Sir Andrew Davis with the TSO and TSYO on February 6. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Sometimes an email subject line helps a bunch of different ideas to fall neatly into place. Such was the case a day or so ago. Old meets new as Tafelmusik unveils 2019/20 Season” the subject line read. More about the Tafelmusik spin on the “Old Meets New” theme in the upcoming March issue, but for now, upcoming February concerts by Toronto Consort and Art of Time Ensemble, and a recent evening at the TSO, all fit the theme rather nicely.   

February 15 and 16 at Trinity-St. Paul’s, Toronto Consort’s "Love Remixed" features only 20th- and 21st-century music for early instruments and voice, the first time in the ensemble’s four-and-a half decade history that the ensemble has presented an entire program such as this. The concert features Juno-nominated James Rolfe’s Breathe with text by librettist Anna Chatterton, followed by David Fallis’ Eurydice Variations, the story of Monteverdi’s Orfeo told from the point of view of Eurydice.

Breathe Front CoverWriting for period instruments is not a new adventure for Rolfe. He dipped his toes in these waters as far back as 2003, for Toronto Masque Theatre, in partnership with André Alexis (the 2010-11 Giller Prize winner for his novel Fifteen Dogs). Their first collaboration was a piece titled Orpheus in the Underworld, paired up with Charpentier’s La Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers. Their next was Aeneas and Dido (paired with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 2007). Their Orpheus then returned to Toronto Masque Theatre in 2011, to close Toronto Masque Theatre’s season that year.  

The creation of Breathe has also taken place in layers, over time. It had its premiere performance in 2011, in St. Anne’s Anglican Church, as a Soundstreams commission for the  Norwegian a cappella ensemble Trio Mediaeval and the Toronto Consort. In it, Chatterton’s libretto is interwoven with the writings of 12th-century poet and composer Hildegard of Bingen. Rolfe’s music also has a medieval bedrock. As Globe and Mail writer Robert Everett Green described it at the time, “with voices and instruments attuned to medieval sonorities (or what we think they were), [Rolfe] used drones, interlocking patterns and melodies as simple as plainchant, sometimes running them as live loops against each other … [finding] a distinct gait and tone for each section of the text. … Between Hildegard's visionary, sensual description of "divine mysteries" and Chatterton's breath-centred evocations of love, the text exuded the same kind of sexy spirituality as the biblical Song of Songs.”

Since then the work has seen life as the opening track of an eponymous  Centrediscs release of James Rolfe’s music, Breathe, nominated for a 2018 JUNO Award. In her review of the disc in The WholeNote in October 2017, Dianne Wells described it as “in its performance here, by far one of the most extraordinarily beautiful recordings experienced in recent memory.”

As for David Fallis’  Eurydice Variations, “the story of Monteverdi’s Orfeo told from the point of view of Eurydice” which closes the program, for many in the Consort’s audience whose oldest memories of the group are inextricably interwoven with David Fallis’ recently concluded 28-year tenure as artistic director, it will be really intriguing to hear what he’s been doing with all that new-found time since relinquishing the reins at Toronto Consort.  

Art of Time, February  22 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, has dedicated itself to playing off old against new, and vice versa, for all of its 20-year history under the artistic direction of Andrew Burashko. This particular concert, titled The Classical Program, is sandwiched between two performances, Feb 21 and 23, of a complementary, more contemporary,  program titled “The Songs Program.” This one, for me, gets to the heart of Art of Time’s mission to break down artificial, genre-bound barriers among music lovers. It’s innovative “Source & Inspiration” format “pairs a Franz Schubert piano trio with songs written and performed by Danny Michel, John Southworth, and Martin Tielli, along with performances of chamber music by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and more.”

Danny MichelAudiences for whom the core Art of Time ensemble (Andrew Burashko, piano; Jonathan Crow and Mark Fewer, violin; Shauna Rolston, cello Barry Shiffman, viola) are already old musical friends may will meet three new ones  in singers Martin Tielli, Danny Michel, and John Southworth, whose respective songs, inspired by the Schubert Trio, are at the heart of the program. And for those who come precisely because they know who Tielli, Southworth and Michel are, the bridges will be built in the other direction.

Postscript: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Wednesday February 6: I was sitting in the RTH  balcony with music writer Robert Harris, 20 minutes before showtime. (Harris is mentoring this year’s  Emerging Arts Critics enrolled in a joint TSO/COC National Ballet program, where they write and submit reports and reviews to The WholeNote, Opera Canada, and Dance Umbrella magazines, for publication on our respective websites.)

Anyway, Harris and I were scratching our heads looking at the sea of chairs on the stage – twice as many as one might expect for the Brahms concerto for violin and cello, or the Dvořák sixth symphony to follow. Even for a pizzing contest between Strauss and Wagner it would have been a hell of a lot.

All was revealed when Sir Andrew Davis, the TSO’s interim artistic director, and conductor for the evening, mounted the podium and explained that if we were wondering about the chairs this was the occasion of the TSO’s annual “side-by-side” performance where members of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra and the TSO, rehearse and perform together. (Not the whole concert, but in this case Oskar Morawetz’s crackling Carnival Overture which kicked off the evening’s proceedings.)

Old meets new? Davis made his TSO debut in 1974, the year before commencing a 13-year tenure as the TSO’s music director; the TSYO was founded, by Victor Feldbrill, in the very same year. And ten of the current members of the TSO were, at one time or another, members of the TSYO. (Toronto Consort was two years old at the time!)

A big deal? No. But nice. Very nice.

karendonnelly mfasa bannerTrumpeter Karen Donnelly of the NAC Orchestra. Photo credit: Dwayne Brown.In an article last October, Quartz examined the workplace demographics of 22 of the world’s top orchestras. “This fall,” that article begins, “the world’s great symphony orchestras will open their 2018/19 seasons. And just as they have for decades, many of them will be sharply segregated by gender.”

The study was (of the authors’ own admittance) rudimentary and, when it came to guessing the gender identities of orchestra members based on names, images and bios, highly speculative. But at the same time, it proved a valid point: that when it comes to determining who should play which musical instruments, old habits die hard. In those 22 orchestras, 94% of the harpists were female, while all of the trombone and tuba players across the board were men. Of the 103 trumpet players listed as full-time musicians in those orchestras, only one—Anne McAneny, of the London Philharmonic Orchestra—was a woman.

For many brass players, it’s a familiar problem. Part of it comes from the history of brass instruments in hunting, industrial bands, and the military. Part of it also has to do with which instruments have historically been seen as delicate and suitable for domestic performance—a category where instruments like trumpet and trombone rarely landed. Either way, when instrument choice is so segregated in this way, it affects everything from teaching practices, to gendered divides in pay grades, to how leadership and musicianship are negotiated in the industry.

This week at the University of Toronto, the Canadian Women Brass Collective is presenting ‘That’s What She Said’—a 5-day conference dedicated to gender diversity in brass music. Running from Jan 15 to 19, with masterclasses, workshops, competitions, concerts and roundtable discussions, ‘That’s What She Said’ aims to celebrate and support women brass musicians, from the student to professional levels—and realize new understandings of who, and how, brass players can be.

For Canadian trumpeter Karen Donnelly, working towards a professional career as an orchestral musician meant facing that gendered dynamic firsthand.

“When I was a young player studying in the late ’80s, there was one woman that I knew of in an orchestra job. Joan Watson was Associate Principal Horn at the Toronto Symphony at that time,” Donnelly explains over the phone, “That was the only woman I knew. And then later, when I was a student at McGill, there was a trombone player: Vivian Lee joined the Montreal Symphony. So, then there were two women—two women who made me believe that, oh my God, I can do this. Because there was that one person who was already doing it—and now there’s two.”

It was a realization that worked for her. Now midway through her 22nd season as Principal Trumpet of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Donnelly is a driving force behind the Canadian Women’s Brass Collective, and the upcoming U of T conference—the organization’s first-ever event.

“Basically about a year ago, I emailed friends and colleagues and asked: ‘Would you be interested in doing a project like this?’” Donnelly says. “And basically, not one person wrote back with a negative response.”

Other artists of the collective featured at the conference include tubist Karen Bulmer, trombonists Megan Hodge and Vivian Lee, trumpeters Amy Horvey and Merrie Klazek, horn player Catherine Turner, and conductor and trumpeter Gillian MacKay. Several other musicians and arts workers are involved in the conference project in other capacities, and several others still, says Donnelly, weren’t available—but everyone who she contacted expressed support for the project and mission.

The conference, which hosts events at U of T each afternoon and evening from Thursday, January 17 to Saturday, January 19 (as well as an opening masterclass that took place on January 15), features an orchestral excerpt competition, as well as several masterclasses, talks and clinics geared towards early-career players—and a final ensemble concert on the 19th that will bring together artists of different abilities and levels from across the country.

“Thirty-nine women brass players and percussionists, coming from 7 different provinces, 9 different orchestras, and 4 different military bands, including 5 or 6 student apprentices up there playing with us—and musicians from Newfoundland and the University of Victoria,” says Donnelly. “Coast to coast.”

As a model, Donnelly looked to the International Women’s Brass Conference (IWBC), an existing US-based project founded by Susan Slaughter, the former Principal Trumpet of the St. Louis Symphony, in 1993.

In a 2017 interview with Jennifer Hambrick of WOSU Public Media, Slaughter describes the feeling of those earliest IWBC meetings, where women brass players were able to meet and share their experiences with one another—in many cases for the first time.

“At the time, most (orchestra) brass sections, when there was a woman in it, there was only one,” Slaughter says. “And [there were] things that we could never say to our colleagues, because we were put in situations that if you said something back, you could pay for it later, or you were considered not one of them or something like that. So you just kept your mouth shut. But when you came to our conference, we would go out afterwards and people could start talking—'What do you do in this situation?'"

For Donnelly, Slaughter’s work at the St. Louis Symphony and IWBC, and the community of musicians that she helped to create, served as an inspiration—first as a young trumpeter, and now as a teacher and organizer of an analogous Canadian project. In that vein, things have come full circle: the IWBC is serving as a sponsor for this week’s ‘That’s What She Said’ conference, while Donnelly hopes that from this event forward, the Canadian Women’s Brass Collective can begin to build a similar community of mentorship and support that’s more accessible for Canadian artists and students—connecting local early-career musicians with professionals in the field who are doing the work.

“I think that aspect of the conference is the most important part of it,” she says. “Creating a mentoring situation—one that is a positive, inclusive, joyful experience.”

‘That’s What She Said’, presented by the Canadian Women’s Brass Collective, takes place from January 15 to 19 at the University of Toronto. More information can be found at www.canadianwomensbrasscollective.com.

Recipients of the 2018 Toronto Arts Foundation Awards. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Arts Foundation.Sometimes when trying to hammer out a piece of writing for a deadline like this one, the only way to do so is to nail oneself to a chair and let one’s fingers do the walking. So before I gave up on trying to explain why the thing I am about to ask you to do is is important, I managed to hammer out the following:

“Just as in dead of winter it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around planning for what one will be doing  musically next summer, so too it’s a bit hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea of taking time, while the snow flies, to sit down and write something that will influence the outcome of an arts award that will not take place until the black flies fly, in May of next year. But, with The WholeNote having been the recipient of one of last year’s Toronto Arts Foundation #TOArtsAwards, we’ll always be grateful that one individual actually took the time, this time last year, to nail themself to a chair and nominate us for the award.

“Toronto Arts Foundation Signature Awards honour Toronto's arts community, shining the spotlight on the role of the arts in keeping the city vibrant and humane. Most of the awards are presented at a so-named annual ‘Mayor’s Arts Lunch’ in the late spring (yes, Virginia, hard as it is to believe right now, there will be a spring). Not all awards are presented annually: the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition that The WholeNote received last year, ‘in recognition of its role in promoting current music and emerging artists,’ for example, is biennial.

“This year’s five award categories are: ARTS FOR YOUTH AWARD (celebrating an individual, collective or organization that has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to engaging Toronto’s youth through the arts); EMERGING ARTIST AWARD (celebrating the accomplishments and future potential of an emerging Toronto artist working in any discipline); MURIEL SHERRIN AWARD (celebrating outstanding achievements in music and a global commitment to the arts); MARGO BINDHARDT AND RITA DAVIES AWARD (celebrating an individual who has demonstrated creative cultural leadership in arts and culture in Toronto); and the EMERGING JAZZ ARTIST AWARD (celebrating an outstanding emerging jazz artist in Toronto).”

And that is as far as I got. Because sometimes, when trying to hammer out a piece of writing for a deadline, the only thing to do is to stop staring at the half-written draft on the screen (with its paragraphs degenerating into half-formed sentences containing words like energetic, significant, leadership, celebrate, spotlight, honour, nominate) and get the hell out of the house, letting my feet do the talking while my mind bounces ideas off every passing building, so they can rebound as voices in my head telling me what might be useful to say. And besides, I had a meeting to get to, to chat about a very different award ceremony coming up in February, a couple of miles away.

So off I went, heading south-east, finding diagonals wherever I could and zig-zagging the rest of the time. From home base on Bellevue Avenue, where we could listen to the sounds of last September’s Kensington Market Jazz Festival from our front yard, as that astonishing initiative, only in its third year, continues to grow and evolve. Diagonally across Bellevue Square, where anyone can sit, and does, and music is perpetually part of the fabric of things. Down that little stretch of Augusta Avenue just above Dundas Street, where every year during Nuit Blanche things happen, even though they are not on the “official” festival map (from a “live karaoke” tent to a Philippine gong ensemble rehearsing in a basement art gallery I never knew was there till I heard the call of the gongs). Across Dundas Street through the heart of Chinatown, to Beverley Street, the Italian Consulate to my left, where from the lawn on summer evenings you just might hear the sounds of opera or vintage car chases, corresponding images flickering on a movie screen. And straight ahead, the Art Gallery of Ontario, with all its treasures and potential for partnership. Down Beverley a short way, then the long south-east diagonal through Grange Park, past the wonderfully relocated Henry Moore two large forms. And past University Settlement House, with its vibrant and inclusive community music school where 24 years ago a child too small to reach the pedals sat at a piano, and the ensuing photograph found its way to the cover of the very first issue of this magazine.

Exiting Grange Park down John Street, the pace picks up. Past St. George-the-Martyr, for two decades the home of the Music Gallery (before they moved to 918 Bathurst) and still a treasured intimate music venue, despite the condo going up, loudly, to the east of it. Hanging a left at the laneway just before hitting Queen, and emerging from that laneway alongside the Rex Hotel. The Rex Hotel. Turning left onto Queen, directly ahead the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. But before crossing University Ave., a quick glance to the north at Campbell House Museum, a little gem of an occasional music venue, as violinist Edwin Huizinga could tell you. And a longer, nervous glance north up University Ave. to Queen’s Park, where the shadow of Ford the Elder, who talks about art the way George H.W. Bush talked about broccoli, looms large. Past City Hall, from which sanctuary, a few years back Ford the Younger didn’t get out of his chair and walk across the street to attend the Mayor’s Arts Lunch, held that year in the Arcadian Room in the Simpsons Tower, on the southeast corner of Bay and Queen.

Somewhere along the last couple of blocks of my walk,on Bay between King and Queen, a man who looks to be 20 going on 50 is moving to some music only he can hear, trapped in some paroxysm of the body or dance of the spirit, twisting and turning on the sidewalk across the road from me, in front of the freshly painted white hoardings around the base of some tower with a crane (the official bird of the city) perched on top. Between each gyration he stretches his hand as high up the hoarding as he can, writing giant looping letters with a pen, all along the hoarding; then back to the beginning, a little lower down, for the next line, and starts again. The pen is imaginary. His story is invisible.

So, what am I asking you to do? Take the time this winter – the deadline is February 15 – to nominate some artist, in any and every sense of that word, whose work in the arts you honour, for a Toronto Arts Foundation Award. By doing so, irrespective of who the finalists and winners turn out to be, we collectively make visible the stories, block by block, of who we are, what we do, and why it matters.

You can read about the awards here. And about the awards that are currently accepting nominations at: https://torontoartsfoundation.org/initiatives/awards/nominate-today.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

B Exalted Choir cropped close by DavidLeeStudio.com bAnnerB-Xalted!. Photo credit: David Lee Studio.There’s a new choral project in town—and it all goes back to Handel’s Messiah.

Co-founded by Barbara Gowdy and Whitney Smith, B-Xalted! is a choir of Toronto-based writers and arts workers who, as they explain in their press release, “have put aside their laptops” to sing—a community project that gives professional writers and other creative professionals the chance to sing choral music together for the first time. A concert of excerpts from Handel’s Messiah on December 11 at Toronto’s Church of St. Peter & St. Simon-the-Apostle will be their debut.

For Gowdy, attending a performance of Tafelmusik’s annual Sing-along Messiah was the catalyst for the project. After giving up writing following a cancer scare to spend more time with loved ones, it was singing in the Tafelmusik audience that gave her the inspiration for community choir built around Handel’s music.

The Messiah theme may feel a bit arbitrary at first glance—but the idea of a community project built around this music isn’t so far-off. One of the holiday season’s most ubiquitous musical traditions, Messiah is near-synonymous with choral community-building: with festivity, with meaningful memories of classical music, with standing and singing along. Something about Messiah, and the way it unites community initiatives with musical professionals, gives it a special place in the city and scene’s musical fabric.

Messiah for the City is another example. Founded by the late Jack Layton and presented this year by Toronto Beach Chorale in partnership with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Messiah for the City is a concert project dedicated to providing seasonal concert-going opportunities to Torontonians who otherwise might not have access to such events. This year’s Messiah for the City takes place on December 22, featuring singers from the Toronto Beach Chorale, MCS Chorus Mississauga and the Georgetown Bach Chorale, as well as players from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Tickets will be distributed by United Way and its partner agencies.

And for those looking for other public Messiah performances this year, there are all of the usuals and then some: Tafelmusik’s rendition December 19 to 21, with its famous “Sing-Along Messiah” on December 22; the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, conducted by the Canadian Opera Company’s Johannes Debus, December 17 to 23; Pax Christi Chorale’s special “Children’s Messiah” performance for children and families on December 1; and the fourth edition of SoundstreamsElectric Messiah at the Drake Underground, December 4 to 6.

Of her upcoming performance with B-Xalted!, Gowdy writes that it’s the courage of a choir coming together for the first time that will make their debut special. “There’s a fearlessness, even a recklessness, to our enterprise,” she says. “We’re all taking a risk, and we’re taking it together.”

It’s the same spirit that embodies all of the upcoming Messiah performances this season. Community-minded fearlessness—and joy.

For a complete list of Messiah-related shows across southern Ontario this year, search “Messiah” in our online concert listings at www.thewholenote.com/just-ask.

Sistema 138 bannerPhoto by Stuart LoweLate September, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti came to town for a two-performance engagement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2). No stranger to the world’s concert stages, on the Friday afternoon between the two performances, Benedetti proved herself equally at home in front of an audience that many professional musicians would find infinitely more daunting—60 to 70 of the children currently enrolled in Sistema Toronto’s flagship after-school program at Parkdale Junior Public School.

It was a three-part encounter, starting with Benedetti meeting and playing for all the children in the program. In my experience occasions such as these are most nerve-wracking for the teachers in attendance, torn between the demands of impressing “the guests” with the children’s level of  discipline and decorum, and at the same time wanting to celebrate the exuberance and sense of confident ownership the children in the program feel. So prior to Benedetti showing up there was the usual herding and shushing as the children filed in, by class: “straight lines” and “remember we have guests” and “indoor voices, please.”

All such anxieties were dispelled when, accompanied by Aaron McFarlane, the TSO’s newly appointed director of education and community engagement, Benedetti arrived, her 1717 Gariel Strad dangling casually from her hand. She straightaway asked the children what the special signal was at their school when silence was needed (a fluttering downward hand movement, she was shown; “like a fountain,” she was told.)

She asked what different instruments they all played, and told them she was going to play a “theme and variations” for them, by Bach, and that the piece was almost exactly as old has her violin was. She asked if they knew what a theme was, and built on every answer given. She told them they would be practising listening, not because it was polite but because learning to listen, even more than practising the notes, is the most important thing a musician must do. She told them she would play the theme and then she would say “variation” each time she played a variation. And then she played.

No one had to be shushed.

Afterwards, she said “When I started, your listening was very good. But by the time I finished it was wonderful. So thank you all very very much.” Then she took questions, and they were all good questions. My own favourites were “How come you were lifting off your feet?” and (more an observation than a question) “You didn’t smile when you were playing. You are supposed to smile.” Her response to the latter: a question of her own. “Were there any smiley bits in the music? Because if there weren’t wouldn’t it be strange for me to be smiling?”

Photo by Stuart LoweSecond stop in the event was the school library where the Sistema senior orchestra was assembled to rehearse the piece for the third and final stop (which was to be a short concert by the senior orchestra in the school gym, for family and the more junior members of the program). Her capacity for instant rapport, genuine engagement with the orchestra, and the ability to zero in on a single teachable thing (in this case encouraging “big sound,” and then evoking it), were all on display.  

In the gymnasium concert that followed, she started out by taking her place in the back row of the violin section. After the piece had been played through, she followed up on the library lesson, this time expanding the notion of “big sound” – collective dynamic bravery – by coaxing and coaching the orchestra, and its conductor, to also play more quietly than they would have thought practical under the circumstances.

How opportunity knocks

Looking back on the event after it was over, I found myself reflecting on how effortless the whole thing had seemed (and by extension, how much work probably went into creating the illusion of effortlessness).

Part of the explanation is that Benedetti was on familiar ground. She has had a longtime and ongoing role in the Big Noise Orchestras movement, “Big Noise” being the way the Scottish Sistema movement has branded itself. Altogether there are more than 2,500 children and young people engaging regularly with the four established Sistema Scotland centres, and in addition to the Big Noise orchestras attended by children up to 11 hours each week, they run Baby Noise and Adult Noise programs which enable the Sistema Scotland family to reach as many as possible in the communities where they are based. Benedetti is not only on the Big Noise board of directors but also the movement’s “Musical Big Sister,” visiting schools and conducting musical clinics throughout the U.K. since 2005.

Photo by Stuart LoweI asked Aaron McFarlane (who coincidentally comes to his education/outreach role at the TSO from a key role with Sistema New Brunswick in Saint John) if their common Sistema roots had helped bring about this particular piece of matchmaking.

“Nicola Benedetti had asked if it would be possible for her to do some outreach as part of her visit to Toronto, and we were happy to oblige,” he says. “The wheels were set in motion well before I joined the TSO in July, but considering my affinity for El Sistema inspired programs, I was thrilled!”  

McFarlane’s TSO responsibilities include overseeing everything the orchestra does that is educational or that involves outreach or engagement. “Currently, our main programs are our School Concerts, our open rehearsals (Mornings with the TSO), our Young People’s Concerts, and the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. Beyond the tremendous musicians that make up the TSO, we also have the good fortune to welcome incredible musicians each season from every corner of the globe. We recognize that we are a part of a community, and feel a sense of responsibility to support those who are encouraging the development of young musicians whenever we can.”

Not all musicians, resident or visiting, have the same aptitude or appetite for engagement that Benedetti does – but it was a bright start to the year. “We need to go out of our way to engage with communities that might not otherwise have access to the TSO,” MacFarlane says. “This workshop was a small event in the context of a large organization like the TSO, but it may have made a huge impact on some of the children who got to interact with Nicola Benedetti.”

Raploch Estate is a run-down district in Stirling, Scotland, and is the site of Sistema Scotland’s first Big Noise Orchestra, established in 2008.

“The children I have taught in Raploch really are hugely talented,” Benedetti says, “and I don’t say that lightly. These children have enormous potential. It is phenomenal to walk round the estate and see all these children carrying instrument cases and talking about their orchestra. It is very moving for someone like me. I have always dreamed of our communities experiencing the infectious joy of playing music together. The teachers and the community recognise how these children are shining, and being nurtured every day by the musical environment they now live in.”

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

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