Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins at a previous Tafelmusik concert. Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby.Finding a suitable environment for J.S. Bach’s B-Minor Mass is no small challenge. Although ideally suited for the concert hall due to its duration, complexity and the personnel required in performance, it feels slightly unnatural to hear this monumental essay on the Latin rite displayed in such sterile conditions, far removed from its native liturgical context.

Perhaps this ‘problem’ is not a problem at all, merely the cognitive dissonance produced by our universal understanding of Bach as a devoutly religious person and his music as an expression of those religious beliefs. As a recent example, a March 30 article by Michael Marissen in The New York Times was titled “Bach Was Far More Religious Than You Might Think” and considers Bach to be “a religious conservative at odds with the progressivist currents of his day, and ours,” supporting this spiritual biography with Bach’s own marginal comments from his three-volume Calov Study Bible.

According to Bach himself, “the aim or final goal of all music shall be nothing but the honour of God and the recreation of the Soul.” However, the B-Minor Mass was not performed in its entirety until 1859, more than a century after Bach’s death, and has been a concerted work ever since. How, then, do we bridge this gap between Bach’s loftily sacred aspirations for the B Minor Mass and the inherently worldly atmosphere of the concert hall?

At its recent April 6 concert, Tafelmusik’s approach to the B Minor Mass was one of detail – and the expression achieved through that detail was little less than divine. With Ivars Taurins at the helm, every note had direction and every phrase had shape, and these microscopic musical elements translated into a macroscopic whole which realized Bach’s detailed score in an unparalleled way. From the first notes of the Kyrie to the final Dona nobis pacem, nothing seemed out of place or beyond the performers’ control, so that those in attendance were able to listen beyond the minutiae and hear the work in its entirety, like a painting in which each brushstroke combines with others to create a larger cumulative work.

Taurins’ use of the soloists in the opening movement to create a terraced dynamic effect was very successful, as was the decision to have the solo quintet sing the Et incarnatus est. These changes in timbre and texture not only provided sonic variety but also allowed us to hear these fine singers more frequently, each of whom were superb individually and in the ensemble.

As in every Tafelmusik performance, tuning and temperament were exact and lent an additional degree of fidelity to the performance. Nothing is more luminous than chords played in pure intonation and we were treated to countless numbers of these throughout the evening, whether in the densely chromatic minor-key Crucifixus and Confiteor movements or the joyously major-key Sanctus and Osanna. The choir’s use of German Latin added extra potency to the text, with elements of Classical Latin replaced by the slightly more percussive and pointed German, lending the interpretation a strong rhythmic vitality.

As the final chord of the Dona nobis pacem faded away, the outburst of applause seemed inadequate and improper, a worldly attempt at expressing appreciation for the incomparable profundity and beauty of the previous hours. Although a standing ovation was indeed deserved, it took this audience member more than a few minutes to regain his composure, and I remember neither leaving Jeanne Lamon Hall nor the return trip home – I was captivated and moved in a way that no other concert has managed to do in a very long time.

If there really are angels singing perpetually in the afterlife, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them singing the B-Minor Mass over and over again. It is a tremendous work of art – complex yet inspiring, superficially appealing yet deeply spiritual – and we should consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have such magnificent interpreters in our midst.

Tafelmusik presented Bach's B-Minor Mass (conducted by Ivars Taurins, with soloists Dorothee Mields, Laura Pudwell, Charles Daniels and Tyler Duncan) April 5-8 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul's Centre (and April 10 at George Weston Recital Hall), Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Gurrumul BannerThere are at least a dozen new films with a significant musical component in this year’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, which runs at various Toronto venues from April 26 to May 6 (hotdocs.ca). Many promising titles are tucked away among the 246 in the 2018 lineup, which celebrates the festival’s 25th anniversary. Among the ones I’ve seen, some are essential viewing and others are of more than passing interest.

Gurrumul at home during his father’s funeral.Gurrumul: April 28, 29, May 5. Paul Damien Williams’ definitive portrait of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the blind-from-birth Indigenous singer from Echo Island in Arnhem Land, Australian Northern Territory, manages the difficult task of fusing the artistic and personal life of one of the most significant musicians Australia has ever produced. “I am my ancestors,” Gurrumul says of his songs, most of which are in the language of his Guratj community whose musical traditions go back thousands of years. With hours of performance and rehearsal footage to choose from, Williams chronicles Gurrumul’s musical ascendancy from when he was discovered by Mark Grose (who became his manager) and Michael Hohnen (who became his producer and “brother”). Hohnen accompanied him on the double bass on tour and recordings; their two-decades-long relationship ended with Gurrumul’s death in 2017 at the age of 46. Gurrumul’s soulful tenor voice was a powerful musical instrument; once you’ve heard it, it’s not easily forgotten. Neither is Williams’ film.

Georg Friedrich Haas and Mollena Williams-Haas at Museum of Sex, New York.The Artist & the Pervert (April 27, 29, May 4) is a no-holds-barred look at the personal and professional life of Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the major European composers of his generation. His best-known work, In Vain (2000), was written in response to the rise of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party. Simon Rattle, one of the film’s talking heads, calls it “a really astonishing work of art … that audiences can’t get enough of.”  As a child in Austria Haas was beaten by his Nazi parents. At 20 he resolved to rid himself of their “venomous ideas.” At 50 he had his first BDSM relationship, finally giving in to his urge to dominate. Three years ago the 60-ish Haas, by then a New Yorker, married his soulmate and muse, Mollena Williams-Haas, an African-American kink educator and bawdy storyteller with whom he has a loving 24/7 master/slave relationship. “I can now work much more intensively and more focused than before,” he says. An intimate examination of the process of making music itself, The Artist & the Pervert is an idiosyncratic introduction to Haas’ floating constellations of overtones and microtonal experimentation.

I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story: world premiere April 26, 27, May 4, 6. Three generations of women (two Australian and two American), 18 to 64, share their obsessions with The Beatles, Take That, the Backstreet Boys and One Direction. If you’ve ever wondered why teenage girls scream at concerts (“It was so cathartic”), you’ve come to the right place. Taking us inside the mindset of these obsessed boyband fangirls (“They’re just like Barbie Dolls; they’re so perfect; they’re all my boyfriends”), the film is seeded with retro footage and pop candy songs. Spoiler alert: there is no music by The Beatles in this film.

Bathtubs Over Broadway: May 1, 3, 5. Steve Young, a comedy writer for the Late Show with David Letterman, stumbled onto a few vintage record albums – bizarre cast recordings marked “internal use only” – that were full-throated Broadway-style musicals whose subjects were the products of corporate America: General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford, DuPont, Xerox – Everything’s Coming up Citgo, for example. Bathtubs over Broadway follows Young deeper down the rabbit hole of this most unusual musical genre. With David Letterman, Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Florence Henderson, Susan Stroman, Jello Biafra and more. Co-presented by the Musical Stage Company.

Barbara Rubin in 1964. Photo credit: Jonas Mekas.Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground: May 2, 4, 5. Barbara Rubin was a teenage experimental filmmaker, whose transgressive film Christmas on Earth caused a sensation when it screened in NYC in 1964. She hung out with Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg and (with Factory habitué Gerard Malanga) introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground. Rubin was a spoke in the avant-garde wheel for more than 15 minutes; Warhol shot her screen test in 1965. Yet within a few years she had become a Hasidic Jew and moved to a religious community in France, dying there at 35. Her lifelong friend, legendary experimental filmmaker and curator Jonas Mekas, saved all her correspondence. That and contemporaneous film footage were the fodder for Chuck Smith’s fascinating cultural touchstone; music by Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo.

Bachman: world premiere May 2, 3, 4. Randy Bachman’s American Woman was a chartbuster for the Guess Who and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet also hit number one for Bachman-Turner Overdrive, but the Winnipeg native is at least as well known for Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap on CBC Radio One. Each week Bachman fills two hours of thematically unified airtime with music and anecdotes delivered matter-of-factly, intimately and authoritatively. John Barnard profiles the man and his craft.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A (May 3, 5, 6) follows Sri Lankan genre-bending music star M.I.A. Mathangi Arulpragasam. “This is not a normal pop documentary, because M.I.A. was not a normal pop star,” writes Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic. The Strange Sound of Happiness (April 30, May 2) tells the director’s own story of how his obsession with the marranzano (jaw harp) led him from Sicily to Yakutia in Siberia to study under the legendary master of the instrument. Could it have been Sergio Leone’s memorable use of the instrument in For a Few Dollars More that triggered director Diego Pascal Panarello’s dream?

My Father Is My Mother’s Brother.My Father Is My Mother’s Brother: May 2, 3. Tolik, an artist in the Ukrainian underground music scene, is raising his niece while her mother is in and out of a psychiatric hospital. “The film seems to float, like the melody of one of Tolik’s songs,” according to Céline Guénot of the Nyon, Switzerland documentary film festival. To Want, To Need, To Love: May 2, 4. Two actor/musicians and the director’s brother are part of a troupe of artists, travelling from Zurich to Belgrade to Pristina, who create musical performance pieces around the question “What do you believe in?” Music by Kosovo native Arbër Salihu, who also plays one of the principal roles.

Ellis Haizlip, producer and host of the PBS series SOUL!, surrounded by his team. Clockwise left to right: Sherry Santifer, Stan Lathan, Loretta Greene, Leslie Demus, Alonzo Brown and Anna Maria Horsford. Photo credit: Bill Whiting.Mr. SOUL!: April 27, 28, May 5. A who’s who of black musical legends of the 1960s appeared on the PBS variety show SOUL from 1968 to 1973. Rare archival footage of the era dovetails with an intimate portrait of Ellis Haizlip, the openly gay producer-turned-host who is the film’s eponymous subject. Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Muhammad Ali, among others, also lend their voices to this moment of American cultural history. United Skates: April 28, 30, May 4. The roller rink scene and the Black community go under the microscope through the eyes of three skaters from LA, Chicago and North Carolina, as what was once a little-known cultural phenomenon and incubator of such hip-hop stars as N.W.A. and Queen Latifah fights to survive racism and a new economic reality. Jongnic (JB) Bontemps’ score was recorded by the Macedonian Symphonic Orchestra just last month.

Believer (May 1, 3, 4) follows Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds and openly gay former Mormon Tyler Glenn, lead singer of Neon Trees, as they create LoveLoud, a music and spoken-word festival designed to spark dialogue between the Mormon church and members of the LGBTQ community. Love, Scott (April 28, 29, May 3) follows Scott Jones, a gay musician oparalyzed from the waist down by a homophobic stabbing attack, as he rebuilds his life, in part through working with choirs. Score by Sigur Rós!

Among the films by Hot Docs’ 2018 Outstanding Achievement Award recipient Barbara Kopple are The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (May 1), a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of how the popular alt-country band dealt with the fallout from lead singer Natalie Maines’ criticism of President George W. Bush and his Iraq war policy; and Miss Sharon Jones! (May 2), Kopple’s inspirational portrait of the legendary soul singer that celebrates her music-making, joyful spirit and determination to carry on despite the cancer diagnosis that would take her life. May 3, Kopple will introduce a surprise screening of My Generation (2000), which takes a star-studded musical trip across three Woodstock Festivals (1969, 1992 and 1999) to see just how things have changed (or not).

Included in the Redux program, ”a retrospective showcase of documentaries that deserve another outing on the big screen,” is A Drummer’s Dream (2010) on May 2, featuring Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow. Finally, Focus On John Walker – a retrospective of the Canadian filmmaker’s work – includes Men of the Deeps (2003) on May 5, about a world-renowned choir of working and retired coal miners who sing passionately about lives spent deep underground as the last coal mine in Cape Breton prepares to close.

Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival plays April 26 to May 6 in various locations throughout Toronto. See hotdocs.ca for further information.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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.

Armie Hammer (left) and Geoffrey Rush in Final Portrait. Photo credit: Parisa Taghizadeh, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Stanley Tucci’s sharply observed depiction of Alberto Giacometti’s last oil painting, Final Portrait, lingers lovingly over the artist’s exacting creative process. In 1964, Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush), primarily known for his sculptures, asked his friend, the American author James Lord (Armie Hammer), to sit for him. Tucci’s film, adapted from Lord’s memoir, gives us a writer’s POV into the artist’s methods – driven by doubt and neurosis – and his personal relationships. Giacometti’s wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) tolerates his four-year-long relationship with Caroline (Clémence Poésy), a prostitute who is Giacometti’s muse and model. In his early 60s, Giacometti lives a chaotic lifestyle, grounded by his key relationships with the two women and his brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub), a calming presence who serves as his confidant and right-hand man.

Tucci uses the uncannily accurate set design adroitly, treating the facsimile of the studio as familiarly as if it were his kitchen, and filming visits to neighbourhood bars and restaurants with a sense of verisimilitude and period detail that transports the viewer across more than five decades. Tucci’s keen eye harkens back to the observational style and verve of his classic Big Night. His actors, particularly Rush, Poésy and Shalhoub, bring art history to life and energize the slim thread of the narrative balanced by Hammer and Testud’s naturalism. Final Portrait, despite its many accomplishments, does not examine the philosophical underpinnings of the painter’s aesthetic (as Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse did, for example). Instead, frequent conversational strolls in nearby Montparnasse Cemetery by Lord and Giacometti serve up gossipy tidbits. It’s what happens in the studio that stands firmly at the film’s centre.

Geoffrey Rush (left) and Clémence Poésy in Final Portrait. Photo credit: Parisa Taghizadeh, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Evan Lurie’s score for various combinations of violin, viola, cello, double bass, piano and celeste is a model of discretion, never overwhelming what we see on screen, acting more as a linking mechanism between scenes or a subtle comment on their mood. In fact, after a brief moment of violin melancholy, the film begins with Ralf Dieter Gscheidle’s La Fleur, a typical Parisian accordion solo announcing Final Portrait’s locale. Suddenly we’re in Giacometti’s studio, with Giacometti’s iconic sculpture of Isaku Yanaihara at its centre. The soundtrack bristles with the sound of walking across the studio floor, of a canvas being moved onto an easel, of choosing brushes and moving pedestals – the soundtrack to a picture of creativity.

“It’s impossible to paint you as I see you,” Giacometti tells Lord, as a tentative violin leads into the warmth of a string quartet and a lyrical piano solo. Whether it’s a sprightly violin that signals a spirited scene in the bar of Chez Adrien or a tentative violin melody that acts as a momentary comma to the end of Lord’s sitting for the day, there’s just enough musical noodling to propel the action before Gscheidle’s accordion closes the parentheses on a footnote in art history.

One of the founding members of the Lounge Lizards, the seminal 1980s downtown Manhattan group led by his brother John, Evan Lurie (classically trained as a pianist) is also known as an actor. For the last decade he has operated a contemporary art gallery in Indiana.

Final Portrait opens April 6 at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity and VIP.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Gerald Neufeld conducts the Guelph Chamber Choir and Musica Viva Orchestra in rehearsal for the March 31 concert. Photo credit: Geoff Warder.“Thank you for bringing us great music,” said Nicole Neufeld in a heartwarming onstage tribute to her father’s 36 years of work with the Guelph Chamber Choir. Gerald Neufeld is stepping down as artistic director of the Guelph Chamber Choir, having led it for 36 of its 38 years. In a farewell concert on Saturday March 31, 2018, the choir performed Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) and other smaller works. This was the final performance of the Guelph Chamber Choir’s 2017/18 season, and the final concert with Gerald Neufeld as its artistic director.

The first half of the concert was the German Requiem. The second half comprised six smaller works, including Ola Gjeilo’s The Ground (which is the “Pleni sunt coeli” section of the “Sanctus” in his larger Sunrise Mass); Agnus dei, arranged by Kenneth Jennings with Latin text on a choral rendition of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations; and Canadian composer Eleanor Daley’s Antiphon, the final movement of her three-piece Let All the World in Ev’ry Corner Sing Easter Anthems.

In an interview the week prior to the concert, Neufeld spoke to The WholeNote about his upcoming final performance. “I wanted to fit into the Easter Weekend,” says Neufeld. “Rather than doing a Latin requiem, I wanted to do one of my favourite works, [Brahms’ Requiem]. It’s such a wonderfully crafted piece. It’s not about sadness, it’s about remembering and joyousness. It’s really for the living rather than the dead.”

For this performance, Neufeld decided on a historically-informed rendition, with Musica Viva Orchestra on period instruments. “It may seem a bit strange to sing the Requiem with only 60 singers and 43 in the orchestra,” says Neufeld, “but the period instruments are so much softer and blend easier with the voice. Brahms’ orchestra wasn’t too much larger than what we’ll have. It’s almost like chamber music in a way. It’s bringing together Brahms’ past with his present, using some Classical sensibilities with newer Romantic harmonic material in a very interesting way.

“I’ve been performing with period players for two decades now,” Neufeld continues. “I love working with them because they want to understand the musical text and how to declaim the music. It makes the music much more effective; it communicates much more clearly to the audience. Our audiences have really loved it.” With a packed house and a thoroughly pleased audience, Neufeld’s artistic choices continue to have a strong impact on audiences in Guelph and the area: the Guelph Chamber Choir sang its first three concerts of its 2017/18 season to a sold-out hall.

At the concert on Saturday, Neufeld’s interpretation using period instruments resulted in a softer, less complex sound in the orchestra and a light, articulate choir. The choir was well-balanced, solidly supported by an exceptional bass section. The first movement of the Requiem does not include violins; with the bass sound of the lower strings and viola anchoring the sound, the choir was free to focus on the music’s emotional content.

Brahms’ Requiem was beautifully presented. Daniel Lichti provided a robust and emotional presentation as bass-baritone soloist. There was a bit of a disconnect at times between his and the choir’s deliveries – most pronounced in the third movement, where Lichti’s emotional and operatic interpretation of “Lord, teach me” was not equally repeated in the choir’s more muted response immediately following him. However, towards the end of the third movement, Neufeld’s period interpretation allowed the “Der gerechten” fugal section to ride above the long-sustains of the double basses without being thrown off. Sheila Dietrich, the soprano soloist, provided a light and comforting solo in the fifth movement. This movement is a cornerstone of the Requiem, providing an angelic moment of healing in this work, which Neufeld describes in the program notes as “comfort for the living that recognizes the human journey through times of grief, but also offers a sense of hope, victory and joy at the end of that journey.”

There were two technical issues that detracted from the overall impact of the piece. The first was ongoing instances within the soprano section of uncontrolled and abundant vibrato, especially noticeable in the fourth “Wie lieblich” movement. The second was recurring registration issues in the tenor sections. With some tenors chest-strong and others in head-tone, there wasn’t an even sound in exposed tenor lines like the “Zu nehmen Preis und Ehre” fugal section of the sixth movement. Otherwise, the blend of the choir was excellent, with a very solid grounding in the basses and a majestic alto presence. Neufeld manages to massage the tension of the Requiem, never letting the choir become too loud and allowing the suspense in the music to blossom slowly.

Neufeld has many memories over his 36 very successful years with the choir. He mentions a few great works among his memories, many of which were done with the Guelph Chamber Choir. He thinks of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the Monteverdi Vespers, and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Some of these memories are from abroad as well: “Performing in Austria at the Mozarteum, and the Czech Republic, in the old city of Kroměříž in the Bishop’s palace ballroom. Performing in those acoustical environments [was] really something,” he shares.

Neufeld is not done with music; he would be happy to guest conduct, and loves the rehearsal process. He feels though, that “it’s time for someone younger, who has more energy and new ideas, to take the choir forward. It’s always a good time, when things are going well, to make that transition,” he says. As the Guelph Chamber Choir enters a transition year, there will be two concerts conducted by two conductors shortlisted for Neufeld’s replacement. In the fall of 2018, Patrick Murray takes the reins, while in the spring of 2019, Charlene Pauls leads the choir. One of the two will replace Neufeld. “I would like them to be successful in whatever they choose,” says Neufeld. “I’m looking forward to being in the audience and hearing what comes from the choir under a new director.

“The thing I will remember the most are the people in the choir,” adds Neufeld. “They come because they want to, not because they have to. One of the most memorable conversations I’ve had was with three doctors during the SARS crisis. I was surprised they were at rehearsal when all of this was going on. They just looked at me and said, ‘We can’t afford not to be here. This helps us manage to get through.’ This is a big part of what choirs do. For lack of a better term: this spiritual energy, to keep going with our daily lives, working together.”

In a surprise, the choir performed a very touching final piece in tribute to Neufeld: Ron Jeffers’ setting of Fred Mitchell’s poem “I have had singing.” With his family onstage, Neufeld’s work with the choir was perfectly summed up – with great music, happy voices, and a touching farewell.

The Guelph Chamber Choir, featuring Sheila Dietrich (soprano), Daniel Lichti (bass-baritone) and the Musica Viva Orchestra, performed Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) in farewell to outgoing artistic director Gerald Neufeld on March 31, 2018, 7:30pm at River Run Centre, Guelph.

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.

image1bannerPianist Jan Lisiecki in performance at Bravo Niagara! on March 10. Photo credit: Jerry Placken.It’s been more than two years since Jan Lisiecki’s last solo piano recital in Toronto. Not wanting to wait another year for his Koerner Hall concert next March, I took advantage of Bravo Niagara!’s serendipitous scheduling to hear this exceptional pianist perform March 10 in the historic St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The critically acclaimed 22-year-old Calgary-born Polish-Canadian is now an established professional, with four Deutsche Grammophon recordings, and his extensive touring has made him a member of the one million mile club. The Bravo Niagara! recital was bracketed by appearances with the OSM in Montreal on March 6 and 8 and a solo date in São Paulo, Brazil on March 13.

Lisiecki has always been comfortable speaking to his audience, charming and at ease, with a maturity beyond his years. After opening his recital with Chopin’s two Op.55 Nocturnes, he took to the microphone to introduce the “night’s music theme” that tied together the evening’s repertoire. He spoke of Schumann being awoken in the middle of the night by a brass chorale, an event he soon learned had coincided with his brother’s death and which later inspired the writing of Nachtstücke (Night Pieces) Op.23, the next work on the program. The opening movement felt like a march in the dark; the second, more harmonically complex, had the sense of looking back. After the turmoil of the third movement, Lisiecki brought the piece to a satisfying place of resolution and repose.

Lisiecki introduced Ravel’s demonic Gaspard de la Nuit by demonstrating at the piano how the repetition of one note and the harmonies Ravel wrote around it create a chilling picture. In Ondine, the first movement, Lisiecki’s unerring phrasing was coupled with a technical prowess that served the music. Le Gibet was well-paced, icily haunting, its inexorability evoking the spectre of death. Scarbo, the third and final movement, was (Lisiecki told us) the result of Ravel’s intention to write the hardest piece ever written. Lisiecki’s dazzling performance of it brought the generous helping of music before intermission to an exhilarating conclusion.

Rachmaninoff’s Morceaux de fantaisie Op.3 is a youthful composition that nonetheless typifies the Russian keyboard virtuoso’s later works in its tone colours, textures and harmonies. The Elégie harkens back to Chopin, and the famous Prélude with its searing lyricism is one of the composer’s most popular pieces. Lisiecki showed great dynamic range in both and showcased the contrasts in the Mélodie with elan, while bringing out the sinister charm of Polichinelle.

Lisiecki had command of the keyboard throughout the recital, beginning with the pointed rhythm and accelerated rubato of Chopin’s Nocturne Op.55, No.1 and strong voicing of the night music element of Op.55 No.2. The Nocturne Op.72, No.1 was overshadowed by the marvellous fusion of art and technique in Chopin’s Scherzo No.1, which the pianist brought off with matchless impetuosity. He brought a welcome serenity to its lovely midsection before the tumultuous finish produced the evening’s second spontaneous standing ovation from the capacity crowd.

Pianist Jan Lisiecki, following his performance at Bravo Niagara! on March 10. Photo credit: Jerry Placken.Träumerei, the matchless Reverie from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, brought the concert to a sublime musical and apt thematic end, a tranquil balance to the force of the Scherzo and a reminder of Lisiecki’s ability to make every note count while working with the quirks of the Yamaha grand piano he was playing.

Jan Lisiecki, presented by Bravo Niagara!, performed at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake on March 10, 2018.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Harley Card.On Thursday, March 1, jazz guitarist Harley Card’s Sunset Ensemble played at Lula Lounge, presenting two sets of freshly-arranged music. The performance was one of four special projects supported by the TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s 2018 Discovery Series, and was the second public performance for the Sunset Ensemble, which played a smaller-scale show at The Tranzac in early January. By foregrounding interactivity and dynamics, the Sunset Ensemble delivered an engaging, thoughtful listening experience that both expanded upon Card’s body of work and distilled his aesthetic sensibilities into something potent and new.

This particular project grew out of a relatively straightforward concept: take compositions from Card’s previous albums and adapt them for octet. Card has been an active member of the Canadian jazz scene for well over a decade, both as a leader and as a sideperson, and much of the Sunset Ensemble’s material is drawn from his albums Non-Fiction (2008), Hedgerow (2013), and The Greatest Invention (2017), in addition to new compositions from Card and other band members. Although helmed by Card, special mention must be made of the contributions of David French – saxophonist on Hedgerow and The Greatest Invention, and longtime colleague of Card’s – who collaborated on many of the evening’s arrangements.

“Sophomore,” the first song of the night, began with careful purpose, building into an atmospheric solo from tenor saxophonist Perry White. The backbeat-driven “Enclosure,” from The Greatest Invention, followed, with impressive playing from drummer Lorenzo Castelli, who was able, both in this song and throughout the entire show, to be exciting and propulsive without overwhelming the rest of the band. Ted Crosby’s slow, eerie “Primordial Valley” was juxtaposed with “Right Arm,” a swinging, medium-up song, which was the closest that the band came to conventional large-ensemble jazz playing. One of the high points of the first sets was “A Distant Bell,” on which Card took a compelling solo, playing mature, articulate phrases with subtly powerful rhythmic confidence.

Card is particularly good in dialogue with other musicians, both while soloing and while comping, and, though a technically accomplished guitarist, his instincts always seem to guide him to choose musicality over flash. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that these artistic principles carried over, in a substantive way, to his role as arranger and bandleader. Given the project’s description, it would not have been unreasonable for an audience member to expect an expanded version of Card’s quintet, in which additional horns would add extra colour to music that is still, essentially, in a small-ensemble format, as in guitarist John Scofield’s 2007 album This Meets That. What emerged over the course of the Sunset Ensemble’s performance, however, was a commitment to a very different approach: rather than flattening the material at hand to facilitate opportunities for individual instrumental heroism, Card and company’s arrangements focused on dynamic group playing, with an emphasis on tone, texture and melody that fixed the audience’s focus squarely on the music.

The second set continued this trend, with excellent playing from all members of the group. Highlights included French’s arrangement of the title track from The Greatest Invention, bassist Daniel Fortin’s “Don’t You Think,” which was one of a few charts that featured upright bass in unison with Crosby’s bass clarinet, and “Laurentia,” a short, delicate ensemble piece that had its premiere at Lula Lounge. Sunset Ensemble’s performance ended with “Albany,” a song from Non-Fiction, and, as Card informed the audience, “maybe the second tune [his] group ever played.” Ending with “Albany” was an apposite choice, as it neatly encapsulated Card’s accomplishment: by looking to the past, he has created an exciting new ensemble with a life of its own that can move confidently into the future.

Harley Card’s Sunset Ensemble – featuring Alexander Brown (trumpet & flugelhorn), Perry White (tenor sax), Ted Crosby (bass clarinet & clarinet), Karl Silveira (trombone), Harley Card (guitar), Matt Newton (Rhodes piano), Dan Fortin (bass) and Lorenzo Castelli (drums) – took place at Lula Lounge in Toronto on March 1, as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s Discovery Series.

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

forq crop bannerForq.On Wednesday, February 21, the American quartet Forq played their second show of a two-night engagement at The Rex. Forq is currently on tour, and their Toronto shows came near the end of a two-week journey that started on February 11 at the GroundUP Music Festival in Miami Beach, Florida (GroundUP is the label for whom the band records, and is helmed by Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, who, along with keyboardist Henry Hey, co-founded Forq). GroundUP artists – including Forq, Snarky Puppy and Becca Stevens – have made a number of successful appearances at The Rex over the past few years, and their shows tend to bring in a diverse range of live-music patrons. Hey remarked early on in the first set that The Rex is probably Forq’s favourite place to play, and the affection evidently runs both ways: the strong connection between the GroundUP family and The Rex is such that members of The Rex staff – including music manager Tom Tytel – made the trip down to Miami Beach for the aforementioned festival, in order to scout potential acts for the Rex’s 2018 Jazz Festival.

The current iteration of Forq includes keyboardist Hey, guitarist Chris McQueen, drummer Jason Thomas and bassist Kevin Scott, all four of whom were in top form at The Rex on Wednesday. Forq is described on its website as a band with “an aggressive sound,” but the description seems to do a disservice to the intelligent, nuanced approach to music-making that they took throughout the evening. While the highs were certainly high, much of Forq’s best playing was found in dynamic interplay between band members during quieter sections, and, though the show didn't lack in bombast, the prevailing mood was thoughtful, patient and communicative.  

After a short piece at the beginning of the first set, the band launched into the McQueen original “Lymaks,” a funky, medium-tempo song anchored throughout the melody by Thomas’s excellent tambourine playing. “Lymaks” featured a powerful solo from Hey that set the tone for the rest of the evening: melodic, rhythmically interesting, and with a keen attention to textural detail. Thomas’s “635 South” saw Hey taking another compelling solo, this time using his keyboard’s organ sound, as well as a great solo from Scott. Although it started with a swung 16th-note feel, it transitioned into a straighter feel after soloing to accommodate a beautiful melody, reminiscent of D’Angelo’s “Africa.”

One of the show’s most winning moments came at the beginning of “Cowabunghole,” another McQueen original, that was named, as Hey apprised the audience, by fellow GroundUP artist Becca Stevens during a visit to the studio where Hey and McQueen were mixing the band’s most recent album. The piece starts with an energetic, surf-y guitar riff, played with great enthusiasm by McQueen – so much so, in this particular case, that he broke a string. Hey quoted “Think!” as McQueen performed a quick string change, and, without a break in the music, the band transitioned directly back into the opening riff of “Cowabunghole.”

The second set brought many of the same pleasures of the first, including another excellent solo from Hey in the first song, a beautifully-paced solo from Thomas over a 13/8 vamp in the third song, and solid playing from the whole ensemble on Hey’s “Grout,” the final piece of the evening. It is a testament both to Forq and to the special relationship that the band has with The Rex that the audience was attentive, focused, and, let it be said, quiet, for much of the show – although, as was only appropriate, not during Thomas’s masterful drum solo at the end of “Grout.”

American quartet Forq performed, as part of their February tour, on February 20 and 21 at The Rex, Toronto.

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

The organ of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, built in 1906 by Breckels and Matthews. Healey Willan, 1918.The Church of St. Mary Magdalene is one of Toronto’s hidden gems, a bastion of Anglo-Catholicism tucked away in the Annex near Bathurst and Harbord streets. A strikingly attractive yet plain building, St. Mary Magdalene’s barren white walls, abundance of natural light, pervasive scent of incense and extraordinary acoustic give this church an atmosphere unlike any other. The building itself has remained largely unchanged over the decades, a physical link to the past preserved along with the rites and rituals contained therein, and a testament to the rich heritage of this unique space.

One of the pivotal figures in the history of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene is Healey Willan, the ‘Dean of Canadian Composers’, who served as Precentor (director of music) from 1921 until his death in 1968. Over this span of almost 50 years, Willan wrote a tremendous amount of choral music for use in the church’s services, as well as concert works –  including organ music, a piano concerto, two operas, and numerous large-scale choral pieces – all while raising the standard of local choral and organ performance to a previously-unheard level. In the years since Willan’s death, his legacy has provided a source of guidance and inspiration for those who assume the director of music role at the church. The tradition of performing unaccompanied choral repertoire, established during Willan’s tenure through equal parts practicality and preference, is upheld to this day and is a unique facet of St. Mary Magdalene’s weekly musical offerings.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Healey Willan and in celebration of his immeasurable contributions to the development of music, not only at St. Mary Magdalene’s but also across Canada, on February 16 the choirs of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Thomas’s Huron Street presented “Willan 50,” a joint concert featuring the best of Willan’s choral and organ music. The program was immense: three monumental organ works, including the legendary Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue; accompanied and unaccompanied choral works including Behold, the Tabernacle and Gloria Deo per immensa saecula; as well as plainchant selections, an Introit and Gradual. Distributed throughout the concert, the plainchant excerpts were particularly intelligent programming, the monophony providing a welcome change in timbre and texture from the contrapuntal complexity that is so prevalent in Willan’s work as well as demonstrating one of Willan’s favourite genres and chief musical influences.

This intensive focus on Willan’s choral and organ music worked well, in large part due to a well-crafted and balanced program that provided wonderful opportunities to hear superb singing from the massed choir as well as the lush tones of St. Mary Magdalene’s fine Breckels & Matthews pipe organ. The choir, led by St. Thomas’s director of music Matthew Larkin, was in fine form, realizing Willan’s dual natures in a sensitive and sympathetic way: the moments of complex and cerebral counterpoint were clear but never academic, while the more emotive moments (Willan was an enthusiastic proponent of Wagnerian chromaticism at times) were never overdone or superfluously sappy.

The organ of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, built in 1906 by Breckels and Matthews.The Breckels & Matthews organ, located in the choir loft at St. Mary Magdalene’s, is the same instrument Willan himself played and improvised upon, a thread connecting the present and future of the church with its past. After some much-needed renovation and repair, the organ is in wonderful condition and sounds marvelous, its rich and well-balanced tone combining with the acoustic to produce a sound that is robust and full but never too loud, strident, or overpowering. Organists Andrew Adair, Matthew Larkin and Simon Walker each handled the instrument very well, extracting its best features in their readings of Willan’s most fiendishly difficult compositions. The use of a camera and screen to relay the performer’s physical movements from the out-of-sight gallery was undoubtedly informative and entertaining for many in the audience.

A delightful retrospective of one of Canada’s revered and renowned musical characters, “Willan 50” was a fulfilling and encouraging concert. The performances from the chorus and organists were excellent, and it was inspiring to see the talent and enthusiasm for and within Toronto’s Anglo-Catholic tradition. While the Dean of Canadian Composers is no longer with us in person, his legacy lives on through events such as these, as well as through the weekly offerings of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and its fellow institutions.

“Willan 50” was presented on February 26, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

The WholeNote Podcasts

ArtworkWelcome to the Conversations <at> The WholeNote podcast page. Below you will find our podcast episodes for your listening pleasure.

To listen, you have a few options:

  • You can listen via this website you can scroll down and find the episode you'd like and click play there.
  • Or you can download and save the podcasts on your phone, tablet or computer - and then you can listen to it anytime (even without an internet connection) by downloading from the episode articles below.
  • Or you can subscribe to this podcast on your favourite podcast service including iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, BluBrry, PocketCasts and more. Just open your podcast app and search for Conversations at The WholeNote and hit 'subscribe'. 

If you are unable to find us on the podcast app that you use, please let us know and we'll do our best to try and make it available to you.

Scroll down to select individual episodes to enjoy.

Back to top