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 cast of Come From Away (Canadian Company). Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.The new Canadian company of Come From Away officially opened its run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on February 18, to cheers and an immediate, complete, and vociferous standing ovation. It rarely happens that a show coming into town with such high praise and raves from everywhere (including here in the fall of 2016) can meet the resulting high expectations. This show does and then some.

Come From Away is such an inspiring and intoxicating mix of music, story, character, direction, choreography and design that it seems to be an inevitable smash hit, so perfectly do all the elements interweave and mesh together. Add to that the fact that the story is Canadian, and true, and that it highlights the joys of generosity and compassion at a time of international tragedy, and the result is unbeatable. That is not to say that the darker and sadder aspects of the story are avoided – not at all. Rather, they are there in full force, which only makes the world onstage more complete and the joys and laughter that much more potent.

How has this phenomenon come to be? Many probably know by now that Come From Away is created from and based on the true story from 9/11 when 38 planes were forced to land at the airport in Gander, Newfoundland. The people of Gander opened their homes and hearts to the 7000 – 7000! – stranded passengers from around the world for five days, finding that by the last day – as the Mayor of Gander said from the stage of the Royal Alex today – they were saying goodbye to friends who felt like family.

The genius of the writing of the book and music is that it takes us there and puts us into the shoes of both the inhabitants of Gander and those unexpectedly stranded in this isolated place with at first no idea of why or for how long. From the opening song “Welcome to the Rock,”  where we are introduced to the people of Gander and Newfoundland on the morning of 9/11, to “38 Planes,” as the events of the day unfold, to “Blankets and Bedding,” as the community rallies and everyone jumps in to help, we are swept along through the course of five days, words and music encompassing individual stories and the increasingly intersecting lives of hosts and guests. Brilliantly, the story does not end as the planes take off again, but takes us powerfully through the return of some of the passengers to New York and the renewed realization of tragedy, but also to a new sense of gratitude for the incredible interlude experienced on the edge of Newfoundland – and then to a reunion of Newfoundlanders and “Come From Aways,” 10 years later in Gander.

The journey we are taken on is rich and satisfying, buoyed on a tide of Celtic-based music, and yet the design and direction is deceptively simple – just two tables and 12 chairs on a revolve and 12 actors playing about 36 different characters, changing dialect and origin so swiftly and deftly that there is never any question of not believing wholly in who they are at any given moment. Christopher Ashley rightfully won the Best Director Tony Award for the Broadway production last spring.

This almost-all-Canadian cast is superb. I didn’t get to see the original production (like many, I couldn’t get a ticket) but I can’t imagine anyone being better than this group, and the accents to my critical ear sound completely authentic. Every character is essential, though three are the main anchors of the story: George Masswohl, with his strong, jovial presence, is at the centre as the Mayor of Gander; Lisa Horner exudes a welcoming warmth and electricity onstage as teacher Beulah, one of the leaders of the response team; and Eliza Jane Scott impresses with the authority and depth of feeling she gives American Airlines pilot Captain Beverley.

Everyone in the company impresses with their vocal and acting strength and versatility: Ali Momen switching from the rather unsympathetic half of gay couple Kevin and Kevin, to sympathetic Egyptian master chef Ali; Kevin Vidal as a New Yorker who goes through a real arc of discovery while in Gander (as well as playing the romantic airline pilot), Kristen Pierce as Bonnie of the SPCA, garnering our sympathy and laughs through her concern for the plight of the animals aboard the planes; Sacha Dennis with her heartbreaking song “I am Here”; Cory O’Brien as genial constable Oz; and Barbara Fulton as Diane, who unexpectedly finds romance.

So real do all the characters seem that it is a shock to walk outside the theatre and find oneself no longer in Gander. At the end of the opening performance we did have the added treat, though, of meeting the real people on whom the characters were based, as they joined the cast onstage. Performances continue through October at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Mirvish’s production of Come From Away, directed by Christopher Ashley (with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein), runs from February 18 to October 21 at the Royal Alexandra 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.

musicgallerybannerMusic Gallery MasterpiecesTwo weeks ago on January 28, armed with a folder of carefully selected memorabilia of my own, I walked into the Music Gallery’s new location at 918 Bathurst  for what was referred to as a “90s Archive Jam!” Hosted by Joe Strutt and Fahmid Nibesh, the jam was basically a call for materials – a request for members of the experimental music community to gather and share their memories (and physical memorabilia) of what the Music Gallery was like in the 90s. Linked thematically to an ongoing “History Series” at the Music Gallery (focusing on the history of experimental music-making in Toronto), the jam helped shine a spotlight on an important time in Toronto’s musical past – a past in which the Music Gallery itself has played no small part.

Joe Strutt: Citizen Music Archivist

Toronto musician Joe Strutt‘s career has shifted markedly over the past few years. Making music has been mostly sidelined in favour of his work as a “citizen archivist”: running Track Could Bend, a monthly concert series of "improvised music and weird rock offshoots,” and maintaining his long-running music blog, Mechanical Forest Sound.

Over the past nine years, Strutt has methodically logged a myriad Toronto concerts by mostly local musicians. At last count he’s posted well over 4,000 concert entries, many with live audio recordings attached – a staggering number of events in anyone’s book. Consequently, his blog has grown to become a valuable archive of the local music scene.

I called Strutt last week, asking how it all began. He told me his blog “was initially a personal aid memoire and not consciously an archiving project of the creative music scene in Toronto.” It has nevertheless eventually grown into an incredible archive of local musical culture – what Strutt calls “an investigation of a wide range of artists, [and] reflections on concerts as shared experiences – as acts of citizenship.”

Strutt is also behind a series of “Toronto Experimental Music Wikipedia Jams,” the first of which was held at the Tranzac Club's Tiki Room on a balmy Saturday afternoon in November 2016.

The idea first occurred to Strutt when he went online to search for a Wikipedia entry on the CCMC, Toronto's venerable "free music orchestra" that formed in 1974 and established the Music Gallery. There wasn’t one.

To set about addressing that omission, he pitched his first Wiki Jam to redress the issue to saxophonist Glen Hall, the co-founder of the 416 Creative Improvisers Festival. “Glen was enthusiastic about it,” reported Strutt. I was among the roomful of eager participants who showed up at the Tiki Room and weighed in on the subject.

At home after that session, Strutt says that he “basically bashed out the Wiki text. Then other people improved it, adding rigour by providing links and formatting tweaks. The next time I checked, I was surprised to see my sketchy footnotes properly cited and formatted by a retired engineer from Australia!” The finished Wikipedia page CCMC (band) stands as a tangible testament to Strutt’s initiative and perseverance.

“Then in February 2017 I organised another Wiki Jam for the Wavelength concert series and festival,” says Strutt. This is what the Wavelength Music Arts Projects Wikipedia entry looks like, a year later.

“In preparation for the Music Gallery’s recent 90s Archive Jam! some of us took a field trip to York U’s archives to lay our hands on the old MG tapes,” Strutt explains. “We sat down and happily spent hours listening to recordings of live concerts.”

Why the interest in rediscovering and archiving the history of the Music Gallery now? “One of the reasons is that the Music Gallery is institutionally strong right now,” says Strutt. “It therefore has the luxury to address its past, and not just dwell in survival mode.”

Strutt summed up his view on his archive jams. “For me it’s about engaging with the community, sharing our stories. These events bring those who were first-hand participants together with younger folks who want to participate in that living community.”

Archive Jams at the Music Gallery

I asked Music Gallery artistic director David Dacks, in a phone call, about the ongoing History Series and how the 90s Archive Jam! came about. “One of the pillars of our strategic plan is to re-examine our archives and legacy,” he says. “York University’s archives contain our audio archives and images prior to 1999, but everything since has been a bit more haphazardly collected in binders, CDRs and, lately, through archived links. So I invited Joe Strutt, who serves on the MG’s Artistic Advisory Council, to host a 90s archive jam in order to generate material and conversations. In turn he invited musician Fahmid Nibesh to split the hosting duties.”

“The 90s Archive Jam! was not actually part of our History Series,” Dacks clarifies, “but a more relaxed event in which MG participants could share their stories and original documents. During the event I experienced several aha moments. For example, I was fascinated to hear Alan Davis speak of his nine years of extensive world music programing at the Music Gallery, which included the appearances of some significant artists.”

What will happen to the 90s material collected during the jam? “University of Toronto graduate student Mairead Murphy has been working diligently for months to archive concert audio recordings and pertinent paper documents on our HD,” Dacks explains. “It’s a race against time: CDRs have never been the most robust technology. She is also assisting us as we set up a presence on Bandcamp: Live at the Music Gallery. Initially we plan to upload six live concert titles from 2014 to the present and build from there.”

The History Series

The History Series itself continues with two upcoming events exploring the documentation of Toronto’s creative music. First is a discussion of Creative Music on Campus Radio on Thursday, February 15 at the Map Room, Hart House, University of Toronto, co-presented by the Music Gallery and CIUT-FM.

Dacks explains how non-mainstream music and radio art were boosted by the emergence of FM radio in the 1960s. “Combined with the advent of late night programming, radio opened up countless hours of experimental programming possibilities for stations large and small,” he says. “Campus radio was…especially important in fostering community and paying royalties to up-and-coming musicians creating jazz, new music and completely unclassifiable sounds.” The wide-ranging conversation on February 15 will be hosted by Dacks (himself a 25-year veteran of CIUT), and features panelists Ron Gaskin, Sarah Peebles, Nilan Perera, Claudia McKoy and Luca Capone, all active in campus radio.

The series continues on Friday, April 6 with a panel on Creative Music Journalism, presented by the Music Gallery and Musicworks magazine. Dacks will talk to journalists about “the challenges and joys of describing abstract music.” Panelists include Mark Miller (Globe and Mail), Carl Wilson (Slate, The Guardian, Globe and Mail), Katie Jensen (Polaris Music Prize podcast, IMPSTR), Jennie Punter (Musicworks, Toronto Star) and Jerry Pratt (Exclaim!).

“Evolving from occasional coverage of jazz and ‘new’ music in major newspapers during the 50s and 60s, experimental music found dedicated outlets in publications such as Coda and Musicworks by the 70s,” notes Dacks. During the 80s and 90s, alternative media such as NOW Magazine, Eye Weekly, The WholeNote and Exclaim! placed creative music activities in a wider cultural context. And more recently, podcasting has carved out a new space merging what print and radio used to do: incorporating both journalism and radio production to promote creative music to ever-changing audiences.

In addition to bringing people together to tell personal stories and to generate paper and audio artifacts, these archiving efforts of Joe Strutt, the Music Gallery, and others are pointing to meaningful ways our music communities articulate their collective memories – and how we do the essential work of passing on our musical legacies to future generations.

The Music Gallery’s 2018 History Series opens with “Creative Music on Campus Radio,” on February 15, followed by “Creative Music Journalism,” on April 6.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Harley CardThe TD Toronto Jazz Festival has announced the four special projects supported by its 2018 Discovery Series this spring – and with them, an indication of how the festival’s vision for jazz in Toronto is continuing to evolve.

This year’s Discovery Series features guitarist Harley Card’s new Sunset Ensemble octet, on March 1 at Lula Lounge; the Heavyweights Brass Band’s CD release for This City, March 29 at Lula Lounge; Adrean Farrugia and Joel Fram’s CD release for BLUED DHARMA, April 27 at Gallery 345; and “The Smith Sessions Presents: Bitches Brew,” an event featuring female-led groups performing original music, April 28 at the Canadian Music Centre (CMC).

Started in 2011, the series is a part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s outreach to local performers creating original work, and to year-round, multi-venue jazz programming in the city. Each year, an assembled Toronto Jazz Fest jury selects four projects to receive support and funding from the festival. Over the last 8 years, the series has accumulated an alumni list that serves as a veritable who’s who of local jazz innovators – and that has helped transform the festival from an annual affair into a year-round showcase of local music-making.

The announcement of the 2018 projects was one of Josh Grossman’s first, since transitioning from part-time to full-time artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz last month. So far, he’s excited about the results. “We always get projects that fit nicely within the festival mandate,” he says. “It’s a nice cross section of projects each year; it never feels like a stretch to find projects that really work and make sense.”

This year in particular brings a wide range of projects to the local jazz community: two CD releases; a collaborative project focusing on women leaders in the arts; and in the case of the Sunset Ensemble, which takes Harley Card and David French’s quintet and expands it into a new octet, a new venture by an already-established local bandleader. “Harley is a great example of a musician who has established himself clearly on the local scene, but who is striking out and taking a bit of an artistic risk by writing music for an ensemble a bit outside of his comfort zone,” says Grossman. “That’s exactly the type of thing we’re hoping to support.”

Grossman notes that the other three projects similarly represent different facets of the festival’s mandate: Heavyweights, for the ensemble’s emphasis on community outreach, Farrugia and Fram for their partnership between local and international musicians, and Bitches Brew for bringing together very different artists in a meaningful way. “The Bitches Brew sessions is such a unique event; it really resonated with the panel,” he explains. “The four musicians brought together there – Aline Homzy, Anh Phung, Emma Smith and Magdelys Savigne – really do come from four very different traditions. It will be neat to see how that all comes together.”

The festival this year also seems to showcase a wide range of venues (from the CMC to Lula Lounge), as well as artists of many different ages and career paths – a move that for Grossman was purposeful.

“I think part of it is the recognition that artists at any stage of their careers are able to take on special projects,” he says. “That’s what makes the best artists the best artists: they’re always trying new things. So there’s no [age] criteria for applying, other than that we’re looking to support local musicians who are making a significant contribution to the local jazz community.”

Moving forward as full-time artistic director, Grossman already has ideas about where the Discovery Series will head, and how it will grow alongside the main festival each year.

“A couple of years ago, a panelist said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if these were projects that were not only set apart in jazz, but also [connected with] broader communities in the city,’” he says. “There’s no way to mandate something like that – what would that thing be? – but [reaching beyond jazz into other communities] is a part of the application form now, and I’m excited to see how people interpret that, moving forward.”

More actively, Grossman plans on building stronger ties between the featured projects and the festival itself.

“Right now, there’s no direct relationship between support in this series and performing at the jazz festival,” he says. “I don’t know what [that would look like], but I want to explore that a little bit more. I want to create stronger relationships.”

It’s safe to say that the series will continue to develop in the future – and that in the meantime, with these four projects lined up for the spring, it’s off to a good start.

The 2018 TD Discovery Series opens on March 1, with a presentation of Harley Card’s Sunset Ensemble at Lula Lounge, Toronto.

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