bar is the bus stop, a dirty, crud-filled street corner where hipsters muddle about, oblivious to the magic that has taken place in the nearby basement. As I stagger home on the bus and subway, I know I’m not the same as I was an hour before – I look the same, feel the same – but a transaction has taken place.

All art is a transaction, if done properly, as people come together with their own thoughts and feelings (baggage, therapists call it) and wring themselves out, filtering themselves through the sieve of the composer’s and performer’s offerings, giving something up and taking away something new.

art won’t change the world
but it can change a person –
and maybe that’s enough.

Presented as part of ClassyAF’s September lineup, cellist Roberta Janzen performed at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto on September 13, 2017.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist. 

Violinist Andrew Wan and pianist Angela Park in performance on July 26. Photo credit: James Ireland.Andrew Wan, concertmaster of Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and violinist along with Jonathan Crow in the New Orford String Quartet, was a logical choice to participate in this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSM), the first under Crow’s artistic direction.

Before Crow introduced Uriel Vanchestein’s Les Veuves (The Widows) to begin TSM’s July 26 concert before a full house in Walter Hall, Wan stood up to congratulate his quartet partner, saying he was like a brother from another mother. They’re both consummate musicians, dedicated, versatile and passionate. On July 20, the day after Wan’s first TSM public appearance (performing with Crow and James Ehnes in Bach’s Concerto for Three VIolins BWV 1064R), he spent an hour in an open rehearsal with fellows of the TSM Academy working on Korngold’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op.15. His passion for Korngold’s “very complex piece, very gnarly, very romantic,” as he described it to the audience in Walter Hall, was evident from the way he handled the beautiful, soaring melody of the slow movement from the first violin chair, and the powerful bowing that propelled the ad hoc Academy members as they played the piece together for the first time. “That’s pretty crazy,” Wan said, turning to the audience, when they finished. (There are 54 changes of time signature in the Adagio alone.) When a problem with a specific bar bothered the cellist, Wan immediately said: “Why don’t we isolate it?” A rhythmic question was solved by counting out three bars, ending with the troublesome one. At one point Wan had everyone sing a few bars before playing them. (Wan’s quicksilver intelligence and problem-solving directness resembled similar traits Crow brought to the open rehearsal of the first movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet a week later in Walter Hall, when he was in the first violin chair with another group of Academy members. Talking quickly so as not to waste time, Crow used a cellphone metronome to try out different tempos, had various combinations of instruments play in pairs to concentrate listening, tailored the quartet’s sound to the larger venue of Koerner Hall where the performance would take place August 4, and slowed down a climactic passage to better hear its components and check intonation.)

L-R: Andrew Wan, Joseph Johnson and Steven Dann, in performance on July 26. Photo credit: James Ireland.At the July 26 concert, Wan played first violin in Les Veuves, and together with Crow, violist Steven Dann and cellist Desmond Hoebig, produced a rich and polished tone in Vanchestein’s programmatic tale of an Indigenous woman who takes revenge on lumberjacks who destroy the trees that surround her home. Wan then joined pianist Angela Park in Oskar Morawetz’s hyper-romantic Sonata No.3, which served as a bold, rhapsodic vehicle for his sweet, fulsome, highly coloured tone. Dohnányi’s Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op.10 followed with Wan, violist Steven Dann and TSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson blending their individual voices and precise playing in what served as a compelling argument for the primacy of live performance.

After intermission Crow, Park and cellist Desmond Hoebig took on Dvořák's resplendent Piano Trio in F Minor, Op.65 with Crow and Hoebig trading melodies, with gorgeous violin tone and limpid cello sensitivity, while Park supplied a balanced support on the keyboard. Even more than in Les Veuves, there was a sense of the connection between the Orford and the New Orford string quartets (Hoebig was the cellist in the Orford’s last years before taking up the principal cellist post in the Cleveland Orchestra) and of the generational torch being passed. The spontaneous standing ovation was well-deserved.

Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow in performance at the July 27 Shuffle Concert. Photo credit: Gord Fulton.Late the next afternoon, on July 27 (just 30 minutes after Crow’s Death and the Maiden rehearsal), Wan and Crow got together for an hour-long Shuffle Concert dubbed “Concertmaster Duo” at Heliconian Hall. Wan recalled his first meeting with Crow at Orford in Quebec, one summer in the early years of the new century. Wan was a student and was struck by “this tall blond dude who had just played the hell out of the violin part of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.” Within a few years they were friends and part of the New Orford String Quartet. “We annoy each other endlessly,” he joked.

The concert began with a sonata for two violins by Jean-Marie Leclair, the Baroque violinist/composer who founded the French violin school. The two concertmasters were a matched pair, exhibiting a light touch and a tightly coiled tone, characteristics that were even more pronounced in a vivid interpretation of a handful of Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins. A selection of Berio duos, inspired by the writing styles of other composers, followed: the first, based on Bartók, opened a door to several of these miniature character studies, all of which oozed charm and humour. The violinists’ technique was on full display in Seven Proximities by Quebec’s Maxime McKinley; their virtuosity and musicianship shone in Prokofiev’s epic Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Op.56 with its long lines, mysterious mood, devilish passagework, slow and sultry slow movement and jocular finale. Schnittke’s clever Moz-Art (on K416) for Two Violins was played with verve. Their version of Mozart’s Turkish March put a bow on a lively 60 minutes of music that is rarely heard live. The concert was another essential component of the cornucopia that is this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened on July 13, and runs until August 5.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.


Cellist Elinor Frey.The Toronto Music Garden has presented Summer Music in the Garden, a series of free open air concerts throughout the summer, since 2001. On Sunday, July 23, Montreal-based cellist Elinor Frey, an artist who has appeared several times in the series, returned with her duo partner, the Italian harpsichordist Lorenzo Ghielmi. They brought a program of German music from the mid-eighteenth century, most of it appearing on their recent CD titled The Berlin Sonatas on the Belgian Passacaille label.

The program was beautifully presented, in spite of the constant threat of rain and a persistent breeze. The conditions did not prevent a large crowd from gathering in the Music Garden, and the event staff skillfully added just enough amplification to make all the music and the artists' commentaries entirely clear. Frey played her five-string Baroque cello, an instrument that adds an E-string above the usual top A-string. Such cellos were common in seventeenth and eighteenth century European court orchestras, and were particularly suited for virtuoso playing in high registers. Frey demonstrated this with her own instrument by playing two solo violin pieces by Franz Benda, a composer who spent 63 years in the service of Frederick II “the Great” of Prussia. Benda's Progressive Exercise no.25 and his Caprice no.16 were both elaborate, extroverted showpieces that transferred beautifully to the five-string cello.

The Toronto Music Garden.Frey and Ghielmi collaborated in three sonatas, by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723–1787), Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759), and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732–1795) – all examples of the so-called “language of sensibility” (Empfindsamkeit) from this time period. At the concert, Frey described this stylistic approach as “an expression of sadness, anger, wrath, joy, love, and praise.” The style, she said, calls for “various changes in dynamic, both abrupt and subtle, at the service of beautiful melodies and expressive fantasy.” The many interpretive shadings found in all these sonatas, as displayed by Frey and Ghielmi, yielded a delightful range of expressive music. The two artists were an ideal duo, both showing their individuality within a perfectly balanced sense of ensemble. The program was rounded out with Ghielmi's subtly nuanced harpsichord solo, the Fantasia in A minor BWV922 by J.S. Bach. This was Summer Music in the Garden at its finest!

In the coming weeks, Summer Music in the Garden will offer a great variety of diverse musical performances, including Fiddling in the 21st Century, Eh?!, with traditional fiddlers Anne Lederman, Emily Stam and James Stephens (August 10); Fire and Grace, with violinist Edwin Huizinga and guitarist William Coulter (August 24); and the season finale, the Ton Beau String Quartet (September 17). See the details for these and many other excellent performances in our listings, or at:

Summer Music in the Garden runs until September 17 in the Toronto Music Garden.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.


Angela Hewitt at the Westben Barn. Photo credit: Stephen Dagg.Rashaan Allwood in performance on July 21. Photo by the author.Last weekend from July 21 to 23, Campbellford’s Westben Arts Festival pulled out all the stops to curate an immersive piano concert experience. From mainstage performances at the Westben Barn, to their new “One-of-a-Kind Experiences” series fostering a novel approach to listening for sounds, to generous opportunities for artist interaction, it appears that artistic director Brian Finley and his team have assembled a winning formula for innovative piano programming.

Setting the tone on the evening of Friday, July 21, Rashaan Allwood presented a recital of piano works by Olivier Messiaen alongside a multimedia slideshow. The performance alternated between selections from Catalogue d’oiseaux and Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, video soundclips of birdsongs represented in the music, and painted depictions of the musical scenes by Avery Kua, commissioned especially for the performance. The stage became an interactive museum exhibit showcasing interactions between nature, birds, and natural phenomena, and Allwood was an insightful, enthusiastic ornithological guide through it all. Juxtaposed against Campbellford’s birds chirping along in real time, the presentation felt almost like a country adaptation of John Cage’s atmospheric 4’33”.

At the piano, Allwood’s tonal palette enriched the experience in colourful ways. Guided by Messiaen’s indications, he evoked brilliant, crystalline cascades as well as sound masses when called for. I would have liked to savour the pauses for longer: though there are no concrete storylines in these Messiaen works, there were tangible moments of tranquility which could have been contrasted even more against turbulent scenes.

All told, was there a takeaway impression from the performance? Not exactly—like the sounds of nature, it was a fleeting event to be relished in the moment. A result that Messiaen himself would have approved of.

Jan Lisiecki in performance on July 22. Photo by the author.On Saturday afternoon, it was Jan Lisiecki’s turn to take centre stage. Born in Calgary to Polish parents, his heritage courses through his playing. Pianists would appreciate the “Winter Wind sweep” he infused across the afternoon’s program—it is a tension-heightening sensation that Lisiecki is able to draw out from sequences of notes, and a hallmark of his playing in this concert.

Here, the acoustics in the Westben Barn posed a challenge, favouring certain pieces over others in Lisiecki’s program. I’m not sure he would have been satisfied with the results of the Bach, despite his efforts to bring it to life. There is an undeniable intellect to Lisiecki’s playing, the same one that allowed him to skip three grades in school: he took much of the Partita No. 3 at a chipper pace, recalling a Gouldian nimbleness and precision. It was evident that he was striving for a sparkling tone, but in this particular space the acoustics backfired on the superimposed, fast-moving textures; they came out as a scramble of notes. But what brilliance could not be drawn out, Lisiecki compensated for with gorgeous “Winter Wind sweeps” in the rising basslines.

In the Chopin Scherzo No. 1, Lisiecki took liberties with its clear-cut structure: he demonstrated his expertise in Polish dance forms, infusing the calm middle section with a mazurka stilt. In a performance that wasn’t otherwise striking, was this a Revolutionary move? The audience was enthralled and gave him full applause heading into the intermission.

Resurfacing on stage, Lisiecki took on an entirely different character for the second half, which was delivered much more clearly than the first. Assuming a calm, assured maturity, the Chopin Nocturnes Op. 48 were introspective and searching: the changing moods of the first nocturne were seamlessly navigated, and in the second nocturne the pain was clear and earnest. With the four Impromptus Op. post. 142, Lisiecki sucked the audience into his and Schubert’s world. The third Impromptu in B-flat Major was a standout in the set, evoking a carefree jaunt in the park with tuneful whistling.

Angela Hewitt in performance on July 23. Photo by the author.On Sunday, Angela Hewitt stepped onstage to reassert her reputation as a pre-eminent Bach interpreter of her generation. Each performance resembled an intimate diary entry, meticulously crafted at the piano. The six opening Scarlatti sonatas allowed everyone to ease into the Barn’s acoustics; when it came time to play Bach, Hewitt had already weaved a personal sound world. She created for herself a bubble of meticulous attention to detail within a compact dynamic range, spinning an illusion of expansive contrasts. It is interesting to compare her approach towards creating musical interest with Lisiecki’s from the day before: the former opted for varied articulation and less extremes in volume, while Lisiecki favoured the reverse. As a result, there was a stately character to Hewitt’s Bach, and the Barn’s acoustics were masterfully transformed into that of a closed Baroque palace.

An interesting phenomenon was how Hewitt’s closing Gigues were tentatively executed in comparison. Repeated usage of pedal simultaneous with an unsettled left hand were observed, as was an odd tempo fluctuation in the right hand. The closing Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata also showed kinks in its armour. Was this an indication of flagging stamina? Even if so, after such an authoritative conception of Bach, this was easy to forgive—especially with Hewitt performing on a piano whose tone had been unravelling as the afternoon advanced (an issue Lisiecki had also encountered during his performance).

Angela Hewitt at the Westben Barn. Photo credit: Stephen Dagg.As a whole, in this weekend snapshot the Westben festival—now in its 18th season—seems to be hitting all the right notes, as they continue bringing music to a tight-knit community of enthusiasts. “We remain really, really excited about the future,” enthused Finley on the weekend. He hinted at programming ideas for future seasons, including concerts running through the night: “This has given us some real courage to pursue these special experiences that are [within] music and beyond, in this beautiful area. So we’re dreaming hard!”

Westben’s summer festival series runs until August 6 in Campbellford. For more information, visit

Jennifer Liu is a recent graduate in piano performance, and has written on classical music for La Scena Musicale, The WholeNote magazine, and Musical Toronto.


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