Composer Aftab Darvishi, featured on the latest episode of Listening to Ladies. Credit: Tahmineh Monzavi.We’ve come a long way from when podcasts were just one of Apple’s side projects for the niche and the tech-savvy. Halfway through 2017, talk radio – in podcast form – is officially back in vogue with the North American mainstream. We are living, according to some experts, in a “podcast golden age” – and with the popularity and diversity of these on-demand radio shows ever on the rise, there’s no shortage of listening options, no matter where your interests lie.

If anything, it seems as though podcasts are especially well-suited to classical music. After all, it’s not that large of a leap to make from music to talk radio, especially when audiences are already used to investing 20 to 30 minutes of their listening time into a single sonata or concerto. And like any of the arts, classical music is full of experts and artists eager to weigh in on how the music works, and why it matters.

Here are six classical music podcasts that we’ve been listening to this summer.

1. Meet the Composer
Produced by WQXR’s Q2 Music, Meet the Composer is a force to be reckoned with in the world of contemporary music. Hosted by violist Nadia Sirota, the show features intimate, artistically probing interviews with some of the biggest names in modern music. With high quality audio samples of each composer's work, as well as a “From the Vaults" miniseries that resurrects archived interviews from the original “Meet the Composer” 1980s radio show that gave the podcast its name, Meet the Composer demystifies new music and reveals its secrets, with a passion that is catching.

LISTEN TO: Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Composing is Second Nature
This episode of Meet the Composer features the music of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, as she and Sirota talk about workflow, orchestral writing, and finding a sense of home.

2. NACOcast
NACOcast is one of several podcasts coming out of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Originally hosted by now-retired tubist Nicholas Atkinson, the show has recently been taken over by Sean Rice, who plays second clarinet in the NAC Orchestra.

While the show is heavily rooted in the programming that the NACO does in its concerts, there's plenty here that will interest even those outside of the Ottawa area. Episodes explore themes that tie together different classical masterworks, bring in musicians from the NACO to talk about the secrets behind orchestral playing (like on “The Oboe - Beyond the ‘A’”) and present interviews with guest artists about the nature of classical music today.

LISTEN TO: Sean Rice chats with Nadia Sirota before the Canadian premiere of Nico Muhly’s electrifying viola concertoNadia Sirota – incidentally, the host of Meet the Composer – comes to Ottawa to perform Nico Muhly’s viola concerto, and talks with Sean Rice about her friendship with Muhly and how performers today are reinventing classical music as we know it.

3. Listening to Ladies
Elisabeth Blair. Photo credit: Dan Diffendale.Listening to Ladies started out in 2015, as a response to the lack of gender equity in the classical music scene. Run almost entirely by composer and artist Elisabeth Blair (with website assistance from Krystee Wylder), it’s a small operation – and one that is doing relevant, high-quality work. “This area of the arts has missed out on much of what the 20th century had to offer vis-à-vis feminism and equity,” says Blair in a recent interview with I Care if You Listen’s Rebecca Lentjes. “The Victorianesque state of affairs in the classical music world stunned and appalled me when I discovered it...and frankly, it pissed me off.”

Each episode features a composer who is a woman, including interviews and musical samples of their work. The composers interviewed range from well-known names in contemporary music, to emerging and underrepresented artists whom, like us, you’ll probably never have heard of. Blair and her guests talk composer-to-composer about how they navigate the classical music industry, how they write music, and where their work has taken them.

LISTEN TO: Aftab Darvishi
In the latest episode of Listening to Ladies, Blair skypes with composer Aftab Darvishi about growing up in Iran, finding a second musical coming-of-age in the Netherlands, and having her work heard as ‘feminine.’

4. From the Top
NPR’s popular podcast From the Top, hosted by concert pianist Christopher O’Riley, features performances of classical music by kids and teens from across the United States. O’Riley and his team travel the country to interview and record young performers (with O’Riley serving as not only host but also itinerant piano accompanist).

The show features some incredible performances from young musicians, and O’Riley is an honest and earnest host, with a knack for picking out what makes each performer’s story relatable or unique. The future of classical performance is in very capable hands.

LISTEN TO: Honolulu, Hawaii / Show 331
A recent episode of From the Top found O’Riley and team in Honolulu, featuring performances by the Hawaii Youth Symphony Orchestra and a stunning Prokofiev interpretation by Yesong Sophie Lee, the 13-year-old junior winner of the 2016 Menuhin International Violin Competition.

5. Twenty Thousand Hertz
Twenty Thousand Hertz isn’t technically a classical music podcast, or even a music podcast at all – but if any radio show could honestly be described as Cageian, this would be it. Twenty Thousand Hertz is dedicated to finding out the stories behind sounds – both the strangest sounds in the world (like the mysterious phenomenon on the Canada-US border known locally as the ‘Windsor Hum’) and those so ubiquitous that we normally hardly notice them (like noise pollution). New and already promising, Twenty Thousand Hertz is addictive listening for anyone interested in audio, of any kind.

LISTEN TO: 20,000 dBs Under the Sea
Twenty Thousand Hertz brings in underwater acoustician Al Jones to talk about the ocean, which contains a ‘secret world’ of very loud sounds – some of the loudest and most unusual on the planet.

6. The SOUNDLAB
The SOUNDLAB, hosted by Edmonton-based composer Paul Steenhuisen, features interviews with composers, often with Toronto ties, as well as examples of their work. It’s clear from his interviews that Steenhuisen is a keen listener who does his research; his conversations with guest composers always seem to dig into the core of what their music tries to achieve. He often synchronizes his work with that of Toronto concert presenters, so for GTA listeners, the show also functions as a helpful pre-concert primer on music being performed in town.

LISTEN TO: Philippe Leroux
In this episode from 2015, Steenhuisen talks with Philippe Leroux, who was about to travel to Toronto from Montreal to collaborate with New Music Concerts on a show featuring his music. The two composers talk, often switching back and forth between English and French, about spectralism, aesthetics, and, interestingly, chickens.

We’ve refrained from *officially* recommending our own stuff here, but it’s worth briefly mentioning that The WholeNote also has a podcast – Conversations at The WholeNote – available on our website. Our own show is by no means fully formed: originally a YouTube channel of video interviews with local performers and composers, the episodes have recently been transferred to an audio-only format. They’re freeform interviews, uncut and largely unedited – but if you’ve ever had the feeling of hearing Sondra Radvanovsky, Jonathan Crow or Jan Lisiecki perform in Toronto and wanting to be a fly on the wall while they explain what makes them tick, here’s one way to do it.

All of the podcasts above can be streamed from the broadcasters’ websites, or via any podcast app on your device.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and music writer, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

A member of RAW in performance in Toronto.Their name kind of says it all.

Raging Asian Women – RAW – is a Taiko drumming collective of East and Southeast Asian women based in Toronto. Founded in 1998 and largely self-taught, RAW is part of a modern, North American reclamation of Japanese Taiko – where a big part of that reclamation has to do with countering stereotypes of who Asian women can be. RAW is a music ensemble, but they’re also an activist group, and a feminist collective – and this month in Toronto, they’re also organizing the second edition of the Toronto Taiko Festival, a three-day-long exploration of Taiko as an art form, educational tool, and vehicle for social justice.

“RAW really started with a simple idea of shattering the stereotype of the Asian woman as being meek and quiet and subservient,“ says RAW member Young Park, who serves as the festival director. “RAW traces its lineage through the North American Taiko movement’s unique history, one that is integrally linked to the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s when Asian Americans and Canadians mobilized en masse around issues of racial equality, social justice, and political empowerment. RAW, as a group, advances this movement by being the intentional embodiment of empowered Asian women on stage together. This is just a fancy way of saying that by playing big drums in a powerful way as Asian females, we are empowering others to find pride and strength in who they are.”

Park, who joined the ensemble ten years ago, came to Taiko through classical music and dance. “My background is in classical viola, and I was also the artistic director of my own dance company in Cleveland for 12 years,” she says. “Joining a Taiko drumming group (with both drum playing and movement) was a natural fit for me, as well as having the experience to lead and organize large projects like the festival.”

RAW organized the first edition of the Toronto Taiko Festival back in 2012, so this second edition, running from August 25 to 27 of this year, has been a long time coming. As part of the planning process, Park travelled to the 2015 North American Taiko Festival in Las Vegas, and also participated in a residency on Sado Island, Japan, where she lived with apprentices and studied with artists from the renowned Japanese Taiko ensemble, Kodo.

It’s clear that RAW’s mandate has always centred around community building and empowerment – much of which involves working with other marginalized artists within their local Asian Canadian, feminist and queer communities – and the festival reflects this focus. Guest artists who Park is bringing to this year’s festival include Mark H.Rooney, a Scottish-Japanese performer who was a leader in the creation of collegiate Taiko programs on the east coast of the United States; PJ Hirabayashi, a second-generation Japanese American who was a part of the Asian American movement in the 1970s, and who will be hosting a public forum on her activist initiative TaikoPeace; and LA-based Taiko artist and educator Joe Small.

“And of course, RAW could not organize a festival without an Asian queer woman representing!” adds Park. “That [will be] Kristy Oshiro, who is one of the fiercest Taiko players in North America.”

The artists, alongside local Taiko groups, will present workshops and classes throughout the three days, culminating in “Bang On!”, a final concert on the evening of Saturday, August 26.

“When I met with many of the Taiko groups in the region, almost a year ago, many of the practitioners wanted a space and time to be able to connect with each other, to share ideas, exchange skills,” explains Park. “By organizing the Toronto Taiko Festival, especially the workshop component, regional Taiko players have a chance to meet each other, learn from fabulous international artists, and learn new Taiko skills.”

And the final concert of the festival, she adds, will see local groups’ work with one another truly come to fruition. “The concert is an opportunity for the regional taiko groups to share the stage together – in true community fashion.”

The second edition of the Toronto Taiko Festival, organized by Raging Asian Women (RAW), runs from August 25 to 27, 2017, in Toronto. Details and ticket information can be found at www.torontotaikofestival.org.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and music writer, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

Update, Thurs Aug 17, 2017: A previous version of this article stated that Park lived and studied with Kodo; in fact, she lived with Kodo apprentices and studied with Kodo members.: 

Sean Catheroy (left) and Teresa Tucci, in SOLT’s 2016 production of the opera A Tale of Two Cities.Summertime in Ontario is notorious for being the operatic off-season—but these days that’s far from the truth. While it may be true that the region’s largest opera houses more-or-less adhere to a conventional September-to-May season, an increasing number of local opera companies are making adventurous summertime programming a part of what they do. And in the last few years, those companies have really come into their own.

Summer Opera Lyric Theatre is one example. While it’s been around as a summer opera workshop for emerging artists since the 1980s, it has increasingly been turning its focus towards creating productions that feel fresh and relevant for local audiences. This season, SOLT’s roster of emerging opera singers will present three productions, between July 29 and August 6: Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and a Canadian double-bill—John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus, paired with Michael Rose’s new one-act opera, Northern Lights Dream.

Part of what makes this year special is that all four operas—including the Bizet and the Mozart—will be sung in English. Also of note is Rose’s Northern Lights Dream, which, in addition to drawing inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will explore queer themes.

“The Rose work—a one act piece—is a world premiere, [and] deals with the coming out of a mature gay man and the effect it has on his wife,” says Henry Ingram, who is on faculty at SOLT. He adds that coming-out stories that examine the experience of spouses are rarely told in the arts, especially in opera—but that operas that centre queer narratives have recently been gaining visibility. “Brokeback Mountain, Les Feluettes, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met and Rufus Wainwright’s commission for the COC on the Roman Emperor Hadrian are several examples that come immediately to mind,” he says. It all reflects how SOLT plans to use the summer—a time when it can be tempting for arts presenters to retreat to conservative, ‘back-to-basics’ programming—to experiment, and to create programming that reflects the language, concerns and interests of contemporary local audiences.

Of course, when it comes to the summertime reinvention of contemporary opera, one indie opera company is king. After a summer in eastern Canada last year to premiere the Alexander Graham Bell opera The Bells of Baddeck, Bicycle Opera is back, with one of its biggest projects to date. Starting July 15, the company will embark on a three-week bicycle tour with the premiere of Sweat, an a cappella, one-act opera by composer Juliet Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton—an ambitious departure from the company’s usual practice of touring collections of very short single-scene operas and opera excerpts. Featuring four soloists (Stephanie Tritchew, Catherine Daniel, Larissa Koniuk and Keith Lam) as well as a five-member chorus, Sweat explores the ethical issues behind the global garment industry. The company’s tour begins in Hamilton and includes stops throughout southern Ontario, closing in Toronto from August 3 to 6.

With both these productions, it seems as though this is the year that the companies have hit their stride—creating ambitious, large-scale works that feel relevant and refreshing, in the way that all summer music should be.

For a full overview of local opera this summer, see Christopher Hoile’s June opera column, which serves as a helpful reference for productions taking place across the region from now until the fall.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and music writer, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

Toronto, meet TONE.

Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who opens the first concert of TONE. Credit: Jonathan Sielaff.A new undertaking by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, TONE is a newcomer to the local summer festival scene this month. But unlike other festivals this summer, this one focuses exclusively on experimental music—programming a breadth of artists known for their adventurous approach rather than zeroing in on specific genres or styles. And unlike most other first-time projects, TONE—which features no less than eight concerts between June 14 and 29—has a scope that echoes that fearlessness.

In a recent interview with NOW, organizer Tad Michalak talks about how TONE was conceived as a way of filling a void, in a city that often omits experimental music from its summer festival offerings. “Year after year, it got disheartening to see a scene we worked year-round to build and invigorate get ignored by many major festivals,” he explains to NOW’s Carla Gillis. “TONE came about essentially out of necessity.”

If their goal was to do something about the dearth of summertime avant-garde music in Toronto, then TONE is a promising start. The festival features several sets of improvised music from both local and international artists, and aligns itself with some of the most active local venues for experimental music in the city. Acclaimed Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani opens the festival tonight (Wednesday, June 14) at the Tranzac, with other concerts taking place there in the following weeks, as well as at the Burdock, Array Space, the Jam Factory, and Ratio—which, having just announced its closure as a music venue, will present a TONE show on Saturday, June 24 as its last-ever concert.

Apart from a mandate for supporting experimental music, the TONE team—each of whom has a wealth of experience running music collectives and curating experimental music of one kind or another during the regular Toronto concert season—has been intentionally indiscriminate about genre. It means, ultimately, that among fans of the avant-garde, there really is something for everybody. Beyond opening night and the Ratio show, other standouts in the festival lineup include a three-set show co-presented with the Music Gallery on Thursday, June 15, featuring groups DKV, Icepick, and Invisible Out; an appearance by Berlin-based pianist Achim Kaufmann’s trio Grünen at Array on Monday, June 19 (in a double-bill with local group The Cluttertones); and a co-presentation with Electric Eclectics on Wednesday, June 21 at the Jam Factory, which opens with a performance by Ethiopian jazz accordion virtuoso Hailu Mergia.

Tickets range between $10 and $22 per show, with a 4-show pass available for $45 and a full festival pass available for $85—all of which are available at the door or in advance at Circus Books & Music, Rotate This, and Soundscapes.

Congrats to TONE for being bold, for making a plan for re-invigorating the summer experimental music scene, and for making it happen.

TONE, curated by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, runs from June 14 to 29 in multiple locations throughout Toronto. For details, visit www.tonetoronto.tumblr.com.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

Erin Stone, from the cast of Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Credit: Dahlia Katz Photography.Opera is no stranger to onstage ridiculousness—but it isn’t always as slyly self-aware as this.

Following its inaugural show of the same name in July 2015, Loose TEA Music Theatre is back with a new installment of opera improv series Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Inspired by the popular improv comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, Loose TEA’s production strings together improv comedy games into an opera of sorts, where professionals from the local opera community are forced to put their vocal and theatrical talents to comedic, and unexpected, use.

The show, which is organized by Loose TEA’s artistic director Alaina Viau and coached by Carly Heffernen of Second City, takes place on Friday, June 16, at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto. The cast itself is a promising cross-section of local opera singers, including Jeff Boyd, Amanda Cogan, Adanya Dunn, Gillian Grossman, Rachel Krehm, Jonathan MacArthur, Erin Stone and Lindsay Sutherland-Boal. Schmopera’s Greg Finney will host and Natasha Fransblow will accompany at the piano.

Loose TEA isn’t the only group experimenting with musical manifestations of improv comedy, either. Also in town this month from London’s West End is Showstopper!, an improvised musical comedy running at the Panasonic Theatre until June 25. The show features a troupe of musical comedians billed as ‘The Showstoppers’, who, similar to Whose Line, use audience suggestions to create an on-the-spot performance of musical theatre. While the show has toured extensively in the UK, this Mirvish-hosted run is the group’s North American debut.

Whether these shows represent a growing trend or simply coincidental offshoots into music theatre’s less serious side remains to be seen. And though it’s of course impossible to say exactly what these shows will offer, the mix of operatic and musical tropes with improv comedy is an interesting one, which pokes fun at the melodrama of music theatre while offering something more casual, spontaneous and light-spirited than your average Verdi or Wagner. A bit of a collision of worlds, perhaps, but one that makes sense—and one worth watching.

Loose TEA Music Theatre’s Whose Opera is it Anyway?! takes place at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto on Friday, June 16 at 9:30pm, and is a 19+ show. Tickets are $12; for details visit http://baddogtheatre.com/whose-opera-is-it-anyway. Showstopper! runs until June 25 at the Panasonic Theatre; more info at https://www.mirvish.com/shows/showstopper.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

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