Collectif9. Photo credit: Danylo Bobyk.Montreal-based string ensemble Collectif9 stopped by Lula Lounge on November 12 on their way to Mexico for a three-day visit November 15 to 17. It was the second Toronto appearance for the double string quartet plus double bass – the first was for Music Toronto in March 2016 – and meant to launch their latest CD, No Time for Chamber Music, which is wholly devoted to the music of Mahler. But as bassist Thibault Bertin-Maghit told me after the show, when he saw Lula’s salsa dance floor he scaled back the Mahler content, using only three of the CD’s nine tracks, and filled out the evening with works by Golijov, Schnittke, Enescu, Brahms, Ligeti, Berio and Mexican composer Arturo Márquez.

Bertin-Maghit does most of the arrangements for the group, which made its debut in 2011. They were students at Université de Montréal and McGill who wanted to create something different yet complementary to traditional classical music. The result was a genre-bending, innovative approach that uses lighting techniques and amplification not usually associated with the classical concert stage. They started out playing Piazzolla and Golijov, Bertin-Maghit said, but the lack of repertoire for their particular nine-instrument ensemble led him to expand their playlist to encompass arrangements of a variety of symphonic and chamber works. They perform them with an infectious energy and vigour that grabs an audience’s attention.

Lula Lounge’s warm, relaxed atmosphere and intimate nightclub feel made it an ideal setting for Collectif9’s music and undoubtedly stoked the enthusiasm of the crowd.

The set began with tonal and atonal fragments reminiscent of the opening of Max Richter’s Recomposed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Out of the improvisatory noodling came the unmistakable Frère Jacques tune set in a minor key by Mahler from the third movement of his Symphony No.1. Hushed in the bass and cellos but amplified, its presence straddling centuries, it moved to the higher strings who convincingly mimicked Mahler’s woodwinds. The tune grew out of that foundation into a sudden quick folk dance, exaggerating its klezmer quality while building to a full, rich sound before returning to the Frère Jacques melody, diminishing in scope and fading into atonality. Brilliantly arranged and exuberantly performed, it was typical of the evening as a whole.

“A new one for us,” is how Bertin-Maghit introduced Osvaldo Golijov’s Romantic-tinged rhapsody, Night of the Flying Horses. It starts with a Yiddish lullaby that (according to Golijov) metamorphoses into a dense and dark doina (a slow, rubato, Romanian genre) and ends in a fast gallop with a theme Golijov “stole from my friends of the wild gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks.” With his folk-based, often pastiche-laden works, Golijov is a natural fit with Collectif9’s aesthetic.

A teaser of Stravinsky, the opening minutes of The Rite of Spring, followed, putting Collectif9’s togetherness on display. Then came the Allegretto from Schnittke’s Violin Sonata No.1 (from their Volksmobile CD), an energetic, joyful, jazzy showcase for violinist Robert Margaryan. An elegant pizzicato dance was next, a brief ländler that begins the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No.2. Then the agonizing Farewell from Mahler’s Song of the Earth, given a touching, passionate performance that shone a light on its folk references.

Enescu’s Octet for Strings (with double bass added) was one of the first pieces Collectif9 read through when they first formed seven years ago. “Now we’re finally ready to perform it,” said Bertin-Maghit. Its soaring melodies and propulsive dance-like rhythm elicited a virtuosic performance from the ensemble that was contrasted by the light touch navigating the dense lyricism of the Scherzo from Brahms’ Sextet No.2 that followed.

As played by Collectif9, the fourth movement of Ligeti’s Concert Românesc was a perpetual-motion achievement featuring impressive ensemble playing, the perfect appetizer for the highlight of the night: the third movement from Berio’s Sinfonia. Built on top of the Scherzo from Mahler’s Symphony No.2 and incorporating a text from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable as well as eight singers and a large orchestra, it was the inspiration for Collectif9’s new album and its ironic title, No Time for Chamber Music, which is part of the Beckett text. In fact, the Berio was supposed to be included on the CD but they couldn’t get the rights. With its many references to Ravel, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Debussy, Boulez and more, it’s a masterpiece of mid-20th-century music given an electrifying 21st-century reading.

Then it was literally and figuratively off to Mexico, with a sunny performance of Márquez’s Danzón No.2, made famous by Gustavo Dudamel’s popular recording with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

Collectif9’s next visit to Toronto cannot come too soon.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

B Exalted Choir cropped close by DavidLeeStudio.com bAnnerB-Xalted!. Photo credit: David Lee Studio.There’s a new choral project in town—and it all goes back to Handel’s Messiah.

Co-founded by Barbara Gowdy and Whitney Smith, B-Xalted! is a choir of Toronto-based writers and arts workers who, as they explain in their press release, “have put aside their laptops” to sing—a community project that gives professional writers and other creative professionals the chance to sing choral music together for the first time. A concert of excerpts from Handel’s Messiah on December 11 at Toronto’s Church of St. Peter & St. Simon-the-Apostle will be their debut.

For Gowdy, attending a performance of Tafelmusik’s annual Sing-along Messiah was the catalyst for the project. After giving up writing following a cancer scare to spend more time with loved ones, it was singing in the Tafelmusik audience that gave her the inspiration for community choir built around Handel’s music.

The Messiah theme may feel a bit arbitrary at first glance—but the idea of a community project built around this music isn’t so far-off. One of the holiday season’s most ubiquitous musical traditions, Messiah is near-synonymous with choral community-building: with festivity, with meaningful memories of classical music, with standing and singing along. Something about Messiah, and the way it unites community initiatives with musical professionals, gives it a special place in the city and scene’s musical fabric.

Messiah for the City is another example. Founded by the late Jack Layton and presented this year by Toronto Beach Chorale in partnership with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Messiah for the City is a concert project dedicated to providing seasonal concert-going opportunities to Torontonians who otherwise might not have access to such events. This year’s Messiah for the City takes place on December 22, featuring singers from the Toronto Beach Chorale, MCS Chorus Mississauga and the Georgetown Bach Chorale, as well as players from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Tickets will be distributed by United Way and its partner agencies.

And for those looking for other public Messiah performances this year, there are all of the usuals and then some: Tafelmusik’s rendition December 19 to 21, with its famous “Sing-Along Messiah” on December 22; the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, conducted by the Canadian Opera Company’s Johannes Debus, December 17 to 23; Pax Christi Chorale’s special “Children’s Messiah” performance for children and families on December 1; and the fourth edition of SoundstreamsElectric Messiah at the Drake Underground, December 4 to 6.

Of her upcoming performance with B-Xalted!, Gowdy writes that it’s the courage of a choir coming together for the first time that will make their debut special. “There’s a fearlessness, even a recklessness, to our enterprise,” she says. “We’re all taking a risk, and we’re taking it together.”

It’s the same spirit that embodies all of the upcoming Messiah performances this season. Community-minded fearlessness—and joy.

For a complete list of Messiah-related shows across southern Ontario this year, search “Messiah” in our online concert listings at www.thewholenote.com/just-ask.

HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. J.K. ROWLING`S WIZARDING WORLD™ J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Publishing Rights © JKR. (s18).Magic sparked through the air as Harry Potter fans crowded into the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on November 15 to experience Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth installment from the film series, performed live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Hogwarts took over the Sony Centre, as the crowd proudly showed off their Hogwarts house colours with bright red, green, yellow and blue scarves and robes. Fans young and old gathered in the lobby, some even flocking to the merchandise table to purchase authentic Harry Potter-themed snacks like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

As everyone settled in their seats in the packed theatre, Evan Mitchell, the conductor, encouraged the crowd not to hold back, and to cheer, laugh, and cry at our favourite scenes and characters. The audience proved throughout the night to be fiercely passionate and lively at all the right moments.

The lights dimmed, and the movie began. Goblet of Fire – based on the fourth book in J.K. Rowling’s renowned Harry Potter fantasy novels – follows Harry as he embarks on his fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where, as the school year progresses, a school tournament takes a sinister turn. With the first haunting notes of the opening piece, “The Story Continues,” the orchestra set the tone for the film, a much darker, more mature story than its predecessors: a rich, dark build of woodwinds and percussion, overlaid almost instantly by a shrill melody from the violins that left a sinister chill lingering in the air.

Goblet of Fire has one of the most diverse scores of the series, especially due to many pieces that exist within the film’s world which add opportunity to layer in unusual and surprising sounds. Much of this music is from the Yule Ball, the school dance that the students attend: “Potter’s Waltz,” “Do the Hippogriff,” and “Hogwarts Fanfare.” “Potter’s Waltz,” performed whimsically by the TSO musicians, complemented the glittering winter transformation of the Hogwarts Great Hall on-screen, while the other pieces contrasted the rest of the film’s score, with upbeat themes that played to the youth of the characters. In particular, “Do the Hippogriff,” a raucous rock song performed in the film by the wizard band The Weird Sisters, set up a chaotic on-screen scene, complete with mosh pit and crowd-surfing teacher—though this song was not performed by the live orchestra and simply played as a recording.

Another piece from within the film’s world is a march performed by the Hogwarts brass band, just before the third task of the school’s Triwizard Tournament. The piece is cheerful and animated – and yet when Harry returns at the end of the task and the march is reprised, the loud brass instruments seem to mock the audience, who have just seen Cedric Diggory, an innocent student, murdered. The orchestra performed an understated version of this march that blended seamlessly into the film while helping to accentuate the emotions onscreen – particularly the harrowing cry of Cedric’s father, who realizes what had just happened and rushes forward to clutch his son.

Throughout the film, the TSO had to strike a steady balance between the strength with which they performed certain music while keeping other moments quiet or understated, allowing the content of the film to speak for itself. Overall, though certain parts felt empty of musical presence, they managed to maintain this balance well. Some pieces also required more force – particularly the “Durmstrang Entrance,” when the students of a Bulgarian wizarding school enter the Great Hall with chants, stomps, and even a student who breathes fire from their wand into the shape of a phoenix. The Durmstrang students had all eyes on them from the Hogwarts students and Sony Centre audience alike, but the live orchestral rendition felt slightly lacking the same power and vigour that captured the audience’s attention onscreen.

In this performance, the music was brought to the forefront of the film, allowing audiences to hear little, often-overlooked details. These musical snippets were synchronous to some corresponding visuals, like the way an enchanted pen moved, or a flicker of fire reflected in Harry’s glasses – adding a new layer to the way the audience experienced Harry’s world.

While much of the audience filed out of the theatre during the closing credits, those who stayed behind were treated to the TSO briefly revisiting some of the notable pieces from the film without the distraction of watching the movie. This provided one last opportunity to appreciate the presence of the orchestra and the experience of hearing a beloved score performed live, in a theatre full of affectionate – and thoroughly enchanted – fans.

The Sony Centre for the Performing Arts and Attila Glatz Productions presented CineConcerts and Warner Bros.’ production of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire In Concert from November 15 to 17, 2018, with live music by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Jaimie Nackan is currently studying media at the University of Guelph-Humber. She is a pianist and former ballet dancer, with further passions in literature, writing, and film. She is pursuing a career in critiquing the arts, while also working on her first novel.

KhouryKalenderbannerArt songs delivered in a full-on operatic register within a small resonant space such as Mazzoleni Hall can be hard to take, I’ve learned this Sunday.

On the program at the RCM’s intimate, chapel-like hall were French the mélodies with their Orientalist flair, as well as a selection of Lebanese and Turkish folk songs in new arrangements chosen by the two singers, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Beste Kalender. Robert Kortgaard and Rachel Andrist accompanied from the piano, and for one Ravel cycle Nora Shulman (flute) and David Hetherington (cello) joined the mezzo onstage. It was a well-programmed concert, diverse and thematically unified at the same time.

Joyce El-Khoury (c) Fay FoxEl-Khoury, Lebanese-Canadian soprano highly in-demand internationally as Violetta and Mimi, is a singer of exceptional glamour and stage presence. Her voice is opulent, with a beautiful upper top, but it did not seem like El-Khoury recalibrated it for the more contained, subtle and withholding recital genre. Most of the singing, whether that was the intention or not, came through as fairly loud—and I was seated in the last row. On that level, Ravel’s ‘Asie’ from Shéhérazade sounds almost irate. ‘Île inconnu’ from Berlioz and Gautier’s masterwork Les nuits d’été was a very loud statement, rather than a cheery invitation to voyage that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But things changed in part two of the concert, in El-Khoury’s program of Lebanese songs which she introduced and which are personally meaningful to her. As if by a magic wand, there it was: the real song intimacy. As if a camera zoomed in to a private moment between friends. This was an entirely different singer, very much capable of pianissimi, full of thoughtful inwardness, implicit rather than explicit, and generous.

Beste Kalender. Photo by Codrut ToleaMezzo Beste Kalender was more consistent. A fine French diction and rich dark timbre enhanced every song. Seductive and mischievous in ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ by Fauré, Kalender added some wicked castanets playing to her gamut in Ravel’s ‘Zaïde: Boléro’. She was particularly memorable in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, alongside the flute and the cello. ‘Nahandove’ is unusually sensuous, even for a French song, and it would be fair to describe it as, in fact, sexual (‘Arrête, ou je vais mourir / Meurt-on de volupté’). It, and the third song ‘Il est doux’, are voiced by a male narrator. He greets the female lover in the first, and orders female servants gently about in the third, but the middle song ‘Awa!’ is an outburst and a warning against such men. ‘Do not trust the white men’ is its refrain, and the verses explain what will happen when they arrive on distant shores and settle.

In part two, Kalender presented a selection of Turkish songs. One among them, ‘My Nightingale is in a Golden Cage’, she explained, was Kemal Ataturk’s favourite, so she would sing it in homage to the Turkish statesman—the modernizer and secularizer of Turkey after the end of Ottoman Empire and the republic’s first president.

The two women finished the program with Delibes’ mega hit from opera Lakmé, The Flower Duet.

The Royal Conservatory presented “Mazzoleni Songmasters: L’invitation au voyage,” featuring soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Beste Kalender, on November 11, 2018 at Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Toronto.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto.

organbannerPhoenix OrganDigital organs are a contentious topic amongst pipe organ aficionados. Until recently, the term “electronic organ” was unlikely to imply a high-quality instrument, and digital instruments were scorned as poor substitutes for the grandeur and acoustic superiority of an authentic pipe organ. In recent years, however, rapid advances in digital sampling quality, memory capacity, and processing speeds have made electronic organs a more viable substitute for their acoustic counterparts, giving these digital instruments an increasingly prominent place in music programs around the world. Frequently considered by churches facing the renovation or restoration of an existing, ailing pipe organ, the quality and affordability of digital instruments make them practical alternatives for large cathedrals and smaller churches alike.

Such is the case at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church, which recently installed one of Canada’s largest digital organs as a replacement for their 70-year-old pipe organ. The new instrument, built by Phoenix Organs, is described by director of music Edward Connell as “a masterpiece of modern organ technology,” for it contains three renowned pipe organs in one: the Willis organ of Hereford Cathedral, the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Notre-Dame de Metz, and the Müller organ of St. Bavo. Rather than being approximate reproductions of these magnificent historical instruments, the Phoenix organ is loaded with digital samples, recordings of each note of each pipe from the original organs themselves (tens of thousands of individual sounds), which are arranged and manipulated by the digital processor within the organ. These sound samples are integrated into the organ’s mechanical console so that the performer can control individual pipes through the same methods that one finds on an authentic pipe organ.

And who better to play this new instrument’s inaugural recital than one of the finest organists in the country? On October 30, St. Timothy’s welcomed Matthew Larkin as he played a wide-ranging program intended to display the international capabilities of the organ. With works by Bach, the English composers Howells and Elgar, the French organists Franck, Vierne, and Duruflé, and the Ottawa-based Andrew Ager, Larkin’s virtuosity and musicianship were on display as much as the new instrument itself. Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue ‘sur le nom d’Alain’ was particularly thrilling, as the opening prelude’s fast fingerwork and clearly-presented thematic material (Duruflé quotes Jehan Alain’s famous organ work Litanies) paired beautifully with the increasingly dramatic fugue, all of which was brought to life through the sounds of the Notre-Dame de Metz pipe organ.

William Boyce was a student of Handel in London, and his Voluntary in D Major was the vehicle for exploring the Willis tubas of Hereford Cathedral. An opening adagio played on flutes gave way to a Da capo-style trumpet tune, displaying the impact and breadth of sound present in the Willis’s high-pressure reed pipes. The one disappointment of the evening was that we were unable to hear the Müller organ of St. Bavo, in the Netherlands. This instrument, built in 1738, received complimentary reviews from none other than Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and the opportunity to hear Bach played on this historical organ sound set was enticing. Unfortunately, a computer error resulted in only a partial load of the data, so that we heard the modified mean-tone temperament of St. Bavo and the equal-tempered organ of Hereford simultaneously. This technical error (and its corresponding cacophony) could not be remedied despite numerous memory resets and reboots of the system, so Larkin continued with Bach on the Hereford organ sound bank. Although a different timbre and temperament than originally intended, the Bach was very well done, particularly the articulation and phrasings within the chorale trio Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns Wend.

Although the new digital organ at St. Timothy’s has some technical issues that still need to be resolved, it should soon be a worthwhile addition to the Toronto organ scene. And despite the curveballs thrown his way by the organ’s computer, Matthew Larkin demonstrated that he is indeed a master of his craft; his ability to create maximum impact through technical interpretation and instrumental manipulation is second to none, and he was able to adapt and give a performance that was convincing from beginning to end.

St. Timothy’s Anglican Church (North Toronto) presented organist Matthew Larkin in concert on October 30, 2018.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Toronto Musical ConcertsThe score of Merrily We Roll Along is considered one of Stephen Sondheim's best – and yet when the show debuted on Broadway in 1981, it was a notorious flop, lasting for only 16 performances. There were probably several reasons why the show didn't work, but most importantly in the opinion of most critics and scholars was the decision of Sondheim and director Hal Prince to cast very young performers, performers too young to have the experience and skills to play characters who start in their 40s and finish in their early 20s. For Merrily (and the original play of the same name by earlier Broadway legends Moss Hart and George Kaufman, on which it is based) begins at the end of the story of three showbiz friends, disillusioned in their financial success, and goes back in time 20 years by stages to the moment when they started off in New York, idealistically full of hopes of dreams.

Revivals, from concerts to full productions, have usually reversed the original casting scheme,  casting instead older performers of the right age for the beginning of the show who are able to navigate the journey back to their youthful selves. Toronto Musical Concerts did the same in their concert staging at the Al Green Theatre on October 17, and it works. Even with the performers using scores on music stands with only limited staging and bits of choreography, the show comes alive. The brilliant witty book by George Furth (who had earlier collaborated with Sondheim on the hit Company), interwoven with Sondheim's music and lyrics, combines cynical comedy with trenchant social observation as well as the ins and outs of both romantic love and the love between great friends.

Michael De Rose as Franklin Shepard stood out with his strong rich voice and presence. Ryan Kelly was appealing as his writing partner Charley Kringas, with his comic timing and great ability to 'youthen' over the course of the play. Lizzie Kurtz as Mary Flynn, the third of the central trio, captures the warm but acerbic Dorothy-Parker-meets-Carrie-Fisher quality of the girl in the trio and her journey from alcoholic disillusionment spiced with unrequited love for Frank back to excited, unblemished hope and ambition.

The concert, an Equity collective, was a bit rough on the opening night with the sound not balanced until partway through, and performers not always certain how best to position themselves to be amplified by the microphones positioned in front and overhead. The petite Lana Carillo as Gussie, Franklin's Broadway star wife, was often particularly hard to hear. On the other hand, the energy and commitment of the company was unquestioned and by the second half all was coming together, with songs such as “Old Friends,” “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” and “Opening Doors” sounding particularly strong.

The wonderful 2016 documentary about the original production of Merrily We Roll Along—called Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened—left me hoping to see a new production of the full show in order to explore its full potential. This TMC concert confirm the quality of the book and score and that the backward story arc is not only intriguing but an effective storytelling technique. In doing so, it whets the appetite even more for a full production of this brilliant but rarely seen musical.

Toronto Musical Concerts presented Merrily We Roll Along in concert on October 17 and 18, at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto.

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.

In Real Life, performed by artists from the CMTP at Sheridan College.There is almost nothing more exciting for a lover of musicals than to be at the birth of a new show, and on the afternoon of Monday, October 15 at Toronto’s CAA Theatre, I was witness to the first public steps of not just one but four new musicals currently in development at the Canadian Musical Theatre Project (CMTP) at Sheridan College.

The October 15 performance was the third of three days of CMTP's Festival of New Musicals, a relatively recent event created to showcase not only new shows in development but also the phenomenally talented graduating students of Sheridan College's justly famed Musical Theatre Performance program.

The brainchild of producing artistic director Michael Rubinoff, the CMTP is an international incubator for the development of new musicals (launched in 2011) – and also a brilliant training ground for Sheridan's student performers, where they learn to engage with living composer/librettist teams on new works in the earliest stages of creation. The combined energy and dedication of all the artists involved was palpable in the theatre on the 15th, as was the interest and excitement of the audience.

For about three and a half hours we were treated to the (shortened) first acts of four completely different musicals, each unique in story, theme, musical style and directorial approach. Directorial approach? Yes – for one of the unexpected delights of the afternoon was the depth and quality of what we were seeing. While the performance had been advertised as a “staged reading,” it proved to be on the top end of that definition: each piece had been clearly rehearsed in depth and was given a polished, choreographed presentation, so that we were seeing both the material and the performers at their highest potential, even though the performers had their scores on music stands throughout.

Shared with us in order of what seemed to be readiness for production, the afternoon began with Erik With a K by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey, a lightweight, fun and spoofy review of the life of composer Erik Satie in bohemian, fin de siècle Paris, built around the theme of Life vs. Art.

Stars of Mars, a stand-up comedy meets The Martian meets sci-fi coming-of-age story, followed, with a book by popular comedian Ashley Botting and young composer Daniel Abrahamson. Brought together by Michael Rubinoff, their talents matched up to create a fast-paced, fun look at a potential first colony on Mars that the audience really enjoyed.

With the third piece, In Real Life by Nick Green and Kevin Wong, we moved into weightier material. Set in a dystopian future owing some inspiration to films such as The Matrix and Logan's Run, In Real Life centred around a young man, entrenched in a rigid computer-controlled study environment, who is shaken out of his routine with the news that his mother has died and left him a video message. The music and book worked seamlessly together to tell this engrossing story, and Ali Joy Richardson’s direction/staging tellingly contrasted the rigidity of the computerized study world with the freedom the hero finds in the dark web as he tries to unravel the meaning of his mother's message. 

Kelly V. Kelly, performed by artists from the CMTP at Sheridan College.Last on the program, Kelly V. Kelly, based on the true story of a mother in 1915 who had her daughter arrested for doing too much tango dancing, would seem on the surface to be an absurdist comedy but proved to be something else altogether: an engrossing mother/daughter battle with emotions swirling around the stage in the path of the tango dancers, yet not without its own share of comedy along with the drama and romance.

With a book by well-known actor Sara Farb and music and lyrics by the prolific Britta Johnson, Kelly V. Kelly is the third of three musicals by Johnson being developed as part of The Musical Stage Company's Crescendo Program (the first two were Life After and Dr. SIlver: A Celebration of Life). Beautifully staged by expert director Robert McQueen, this excerpt left me wanting to hear more.

All four shows are full of potential, as are the young performers who brought them to life. I look forward to seeing them all as they go out into the world and develop further – and for anyone who enjoys musicals, I highly recommend this festival as something to watch for in future seasons.

The Canadian Musical Theatre Project (CMTP), based at Sheridan College, presented its Festival of New Musicals from October 13 to 15, at the CAA Theatre, Toronto.

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. 

A performance of Jumblies’ Talking Treaties. Photo credit: Jumblies Theatre.The fact of Indigenous performers taking over such a site of British colonial culture as Toronto’s Fort York has a wonderful power to it. Last summer (2017), Red Sky Performance debuted their magical exploration of the Anishinaabe “seven fires” legends, Miigis, on the Fort York grounds, and the triple juxtaposition of nature, the colonial military buildings, and the 21st-century urban skyline gave the piece an extra resonance that pulsed through the audience.

Jumblies Theatre’s Talking Treaties Spectacle, the latest version of which played at Fort York from October 4 to 7, is a community-oriented theatrical project that uses the Fort York setting as a launching pad for a relaxed exploration of the so-called “Toronto Purchase” and related treaties, largely from the point of view of the first people to live in this area. In Jumblies' hands, the project is an engine for community engagement in our history – from the urban neighbourhood members who take part alongside the organizing professional artists, to the core company of young Indigenous performers who take on most of the roles, to the larger community represented by the audience who come to experience the spectacle. For this is not so much a “show” as an event; a mostly light-hearted way to engage with ideas and historical facts that should be much better known about the founding treaties of our city and country.

While not a musical, music does play a part in the bookending of the event, with songs sung by a volunteer community choir anchored by one professional singer and several musicians, and with the live music (backed up with recorded elements) that carries the audience from spot to spot around the Fort as the spectacle unfolds. As this project continues to grow, it would be nice to see the role of music being expanded or made a bigger, bolder element of the whole.

The young Indigenous performers who took on most of the roles, though all of varying levels of experience, were clearly engaged in their passion and enthusiasm for the project. Jill Carter and Jesse Wabegijig, in the roles of Mohawk powerhouse Molly Brant and her spouse Governor William Johnson, were the strongest actors, though not appearing substantially until about halfway through, when they gave us the most satisfying chunk of history in an extended scene  of Johnson and Brant’s preparations for the great gathering of 24 First Nations for the signing of the Treaty of Niagara in 1764.

Part of the fun of the event was being tossed between snippets of historical events and Indigenous reaction to those events, all of it with an irreverent symbolic simplicity – the “purchase price” for Toronto including brass kettles, mirrors, lace hats, and bottles of rum being tossed into a pile, for example, or later, the trade price in number of beavers for various settler products seen tangibly as large stuffed beavers merrily tossed onto the Fort York green.

Was this really a play or musical? No, but it was, as promised by Jumblies, a spectacle – and a fun way to literally walk through some of our local and national history. Rather than a professional “show”, this was a lighthearted community event that performed an important role in bringing history to life in our current consciousness, with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

Jumblies Theatre’s Talking Treaties Spectacle was presented from October 4 to 7 at Fort York, Toronto.

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.

Maria Callas. Photo credit: mk2 Mile-End.More than 40 years after her death, documentarian Tom Volf has given us Maria Callas as we’ve seldom seen her. Maria by Callas is a singular act of super fandom, a riveting experience that contains no talking heads, no academic analysis and no eyewitness accounts of the soprano by other musicians or participants in the operatic world she dominated as La Divina. Anchored by an extensive interview between Callas and the celebrated British broadcaster David Frost from 1970, Volf allows the singer to tell her story in her own words. And when those words are in the form of letters or an unpublished autobiography, they are spoken by American soprano Joyce DiDonato. The result is an intimate portrait of a legendary artist, an unabashed piece of adulation on Volf’s part that nonetheless adds to our understanding of the construct and consequences of greatness.

David Frost and Maria Callas. Photo credit: mk2 Mile-End.Volf’s materials include exceptional archival footage from rare interviews, as well as footage long considered lost. We witness personal moments captured on Super 8 aboard Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis’ yacht; Callas hobnobbing with the likes of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco; we’re even privy to film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli’s home movies of Callas’ last Florida vacation just months before her death.

There are other recently discovered Super 8 films, secretly shot by fans, of her Farewell Tour and other concerts and performances, including Norma from 1965. We get a rare glimpse of her father and her together from a rediscovered BBC snippet. In an NBC nugget, she talks about her film ambitions with her friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed her in his film Medea.

Rare audio recordings from a host of concerts and operas buttress Callas’ testimony. Unpublished letters to her husband Giovanni Meneghini show the depth of her love in the early days of their relationship. Letters to her singing teacher Elvira de Hidalgo reveal the extent of her sacrifice and ambition in pursuit of an operatic career. She reveals the fateful meeting with Onassis on a beach in 1957; her feelings for him still burning strongly in 1968; the shocking surprise of his marriage to Jackie Kennedy; and the way she took him back after he admitted his “mistake.” As she put it: “My affair with Onassis was a failure but my friendship with him is a great success.”

Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas.The biographical details are often revelatory. She discloses how her mother pushed her into becoming a singer and how meeting de Hidalgo in Greece changed her life. Not only did she learn the art of bel canto but her teacher became the mother figure she had been missing in her formative years. Moving to Italy in the late 1940s after a return to her birthplace of New York went nowhere, her career took off. Her friend and mentor, film director Luchino Visconti suggested she lose weight, which changed her life artistically with La Scala and personally with her marriage. Visconti also taught her to move less onstage – advice which allowed her to engage more fully with the characters she portrayed. She made her debut with the Met in 1956 – we see her interviewed between acts of Lucia di Lammermoor – and sang a memorable Tosca.

She gives her side of the story of her cancellations and missed performances. She calls the first – January 2, 1958 in Rome – “the saddest evening of my career,” when her voice, hanging by a thread from bronchitis, forced her to cancel after 40 minutes. Her credo: “I have to feel what I do; I do things instinctively. No two performances of mine are the same.” And her mantra: “The public made me.”

So many close-ups, so much expressiveness; so much passion, so much emotion. Ultimately it’s Callas the musician, Callas the performer, who is so affecting.

The film Maria by Callas opens October 26 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Sistema 138 bannerPhoto by Stuart LoweLate September, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti came to town for a two-performance engagement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2). No stranger to the world’s concert stages, on the Friday afternoon between the two performances, Benedetti proved herself equally at home in front of an audience that many professional musicians would find infinitely more daunting—60 to 70 of the children currently enrolled in Sistema Toronto’s flagship after-school program at Parkdale Junior Public School.

It was a three-part encounter, starting with Benedetti meeting and playing for all the children in the program. In my experience occasions such as these are most nerve-wracking for the teachers in attendance, torn between the demands of impressing “the guests” with the children’s level of  discipline and decorum, and at the same time wanting to celebrate the exuberance and sense of confident ownership the children in the program feel. So prior to Benedetti showing up there was the usual herding and shushing as the children filed in, by class: “straight lines” and “remember we have guests” and “indoor voices, please.”

All such anxieties were dispelled when, accompanied by Aaron McFarlane, the TSO’s newly appointed director of education and community engagement, Benedetti arrived, her 1717 Gariel Strad dangling casually from her hand. She straightaway asked the children what the special signal was at their school when silence was needed (a fluttering downward hand movement, she was shown; “like a fountain,” she was told.)

She asked what different instruments they all played, and told them she was going to play a “theme and variations” for them, by Bach, and that the piece was almost exactly as old has her violin was. She asked if they knew what a theme was, and built on every answer given. She told them they would be practising listening, not because it was polite but because learning to listen, even more than practising the notes, is the most important thing a musician must do. She told them she would play the theme and then she would say “variation” each time she played a variation. And then she played.

No one had to be shushed.

Afterwards, she said “When I started, your listening was very good. But by the time I finished it was wonderful. So thank you all very very much.” Then she took questions, and they were all good questions. My own favourites were “How come you were lifting off your feet?” and (more an observation than a question) “You didn’t smile when you were playing. You are supposed to smile.” Her response to the latter: a question of her own. “Were there any smiley bits in the music? Because if there weren’t wouldn’t it be strange for me to be smiling?”

Photo by Stuart LoweSecond stop in the event was the school library where the Sistema senior orchestra was assembled to rehearse the piece for the third and final stop (which was to be a short concert by the senior orchestra in the school gym, for family and the more junior members of the program). Her capacity for instant rapport, genuine engagement with the orchestra, and the ability to zero in on a single teachable thing (in this case encouraging “big sound,” and then evoking it), were all on display.  

In the gymnasium concert that followed, she started out by taking her place in the back row of the violin section. After the piece had been played through, she followed up on the library lesson, this time expanding the notion of “big sound” – collective dynamic bravery – by coaxing and coaching the orchestra, and its conductor, to also play more quietly than they would have thought practical under the circumstances.

How opportunity knocks

Looking back on the event after it was over, I found myself reflecting on how effortless the whole thing had seemed (and by extension, how much work probably went into creating the illusion of effortlessness).

Part of the explanation is that Benedetti was on familiar ground. She has had a longtime and ongoing role in the Big Noise Orchestras movement, “Big Noise” being the way the Scottish Sistema movement has branded itself. Altogether there are more than 2,500 children and young people engaging regularly with the four established Sistema Scotland centres, and in addition to the Big Noise orchestras attended by children up to 11 hours each week, they run Baby Noise and Adult Noise programs which enable the Sistema Scotland family to reach as many as possible in the communities where they are based. Benedetti is not only on the Big Noise board of directors but also the movement’s “Musical Big Sister,” visiting schools and conducting musical clinics throughout the U.K. since 2005.

Photo by Stuart LoweI asked Aaron McFarlane (who coincidentally comes to his education/outreach role at the TSO from a key role with Sistema New Brunswick in Saint John) if their common Sistema roots had helped bring about this particular piece of matchmaking.

“Nicola Benedetti had asked if it would be possible for her to do some outreach as part of her visit to Toronto, and we were happy to oblige,” he says. “The wheels were set in motion well before I joined the TSO in July, but considering my affinity for El Sistema inspired programs, I was thrilled!”  

McFarlane’s TSO responsibilities include overseeing everything the orchestra does that is educational or that involves outreach or engagement. “Currently, our main programs are our School Concerts, our open rehearsals (Mornings with the TSO), our Young People’s Concerts, and the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. Beyond the tremendous musicians that make up the TSO, we also have the good fortune to welcome incredible musicians each season from every corner of the globe. We recognize that we are a part of a community, and feel a sense of responsibility to support those who are encouraging the development of young musicians whenever we can.”

Not all musicians, resident or visiting, have the same aptitude or appetite for engagement that Benedetti does – but it was a bright start to the year. “We need to go out of our way to engage with communities that might not otherwise have access to the TSO,” MacFarlane says. “This workshop was a small event in the context of a large organization like the TSO, but it may have made a huge impact on some of the children who got to interact with Nicola Benedetti.”

Raploch Estate is a run-down district in Stirling, Scotland, and is the site of Sistema Scotland’s first Big Noise Orchestra, established in 2008.

“The children I have taught in Raploch really are hugely talented,” Benedetti says, “and I don’t say that lightly. These children have enormous potential. It is phenomenal to walk round the estate and see all these children carrying instrument cases and talking about their orchestra. It is very moving for someone like me. I have always dreamed of our communities experiencing the infectious joy of playing music together. The teachers and the community recognise how these children are shining, and being nurtured every day by the musical environment they now live in.”

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

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