strtfrdbannerThe Stratford Lectures: Ten Perspectives about MusicThe Stratford Lectures: Ten Perspectives about Music
Robert Harris
Stratford Summer Music
178 pages

Taking 30 seconds to skim the table of contents of this slim volume is a quick way of getting a glimpse into the range of musical topics to which Robert Harris has turned his delighted attention over the years, as a broadcaster and as a writer.

From the first chapter (Elvis Presley and the invention of rock and roll) to the tenth (Our Beloved CBC: The Future Meets the Past), Harris guides us on a meandering journey through topics as various as the mind of “conservative creator” R. Murray Schafer, the genesis of We Shall Overcome, the Chopin everybody knows and nobody knows, why he detests The Sound of Music, “the truth” of The Magic Flute, and, probably my personal favourite essay among them, a chapter titled “The Goldberg Variations: Pinnacle or Exercise?”

The genesis of the book is interesting in terms of what begat what: it is drawn from a series of 30 musically illustrated lectures Harris has given, starting in 2013, at Stratford Summer Music at the invitation of John Miller, SSM’s founding artistic producer. And before that it had its roots in a radio series titled “Twenty Pieces of Music that Changed the World,” presented as part of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition.

Each chapter is followed by a playlist of the music that was used to illustrate the lecture as presented to a live audience at Stratford. (Almost all of them findable on the internet, so don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of listening along!)

The chapters as presented here are not transcriptions, though. Each shows signs of reworking in consideration of the particular medium in which the the lectures are being delivered here, and occasionally with cannily appropriate little updates to the present day. But that being said, it is the writer’s voice that rings through, and true, in all these chapters. Harris has the ability to  hook the listener early on, often with a bit of a story, followed by the key question that the story evokes: “Are there really people out there who don’t love Chopin?” and then follow it, in short order, with a compelling, and usually beautifully crafted, thesis statement: “The great impediment to our taking Chopin as seriously as he deserves is his immense accessibility, his superhuman relatability and musical eloquence.”

And the journey is on, teased out, sometimes tantalizingly tangential but always circling back to its primary point of departure once the case has been made. What, almost without exception, makes the endings of these pieces so satisfying is that one is left, not as is so often the case in  critical writing, with a sense that the writer knows what he is talking about, but with a visceral response to how much he cares about it.

One of the chapters (I won’t say which one) ends with this: “We have lived a musical life in the intervening time, travelled to many places, but the result is not drama, or triumph, but peace.”

It fits.

Copies of The Stratford Lectures are for sale ($24.95 + 5% GST = $26.20) at L’Atelier Grigorian, (70 Yorkville Avenue, Toronto), and by mail directly from Stratford Summer Music, with postage on a case-by-case cost basis, through info@stratfordsummermusic.ca.

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

fringe bannerThe summer in Toronto is jam-packed full of musicals. Between the Toronto Fringe Festival (running until July 16) and the Summerworks Performance Festival (August 9-19), Toronto has become a hotbed of musical theatre creation – and the local summer festival circuit is becoming even more of a recognised launching pad for local musical projects.

This summer at Fringe, there is a particularly wide range on offer – so many musicals, in fact, that the festival has given them their own section in the official program that lists all shows by genre this year. And at the Summerworks Festival in August, there are fewer productions to choose from (only 32 in total, compared to the 150+ at the Fringe), but still a variety of experimental approaches and genres, split equally this year between finished works and works-in-progress.

Here are 10 music theatre shows that caught my eye at Fringe and Summerworks this year.

TORONTO FRINGE FESTIVAL (until July 16; details at www.fringetoronto.com)

1. The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act One)

Hannah Levinson as Polly Peel. Photo credit: Sam Gaetz.The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act One), with a book by Julie Tepperman and music and lyrics by Kevin Wong, is top of the list, as it stars young Hannah Levinson (who won a Dora award earlier this year for her incredible performance as “small Alison” in Fun Home). Julie Tepperman has a growing reputation as a creator of fun contemporary lyrics from her work at Tapestry New Opera, and Kevin Wong is an intriguing emerging composer who is also the associate artistic director at the Musical Stage Company. Originally inspired by acclaimed Canadian painter Paul Peel’s The Young Biologist, the musical explores a family grappling with death through the eyes and imagination of a biology-obsessed 11-year-old girl.

2. Andy Warhol Musical: ln Rehearsal

A new musical-in-progress, Andy Warhol Musical: In Rehearsal has a book by Vinetta Strombergs that explores Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory and the people around him who helped define an era. The music and songs are taken from Robert Swerdlow’s 1970s musical Justine and updated to fit the show by Peter Nunn (of the group Honeymoon Suite). Strombergs, known for her 2013 Fringe Hit Musical of Musicals the Musical and the recent excellent pop-up immersive production of the Chekhov inspired Stupid F**king Bird, also directs.

3. Josephine, a Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play

Tymisha Harris in 'Josephine.'Performed by Tymisha Harris, Josephine has been travelling the North American fringe circuit  for the past two years to rave reviews and arrives in Toronto at last. Combining cabaret, theatre and dance, the musical  tells the story of the iconic Josephine Baker, darling of Paris in the 1920s, and considered the first African-American international superstar. Not recommended for children because of adult content.

4. One Small Step

Who could resist a musical about the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, operate Canadarm, and command the International Space Station? Not me. Particularly as this is the latest creation by Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, the Dora-nominated duo who  previously brought to the Toronto Fringe the hits Summerland, Blood Ties, The Fence and True North Mixtape. One Small Step is a teenage backstage musical as well: “When their annual musical is cancelled, a group of public school drama students set out to put up a show of their own – but in order to get funding, they have to make it about something Canadian.” Featuring a cast of young professionals and the high-school-age Wexford Gleeks, this should be a lot of fun.

5. #KanderAndEbb

#KanderAndEbb is Ryan G. Hind’s personal one-man journey through the lesser-known parts of the Kander and Ebb songbook, with true life encounters with stars such as Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera chronicled along the way. Musical direction by Tara Litvac.

6. Judas Star Supersong

Judas Star Supersong is a one-woman journey through the musical we know more traditionally as Jesus Christ Superstar. Dora award-winner Paula Wolfson plays 18 characters in 50 minutes, with musical direction by Giustin MacLean.

SUMMERWORKS PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL (August 9-19; details at www.summerworks.ca)

7. CAFÉ SARAJEVO episode 1

A podcast/work-in-progress from internationally acclaimed performance makers Bluemouth Inc., CAFÉ SARAJEVO episode 1 uses dance, text, music and 360° video to create an immersive experience inspired by the 1971 televised debate between French theorist Michel Foucault and American linguist Noam Chomsky.

8. fantasylover

fantasyloverfantasylover by Rock Bottom Movement, choreographed by Alyssa Marin to music by Sydney Herauf, promises “a feverish ride on the dream cloud of modern romance that invokes icons of pop music, Canadian Olympics, obscure Shakespeare, and the millennial experience.”

9. YES

YES is an irreverent romp through the turbulent history of modern dance from performer/creator Linnea Swan, integrating theatre, dance and bouffon to address Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 No Manifesto and its legacy on the current state of contemporary performance.

10. ZAYO/THIRD WORLD

FLY LADY DI (in THIRD WORLD).Finally, two shorter works, each exploring identity through music and dance, have been paired up to make an intriguing double bill. ZAYO, created, directed and choreographed by Elsie Mensah for a group of dancers, explores the tests a man, Ouhna, undergoes as he strives to achieve his destiny. THIRD WORLD, created and performed by Diana Reyes – aka FLY LADY DI – to a score by Alexander Junior mixes Voguing, Waacking, Hip-Hop, B-Girling, and House dance with Filipino folk dance and projections to explore isolation, loneliness and identity.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

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/.

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