Amici Chamber Ensemble (l-r): Serouj Kradjian, Joaquin Valdepeñas and David Hetherington.“Amici,” when translated from the Italian, means “friends”. It may be a simple concept, but that idea is at the core of what the Toronto-based Amici Chamber Ensemble does – and has been doing for the last 30 years.

Part of this mandate has come from making a virtue of necessity. Amici’s core ensemble formation is a clarinet-cello-piano trio, made up of clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, cellist David Hetherington and pianist Serouj Kradjian. There’s a sizeable library of classical repertoire for this instrument combination – but it’s far less common than the standard piano trio (which swaps out the clarinet for a violin). As a result, a lot of the clarinet-cello-piano music that exists tends to get performed by ad-hoc groups, or by subsets of larger mixed instrumental ensembles.

Amici follows this pattern, performing repertoire written specifically for their instrument combination alongside works for larger forces. What that translates to, in their case, is a frequent need for guest artists – and lots of them.

Their upcoming concert on April 27 at Koerner Hall in Toronto is no exception. Titled “A Legacy of Inspiration,” the show celebrates both Amici’s 30th anniversary and the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, with several works by Bernstein, the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, and Beethoven’s “Rondino” for wind octet.* Joining the trio onstage will be soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and violinist Yehonatan Berick, along with several wind players from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

“We took the theme of ‘legacy’ here, because for a clarinet-cello-piano trio to survive this long – for 30 years – is admirable,” says pianist Serouj Kradjian. “We [wanted to] define legacy by not only the artists we’ve had as guests, but also by Amici’s long tradition of mentorship – teaching, and many times, providing the first opportunity for upcoming musicians who would later make great careers.”

He’s speaking from experience. A relatively recent addition to the group, Kradjian himself joined the trio to replace founding pianist Patricia Parr in 2008.

“My own experience of Amici, before I joined the ensemble 10 years ago, was when I was a student at U of T. At school, Amici was my first experience seeing chamber music live onstage,” he says. “Imagine having that be your very first experience hearing chamber music – and now, many years later, it’s come full circle, with my becoming the pianist of the ensemble.”

Kradjian talks about the trio’s concert-planning process. In the case of their upcoming show, Bernstein quickly became the program’s keystone; other times, the draw of a particular guest artist has inspired the trio to select certain repertoire. “The three of us sit down and we brainstorm,” he says. “We look at a combination of things – the artists, the focus of the program, financial considerations – but I think that for us, artistic integrity and innovation are what come first. That has kind of been a trademark of Amici: the core musicians are only a trio, but because of these goals we grow to an ensemble of sometimes 11 or 12 musicians onstage.”

Looking at the ensemble’s work over the years, it’s clear how each trio member’s own musical connections within the local community have helped the ensemble survive. In addition to the Amici’s previous post in the late 80s and early 90s as trio-in-residence at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, both Valdepeñas and Hetherington play in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and teach at the Royal Conservatory. The guest artists that Amici has performed with have often come from the same ranks.

“Personal connections have been very important for the ensemble,” says Kradjian. “As the name says – “amici” – it’s really about celebrating friendship through music. We want to invite people who we like to work with – because that energy, that chemistry, shows on the stage. And when we’re enjoying what we’re doing onstage, the audience sees that as well.”

As the ensemble enters its 31st year, Kradjian expects it to continue developing its mandate for outreach and collaboration.

“We do all of these amazing concerts right now – but we only do them once,” Kradjian says. “We’d love to repeat one or two of them in other areas in the GTA and Ontario. We’d also like to continue making new recordings and doing co-productions. Getting together with other arts organizations in the city – and not necessarily just music organizations. Combining different aspects of the arts is part of what we’re looking ahead to.

“I think we will continue innovating,” he adds. “As much as we can. As much as circumstances allow.”

Amici Chamber Ensemble presents its final concert of the 2017/18 season, “A Legacy of Inspiration,” on April 27 at 8pm, in Koerner Hall, Toronto.

*4/13/2018: Since time of writing, a revised concert program has been announced. The concert program now includes works by Bernstein alongside a selection by winners of The Glenn Gould School Chamber Music Competition, Ottorino Respighi's Il tramonto, for voice and string quartet, P. 101, and Ernö Dohnányi's Sextet in C Major, op. 3.

Fides KruckerThe Canadian Stage web page for upcoming song and dance show In This Body reads “conceived and sung by Fides Krucker.” It’s a testament to how Krucker, herself a vocalist, built this project – as a highly personal (and personalized) collection of music that reflects upon her own life experience. It also speaks volumes about Krucker herself – a singular creator and interpreter, who has spent her career discovering the capacity of her own body for storytelling.

As a concept, In This Body has been in the works since summer 2016, when Krucker suggested the idea to dancers Laurence Lemieux, Peggy Baker and Heidi Strauss – the latter two of whom have been her longtime collaborators. Since then, it has evolved into a 75-minute collection of pop songs arranged for Krucker’s voice, instrumentalists Rob Clutton, Tania Gill and Germaine Liu, and the three dancers, running March 14 to 18 as part of Canadian Stage’s 2018/19 VOICES3 vocal series. Exploring themes around relationships, love and womanhood and featurings songs from the likes of Feist, Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang and Serena Ryder, the show feels like a perfect microcosm of Krucker’s body of work – a musical story that is at once intensely collaborative, and wholly her own.

The following interview has been condensed and edited.

WN: I love that the program note makes a point of stating “conceived and sung by”. Can you speak about your role as a performer-slash-creator here? How did you create this idea?

FK: Periodically I’ve made semi-staged cabarets – I did one at Artword Artbar in 2002 or so, and then another one in the late 2000s at Theatre Passe Muraille. They were always a chance for me to gather a diverse cross-section of popular songs and re-interpret them – and they would often really speak to how I was feeling at that point in my life, with regards to whatever happened to be going on with my own development as a human being at the time. So this piece feels like it comes out of that thread of work.

Another thread of work that I do is contemporary opera, which I’ve done since the mid-80s. I was really cognizant of the fact that almost all of the operas that I’ve sung, in which I’m singing about the idea of love, for example, have been written by men. I thought, ‘okay...where’s the female opera?’ And then I realized, maybe putting together this 15-song program in which 12 of them are by women (and only 3 by men) is, in a way, me making a type of ‘opera’. It is a concert with dance – we’re not giving ourselves characters or turning it into a story in any way – but it feels like it’s got the emotional curves you find in opera.

It’s mostly pop songs, but our arrangements are pretty out there for some of them. We spent a lot of time with them, taking them to whatever limits felt right to us to express what the individual story of each song is. That’s where the ‘conceiving’ part came from.

WN: Your work refers in several ways to the performing body, and to “embodiment.” Can you speak to some of other ways you’ve had to reckon with the concept of the body in this show?

FK: In my work as a singer, I think I’ve dealt with the voice how a performance artist might deal with their own body or material, because of the things I’ve asked my voice to do over time.

My interest has been how to play with all of the “unsocialized sounds” that a woman typically does not make. That’s been the thrust of a lot of my career. That to me informs an idea of embodiment that’s not the same as “measuring up” to an aesthetic ideal imposed by somebody else. And these songs allow me to do that from the inside out. I do feel like the way that these women [singer-songwriters] have put word and melody together feels like how I want to express those emotions, in a very first-degree way.

WN: You’ve spoken about the concept of this being a type of ‘national songbook.’ How did you come up with these songs, and how did they form a ‘songbook’ of this kind for you?

FK: The only way I can sing material – whether it’s classical material or pop – is if it feels like when it gets into my body it belongs there. That sounds very simplistic, but it’s like: does it fit in my mouth? Does it touch me? I say to my students, “You need to cry your way 45 times through a song before it’s really yours.” ...Or be excited through it, or let it get you riled up. I like to feel those physiological responses because I think that’s where the song came from in the first place for the songwriter. So those are the songs that appeal to me – the ones that get under my skin in that way.

When I started thinking about this project, it was around the time when the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi came to light. I had been thinking about relationship a lot, and [at that time] we weren’t quite talking about consent. That moment sort of opened the door to talking about consent in a more front-burner way in our society. So the songs that were interesting to me for this project were related to this idea of what I was raised to expect around the love story – and then what I discovered through my life’s experience that was nothing like what I was raised to expect. And the norms we still think hold true in our culture, versus what’s really happening.

[The music] is personal; it’s personal to my voice. But the landscape is one that’s been shared by many of us – and we’re all speaking out about it in a different way now. And that to me is super, super exciting.

In This Body, presented as part of Canadian Stage’s VOICES3 series, runs at the Berkeley Street Theatre March 14 to 18, 2018.

musicgallerybannerMusic Gallery MasterpiecesTwo weeks ago on January 28, armed with a folder of carefully selected memorabilia of my own, I walked into the Music Gallery’s new location at 918 Bathurst  for what was referred to as a “90s Archive Jam!” Hosted by Joe Strutt and Fahmid Nibesh, the jam was basically a call for materials – a request for members of the experimental music community to gather and share their memories (and physical memorabilia) of what the Music Gallery was like in the 90s. Linked thematically to an ongoing “History Series” at the Music Gallery (focusing on the history of experimental music-making in Toronto), the jam helped shine a spotlight on an important time in Toronto’s musical past – a past in which the Music Gallery itself has played no small part.

Joe Strutt: Citizen Music Archivist

Toronto musician Joe Strutt‘s career has shifted markedly over the past few years. Making music has been mostly sidelined in favour of his work as a “citizen archivist”: running Track Could Bend, a monthly concert series of "improvised music and weird rock offshoots,” and maintaining his long-running music blog, Mechanical Forest Sound.

Over the past nine years, Strutt has methodically logged a myriad Toronto concerts by mostly local musicians. At last count he’s posted well over 4,000 concert entries, many with live audio recordings attached – a staggering number of events in anyone’s book. Consequently, his blog has grown to become a valuable archive of the local music scene.

I called Strutt last week, asking how it all began. He told me his blog “was initially a personal aid memoire and not consciously an archiving project of the creative music scene in Toronto.” It has nevertheless eventually grown into an incredible archive of local musical culture – what Strutt calls “an investigation of a wide range of artists, [and] reflections on concerts as shared experiences – as acts of citizenship.”

Strutt is also behind a series of “Toronto Experimental Music Wikipedia Jams,” the first of which was held at the Tranzac Club's Tiki Room on a balmy Saturday afternoon in November 2016.

The idea first occurred to Strutt when he went online to search for a Wikipedia entry on the CCMC, Toronto's venerable "free music orchestra" that formed in 1974 and established the Music Gallery. There wasn’t one.

To set about addressing that omission, he pitched his first Wiki Jam to redress the issue to saxophonist Glen Hall, the co-founder of the 416 Creative Improvisers Festival. “Glen was enthusiastic about it,” reported Strutt. I was among the roomful of eager participants who showed up at the Tiki Room and weighed in on the subject.

At home after that session, Strutt says that he “basically bashed out the Wiki text. Then other people improved it, adding rigour by providing links and formatting tweaks. The next time I checked, I was surprised to see my sketchy footnotes properly cited and formatted by a retired engineer from Australia!” The finished Wikipedia page CCMC (band) stands as a tangible testament to Strutt’s initiative and perseverance.

“Then in February 2017 I organised another Wiki Jam for the Wavelength concert series and festival,” says Strutt. This is what the Wavelength Music Arts Projects Wikipedia entry looks like, a year later.

“In preparation for the Music Gallery’s recent 90s Archive Jam! some of us took a field trip to York U’s archives to lay our hands on the old MG tapes,” Strutt explains. “We sat down and happily spent hours listening to recordings of live concerts.”

Why the interest in rediscovering and archiving the history of the Music Gallery now? “One of the reasons is that the Music Gallery is institutionally strong right now,” says Strutt. “It therefore has the luxury to address its past, and not just dwell in survival mode.”

Strutt summed up his view on his archive jams. “For me it’s about engaging with the community, sharing our stories. These events bring those who were first-hand participants together with younger folks who want to participate in that living community.”

Archive Jams at the Music Gallery

I asked Music Gallery artistic director David Dacks, in a phone call, about the ongoing History Series and how the 90s Archive Jam! came about. “One of the pillars of our strategic plan is to re-examine our archives and legacy,” he says. “York University’s archives contain our audio archives and images prior to 1999, but everything since has been a bit more haphazardly collected in binders, CDRs and, lately, through archived links. So I invited Joe Strutt, who serves on the MG’s Artistic Advisory Council, to host a 90s archive jam in order to generate material and conversations. In turn he invited musician Fahmid Nibesh to split the hosting duties.”

“The 90s Archive Jam! was not actually part of our History Series,” Dacks clarifies, “but a more relaxed event in which MG participants could share their stories and original documents. During the event I experienced several aha moments. For example, I was fascinated to hear Alan Davis speak of his nine years of extensive world music programing at the Music Gallery, which included the appearances of some significant artists.”

What will happen to the 90s material collected during the jam? “University of Toronto graduate student Mairead Murphy has been working diligently for months to archive concert audio recordings and pertinent paper documents on our HD,” Dacks explains. “It’s a race against time: CDRs have never been the most robust technology. She is also assisting us as we set up a presence on Bandcamp: Live at the Music Gallery. Initially we plan to upload six live concert titles from 2014 to the present and build from there.”

The History Series

The History Series itself continues with two upcoming events exploring the documentation of Toronto’s creative music. First is a discussion of Creative Music on Campus Radio on Thursday, February 15 at the Map Room, Hart House, University of Toronto, co-presented by the Music Gallery and CIUT-FM.

Dacks explains how non-mainstream music and radio art were boosted by the emergence of FM radio in the 1960s. “Combined with the advent of late night programming, radio opened up countless hours of experimental programming possibilities for stations large and small,” he says. “Campus radio was…especially important in fostering community and paying royalties to up-and-coming musicians creating jazz, new music and completely unclassifiable sounds.” The wide-ranging conversation on February 15 will be hosted by Dacks (himself a 25-year veteran of CIUT), and features panelists Ron Gaskin, Sarah Peebles, Nilan Perera, Claudia McKoy and Luca Capone, all active in campus radio.

The series continues on Friday, April 6 with a panel on Creative Music Journalism, presented by the Music Gallery and Musicworks magazine. Dacks will talk to journalists about “the challenges and joys of describing abstract music.” Panelists include Mark Miller (Globe and Mail), Carl Wilson (Slate, The Guardian, Globe and Mail), Katie Jensen (Polaris Music Prize podcast, IMPSTR), Jennie Punter (Musicworks, Toronto Star) and Jerry Pratt (Exclaim!).

“Evolving from occasional coverage of jazz and ‘new’ music in major newspapers during the 50s and 60s, experimental music found dedicated outlets in publications such as Coda and Musicworks by the 70s,” notes Dacks. During the 80s and 90s, alternative media such as NOW Magazine, Eye Weekly, The WholeNote and Exclaim! placed creative music activities in a wider cultural context. And more recently, podcasting has carved out a new space merging what print and radio used to do: incorporating both journalism and radio production to promote creative music to ever-changing audiences.

In addition to bringing people together to tell personal stories and to generate paper and audio artifacts, these archiving efforts of Joe Strutt, the Music Gallery, and others are pointing to meaningful ways our music communities articulate their collective memories – and how we do the essential work of passing on our musical legacies to future generations.

The Music Gallery’s 2018 History Series opens with “Creative Music on Campus Radio,” on February 15, followed by “Creative Music Journalism,” on April 6.

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

Harley CardThe TD Toronto Jazz Festival has announced the four special projects supported by its 2018 Discovery Series this spring – and with them, an indication of how the festival’s vision for jazz in Toronto is continuing to evolve.

This year’s Discovery Series features guitarist Harley Card’s new Sunset Ensemble octet, on March 1 at Lula Lounge; the Heavyweights Brass Band’s CD release for This City, March 29 at Lula Lounge; Adrean Farrugia and Joel Fram’s CD release for BLUED DHARMA, April 27 at Gallery 345; and “The Smith Sessions Presents: Bitches Brew,” an event featuring female-led groups performing original music, April 28 at the Canadian Music Centre (CMC).

Started in 2011, the series is a part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s outreach to local performers creating original work, and to year-round, multi-venue jazz programming in the city. Each year, an assembled Toronto Jazz Fest jury selects four projects to receive support and funding from the festival. Over the last 8 years, the series has accumulated an alumni list that serves as a veritable who’s who of local jazz innovators – and that has helped transform the festival from an annual affair into a year-round showcase of local music-making.

The announcement of the 2018 projects was one of Josh Grossman’s first, since transitioning from part-time to full-time artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz last month. So far, he’s excited about the results. “We always get projects that fit nicely within the festival mandate,” he says. “It’s a nice cross section of projects each year; it never feels like a stretch to find projects that really work and make sense.”

This year in particular brings a wide range of projects to the local jazz community: two CD releases; a collaborative project focusing on women leaders in the arts; and in the case of the Sunset Ensemble, which takes Harley Card and David French’s quintet and expands it into a new octet, a new venture by an already-established local bandleader. “Harley is a great example of a musician who has established himself clearly on the local scene, but who is striking out and taking a bit of an artistic risk by writing music for an ensemble a bit outside of his comfort zone,” says Grossman. “That’s exactly the type of thing we’re hoping to support.”

Grossman notes that the other three projects similarly represent different facets of the festival’s mandate: Heavyweights, for the ensemble’s emphasis on community outreach, Farrugia and Fram for their partnership between local and international musicians, and Bitches Brew for bringing together very different artists in a meaningful way. “The Bitches Brew sessions is such a unique event; it really resonated with the panel,” he explains. “The four musicians brought together there – Aline Homzy, Anh Phung, Emma Smith and Magdelys Savigne – really do come from four very different traditions. It will be neat to see how that all comes together.”

The festival this year also seems to showcase a wide range of venues (from the CMC to Lula Lounge), as well as artists of many different ages and career paths – a move that for Grossman was purposeful.

“I think part of it is the recognition that artists at any stage of their careers are able to take on special projects,” he says. “That’s what makes the best artists the best artists: they’re always trying new things. So there’s no [age] criteria for applying, other than that we’re looking to support local musicians who are making a significant contribution to the local jazz community.”

Moving forward as full-time artistic director, Grossman already has ideas about where the Discovery Series will head, and how it will grow alongside the main festival each year.

“A couple of years ago, a panelist said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if these were projects that were not only set apart in jazz, but also [connected with] broader communities in the city,’” he says. “There’s no way to mandate something like that – what would that thing be? – but [reaching beyond jazz into other communities] is a part of the application form now, and I’m excited to see how people interpret that, moving forward.”

More actively, Grossman plans on building stronger ties between the featured projects and the festival itself.

“Right now, there’s no direct relationship between support in this series and performing at the jazz festival,” he says. “I don’t know what [that would look like], but I want to explore that a little bit more. I want to create stronger relationships.”

It’s safe to say that the series will continue to develop in the future – and that in the meantime, with these four projects lined up for the spring, it’s off to a good start.

The 2018 TD Discovery Series opens on March 1, with a presentation of Harley Card’s Sunset Ensemble at Lula Lounge, Toronto.

Tim Baker, known for his work with Newfoundland band, Hey Rosetta!, is a headliner at this year’s Piano Fest.The Burdock is one of those special Toronto places that feels like it can be anything you want it to be. It’s a bar and restaurant, it’s a brewery – and notably, it’s a music venue. In a room separate from the bar area in the northwest corner of the Bloor Street space, booking manager Charlotte Cornfield and the Burdock team have created an intimate atmosphere that works surprisingly well for a vast array of music: quiet enough for a wind quintet, cosy enough for a folk set, but still spacious enough for something bigger, more adventurous, or experimental. And, for one week every year, they have a piano.

According to Cornfield, at first the Burdock Piano Festival grew out of a kind of team problem-solving exercise. “The original Burdock team are all big music lovers and big piano fans,” she says. “We talked about having a piano in the space, but we wanted the space to be malleable and able to morph into a different kind of stage environment depending on the type of show that we do...and also, January ends up being a quieter gig month because it’s post-holidays and it’s cold. So we were like: what could we do to both embrace the piano and liven up January?

“We often just throw goofy ideas around, and it started as what seemed to be a goofy idea that formed into ‘actually, this is a great idea’,” she continues. “Why don’t we bring in a really nice piano for a week, and just program a week of piano shows, and get people excited about that?”

Charlotte Cornfield.Cornfield and the team came up with suggestions of artists; Robert Lowrey Pianos donated the baby grand. That was for January 2016; three years later, the Burdock Piano Fest is still gathering momentum.

This year’s festival is the biggest yet – 16 shows over 8 days – and the team is trying to expand their scope to match. “This year was the first year that I actually did a call for submissions, because I really wanted to reach out beyond our immediate community,” says Cornfield. “I wanted to reach out beyond the walls of what we already know. And it was great: we got a ton of eclectic submissions. There were a lot of people who I wasn’t familiar with before who reached out, and I’m super excited about the lineup.”

That lineup includes an impressive array of artists: headliner vocalist/pianists Tim Baker (of Hey Rosetta! fame) and Jeremy Dutcher, along with sets spanning classical, jazz, experimental and pop. In particular, Cornfield points out the January 29 shows – emerging baroque pop singer/songwriter/pianist Ryland Dinneen paired in a double bill with Kritty Uranowski, followed by a late-night solo set by singer-songwriter Emma Frank – and a jazz- and soul-influenced show featuring Joanna Majoko and Chelsea Bennett, on January 26.

As usual for the festival, double bills make up the bulk of the programming. For Cornfield – who, as a songwriter, pianist/guitarist and jazz drummer, is herself a musician with several different facets – it’s a part of her strategy to bridge the gap between genres and create new musical connections. “I started doing the double bill thing in the first year, just because I thought it would be interesting to bring people together who might not already know one another but whose music might line up in some way,” she says. “And then that was really cool because it brought in two different crowds to one show.

“It was really fun this year to be like, ‘oh, who would this artist work well with?’ and ‘oh, this is kind of left-field to put this classical guy with a cabaret singer, but I think it would work really well!’ Things like that,” Cornfield adds. “I like to mix it up; I’m a big fan of double bills that wouldn’t be the obvious choice, but that have things about each set that complement one another.”

More than anything, it’s about celebrating the piano in the Burdock space, and making it special.

“What I’ve been looking for are acts and ideas that are unique to having an opportunity to have a piano like that in an intimate space,” says Cornfield. “While we have a lot of different ideas [at the festival], what brings them together is that it’s a special occasion to do something cool with a piano in this space. So genre-wise this year, we’re definitely casting a wider net than we have in previous years. We definitely wanted the programming to be diverse – as diverse as possible.”

The Burdock Piano Fest runs from January 22 to 29.

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