AllisonAu bannerAllison AuAllison Au – saxophonist, composer and bandleader – has been consistently busy since she graduated from Humber College in 2008.  Her debut album, The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey, was nominated for a JUNO in 2013; her second album, Forest Grove, won the JUNO in the Jazz Album of The Year: Group category in 2016.

Au is preparing both to go on a cross-Canada tour (starting in Calgary on June 14 and ending in Montreal on July 5) and to record a new album of original music. I had the opportunity to sit down and speak to her recently about the new tour and the new album, as well as her compositional process, the history of her relationship to the saxophone, and a growing conversation about gender and privilege in the local jazz community.

The WholeNote: So tell me more about the music you’re writing for this new album.

Allison Au: It’s in the same vein as what we’ve done before, but I’m always trying to experiment more with keyboards. I kind of leave that up to Todd [Pentney, the pianist in Allison’s quartet], but I’ve been talking to him as I’m writing some new stuff, saying “this is the vibe, I’m going for this, here are some of the sounds you could work with.”

Maybe the bigger change is that I’ve started studying piano with Frank Falco. He’s kind of the shit. I have limited piano skills… and he’s great, because he really treats you just like a beginner, acknowledging that you have a musical background, of course: I understand the harmony and the theory, but technically I’m very slow to execute. So it’s really opened up my perspective. I was feeling, for a little bit last year, that I’d hit a wall with my writing. And because I use the piano so much for writing, I just don’t have the technique to figure out certain things.

WN: So what has that allowed you to do that you wouldn’t have been able to do before, in terms of writing and composing?

AA: From a technical perspective, [Falco] has literally given me some technique stuff to check out, so I feel [that I have] more command over the instrument. But I think, more importantly, every lesson has been an incredible theory lesson. He’s talked about the sounds of different chords, and ways to voice them that I never would have thought of. He’s a very open guy, and he talks in really simple terms, without being condescending.

He’s assuming that you don’t know, at the beginning of the lesson, where it’s going… and he takes you on a little journey. It’s really fun, and it’s awakened a sense of childlike exploration, which on a new instrument is awesome. Having played my instrument [the saxophone] there’s all of this stuff – this intellectual and psychological process happening in your brain – but with an instrument that’s relatively new to you, you feel as though you can get in touch with [a different] side of things, and things click in a different way.

WN: Has anything changed – or not – in your experience being a bandleader, being a woman, being a person of colour? People seem to be talking about this more openly now, in a way that they haven’t really before. I know that there’s been a conversation that’s been happening in the jazz community in Toronto.

AA: Well, you mentioned the New York Times article, which I read when it came out a few weeks ago. I am, of course, totally supportive of everything that’s happening, and I think that there are a lot of conversations that are overdue, but to speak to my own experience, I’ve been really lucky in my working environment and my school experience, in that I feel that I didn’t really experience anything really negative in that way. But I think that any woman in any situation does have to behave differently than men do; you can’t be too chummy with your male teachers, and there’s a lot of unspoken etiquette. And I did kind of lament that some of the male students could establish a friendly rapport with the male teachers, whereas with a lot of the women, [that close mentor/student dynamic] just wasn’t an option. That said, I absolutely support everything that’s been happening: certain things have now come to the spotlight and all of these voices are being heard, because people feel more comfortable with sharing.

WN: It’s interesting, because I think that some high school and post-secondary music institutions – from festivals such as MusicFest to undergraduate jazz programs – can enable women, and certain people of colour, to have access to a kind of training that they may not have had 50 years ago, when [jazz] was less institutionalized and more of an on-the-road/club culture. On the one hand, it opens it up to a lot of people – but at the same time, the very nature of institutional hierarchy means that there are mostly men who are represented in positions of power.

AA: Totally – and that representation matters. I know that for me, one of the big reasons I was initially attracted to playing the saxophone is because I saw a woman playing one.

WN: Who was it?

AA: Well, I went to an arts school from grades four to eight, and my band teacher was a woman who played the saxophone, and it was the biggest thing for me at the time. And, of course, Lisa Simpson [laughs]. Maybe even subliminally, that was a cool thing for me. I think at that age, you just see things and don’t even know why you like it, but you just think it’s cool. It’s as simple as that.

And the longer I do this, the nicer it is to see more and more women – who are both younger than me, and also older, who are inspirations to me – doing this.

It was really nice to read that Times article, because I agree with and support everything they’re saying, and I think it’s great that we’re having this conversation now. I know that there’s still a lot of work to be done, and there are conversations happening in every workplace, and it’s really important that we have it in music too, regardless of genre. In jazz there are still so few women, but more are coming every year – which is great.

Allison Au’s upcoming tour of Canadian jazz festivals runs until July 5, and includes stops in Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Winnipeg, Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal. For details, visit www.allisonau.com.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Recipients of the 2018 Toronto Arts Foundation Awards. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Arts Foundation.We are proud and happy to say that yesterday (May 16, 2018) The WholeNote was among the award winners at the annual Toronto Arts Foundation Mayor’s Luncheon at the King Edward Hotel.

The WholeNote was awarded the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition, in support of work within the local music community. Other TAF Award winners include RISE Edutainment (Arts for Youth Award), Ruth Howard of Jumblies Theatre (Celebration of Cultural Life Award), Jivesh Parasram (Emerging Artist Award), and Active Green + Ross and RBC (Toronto Arts and Business Award).

In accepting the RTH award on behalf of The WholeNote, publisher David Perlman spoke to the block by block city-building vision shared by TAF and The WholeNote, as follows:

“I want to acknowledge Allan Pulker, co-founder of TheWholeNote (or Pulse as it was originally known) 23 years ago. His unshakeable belief in the richness and variety of Toronto’s grass-roots music scene is the reason The  WholeNote exists. I also want to thank Sharna Searle who nominated us for this award. It took her three years to persuade us, mind you. We are more comfortable telling stories than being in them.

I can’t name everyone else -- our eight-member core team; 30 to 40 writers  every issue; a five-member listings team who come up with 400-500 live performance listings each month; the 20-25-person distribution team regularly carrying 30,000 free copies per issue to 800+ locations where a deeply loyal readership snatches them up.  

To the finalists and other artists in this room, flag-bearers for countless others for whom the arts are necessary to feel fully alive, thank you for being passionate contributors to all our city’s villages -- street by street , block by block. Thank you for giving us something to write about. And to the Toronto Arts Council and the TAF, the knowledge that you share our belief in a grass-roots music city makes this award very special.

Make no mistake, though: the grass-roots “music city” is at risk. Housing/land cost is displacing artists, along with the rest of the working poor, from our overheated downtown; small-scale live performance venues are disappearing one by one. Outside the downtown, the nurturing  of block-by-block cultural life across our metropolis is a mighty challenge -- painfully slow because it is a process of planting not paving.

It’s astonishing, thinking back, that the breakthrough technology that helped launch this magazine was … the fax machine! Now we must all adjust, almost daily, to the ongoing challenge of dizzying change with all its dangers and opportunities. What a story it promises to be.”

Violinist Edwin Huizinga (left) and violist Keith Hamm.Sometimes, to really capture an accurate snapshot of a city’s music-making, you need to look at what its professional musicians do on their days off.

Take Toronto violinist Edwin Huizinga, for example. Though perhaps most visible for his violin work for Tafelmusik baroque orchestra and Toronto folk band The Wooden Sky, Huizinga is a leader in what he calls Toronto’s “indie chamber music scene.” In other words, like many of the city’s professional music-makers, when Huizinga isn’t performing for other organizations, he self-presents his own concerts – smaller, community-grounded shows, the likes of which are vital to Toronto’s cultural life.

Huizinga, along with violist Keith Hamm (principal violist of the Canadian Opera Company orchestra), is co-artistic director of Stereo Live – a chamber music series based out of Toronto’s historic Campbell House that seeks to provide an alternative approach to rock, bluegrass, and classical chamber music, in an intimate and welcoming setting. Now in its fourth season, Stereo Live has earned a reputation for taking a fresh and innovative look at the programming of local chamber music.

On Monday, May 21, Huizinga and Hamm will present their final Stereo Live show of the 2017/18 season. Featuring violinist Mark Fewer and drinks from Grape Witches, the concert will pair classical music for strings with a selection of natural wines.

In a phone conversation this week, Huizinga talks about how he, Hamm and Grape Witches (wine importer Nicole Campbell and sommelier Krysta Oben) found resonances between indie chamber music and indie wine.

“Nicole and Krysta are friends of mine, and have been for some time,” he says. “A couple of years ago, they reached out to me to be a ‘classical DJ’ for one of their wine evenings, and we started talking about how music – really amazing-calibre classical music – could be paired with really high-quality wines.

“[For this Stereo Live concert,] I sent the Grape Witches the program, and I gave them specific links of recordings that I loved – and we had a lot of conversations about how the music felt to them, and how they reacted to it,” Huizinga explains. “We also talked a bit about the composers’ history and where they grew up, and what was happening at the time culturally. It was a really interesting way to discuss that whole world with another kind of artist. And since they focus on natural wine, there are so many stories that they have about the old ways of producing wine – just like the stories we have in classical music.”

The May 21 concert program features Mark Fewer in solo violin works by Ysaye, Schulhoff, and John Novacek/Atar Arad, as well as a performance by Fewer, Huizinga and Hamm of the Kodaly Serenade for two violins and viola.

“I can’t believe that Mark Fewer is going to headline the event,” says Huizinga. “He’s one of my old teachers, and we have a long history of working together – and now, we work together a lot professionally, which is really nice. And it’s kind of a celebration to have him here, because he doesn’t perform solo very often in Toronto.”

The concert will also feature two students from the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School, in a performance of the second movement of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello – a part of Huizinga’s own initiative to support the city’s emerging young performers.

“It’s kind of a full circle story,” says Huizinga. “I went to YAPA, when it was called that  – the Royal Conservatory’s Young Artists Performance Academy – and that’s where I studied with Mark Fewer for five years. Which definitely changed my life, and is probably the only reason I’m still playing violin – and why I’m pursuing jazz and folk music and improvising, and all of that stuff, because he was a person and a teacher who really explored those kinds of things as well, and I’ve always really looked up to him for that. And so my goal for Stereo Live is to always have a young artist opening each show.

“There are so many hurdles with classical music – and one of them is that young artists never perform,” he adds. “As a student, I performed maybe three times a year. And if you actually want to have a career in music – right now, I’m performing 160 concerts a year, or something like that. So now these kids are going to show up, and their parents are going to come too, possibly – and their parents might be inspired to help their kids continue to do what they want to do. And I haven’t met this particular violin student yet, but if he’s interested in continuing his studies in violin and looking for [direction or connections], a 5-minute conversation with Mark Fewer could change his life.”

Ultimately, for Huizinga, it all comes down to cultivating a lively “small-scale” classical music scene – one that is innovating and inviting, and that inspires audiences and performers to engage with chamber music in new ways. And in his mind, continuing to devote time and effort to the “indie” side of classical music is the way to do it.

“I want these events to grow and continue in Toronto,” he says. “I want these little pockets of organic, indie, community, whatever you want to call it, to grow – and to stay alive.”

“Stereo Live presents: Mark Fewer” takes place May 21, 8pm at Campbell House, Toronto. More information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/2046580315382339/.

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.

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