bannefreyr2Cellist Elinor Frey. Photo credit: Elizabeth Delage. The Canadian Music Centre has served as a curator, presenter and preserver of Canadian musical culture for over 50 years. With a library containing thousands of works by hundreds of composers and an online streaming service with over 14,000 unique recordings, the CMC ensures that older material remains available to performers and audiences and that new works live beyond their premieres.

Besides being an archive for print and recorded music, the Ontario CMC office also presents their own concert series each year, held in their event space on St. Joseph St., Toronto. Curated in 2018/19 by Nick Storring in association with Riparian Acoustics, these concerts take place once a month and feature Canadian performers and composers, presented within the larger context of contemporary music. On Wednesday, October 3, the CMC presented cellist Elinor Frey in a concert of new music for the Baroque cello, each piece on the program commissioned for or by Frey herself. As a frequent performer on both the Baroque and modern cello, Frey brings a wide range of experience and expertise to her interpretations, whether the strings are made of gut or metal.

It is unfortunate that, within much of classical music, the idea of ‘new music’ is still heavily linked with the 20th-century avant-garde, often carrying connotations of being unappealing or intimidating for the inexperienced listener. Contrary to such misconceptions, Frey’s program was varied and exploratory without sounding overly noisy or abstract; in fact, each piece was a recognizable extrapolation of fundamental musical elements. Led by thoughtful and insightful program notes (each composer wrote a paragraph explaining the origin and concept of their work), we could see and hear that some pieces incorporated elements of minimalism, basing an entire movement on a small idea or theme, while others explored the Baroque cello’s warm tone and natural resonance, using both purely-tuned and microtonal intervals to create unique harmonic effects.

The pieces on the program often featured juxtapositions of harmonic and melodic fragments. Indeed, this focus on tunefulness and harmonic sonorities was reflected in the composers’ notes, with remarks such as “...a melody in search of its harmony” (Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar), “a continuo for some absent, slow melody” (Isaiah Ceccarelli’s With concord of sweet sounds), or “bell-like incantations of chords” (Ken Ueno’s Chimera) serving to illustrate each composer’s approach to reordering melody, harmony and rhythm. David Jaeger’s Constable’s Clouds, inspired by 19th-century painter John Constable’s strikingly modern cloud studies, was perhaps the most thrilling work of the evening, using rapid, virtuoso melodic passages and both bowed and pizzicato chords to reflect Constable’s kinetic paintings through sound.

Frey was also required to use extended playing techniques throughout the program, such as col legno tratto: bowing with the wood of the bow, producing a sound that is pitched but very soft, with an overlay of white noise. Both Scott Godin’s Guided by Voices and Lisa Streich’s Minerva, perhaps the most experimental work on the program, utilized a variety of such techniques; Minerva also had Frey softly singing at times, which highlighted certain notes within the harmonic series. Two works required the cello to be retuned (known as scordatura) in varied and, in the case of Ken Ueno’s Chimera, almost impossible ways. Frey described this particular retuning as something that, given the laws of physics and the tension of the string, should not be sustainable; it added an element of risk to the program, knowing that the tightly-wound gut could break at any moment.

Frey’s recital demonstrated that contemporary composers are using music’s essential components in original ways, reorganizing melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements to create works that are both appealing and new. Whether exploiting the Baroque cello’s natural resonance, using scordatura to alter its acoustic properties, or simply allowing the performer’s virtuosity to shine through, this concert displayed a wide variety of approaches to a historical instrument that many consider suitable only for old music.

Frey proved that the Baroque cello can do so much more than we often require of it. In doing so, she also demonstrated that today’s composers are writing superb musical material, capable of confronting – and surpassing – our expectations.

The Canadian Music Centre presented “Elinor Frey – New Music for Baroque Cello” on Wednesday, October 3, at the CMC Ontario Region space on St. Joseph St., Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Donna Garner, Peter Deiwick, Bruce Dow & Rielle Braid. Photo by Dahlia Katz. The Johnson sisters from Stratford, Ontario, Britta and Anika, are building an enviable reputation as creators of new music theatre – both individually and as a team.

Britta is probably best known for Life After, her musical that opened Canadian Stage's 2017/18 season a year ago after an auspicious beginning at the Toronto Fringe Festival the previous year. (Anika was both the dramaturg on that show and a member of the cast.) Anika is most likely best known for her work with frequent collaborator Barbara Johnston at Edge of the Sky Productions, most recently One Small Step, a new musical in part about Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield that debuted at the 2018 Toronto Fringe. Together, Britta and Anika previously created Brantwood, their first immersive musical and first collaboration with Mitchell Cushman and Outside the March Theatre Company, in 2015.

This year the sisters have teamed up to create a new immersive musical together: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, running until October 14 at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall. Book, music and lyrics are by both sisters, Mitchell Cushman directs and Barbara Johnston is both assistant director and choreographer, with Elizabeth Baird as music director. Outside the March is co-producing with The Musical Stage Company, who have chosen Britta as their inaugural composer for the Crescendo Series, committing to developing three of her new musicals over a three-year period (of which Dr. Silver is the second, following Life After.)

Intrigued about both the production concept and the process of the sisterly collaboration, I asked Britta and Anika to tell me a bit more about both and what an audience might expect to experience coming to see their new show.

The following interview has been condensed and edited.

The WholeNote: What or who inspired the story and concept of Dr Silver: A Celebration of Life?

Britta and Anika Johnson: In 2015, Outside the March put out an open call for new large-scale immersive theatre projects. We are both musical theatre writers, and so immediately started brainstorming ways in which a musical could be immersive – and more specifically, immersive in a way where both the music and the immersive element felt effortless and essential to the storytelling.

That’s how we arrived at a funeral. In a funeral, the guests function in much the same way that an audience does – so their role in the immersive experience is already built in. We often sing at funerals, so again, it provided an inherent justification for the show to be musicalized. But we wanted to raise the stakes even higher. So we made it the funeral for a cult leader.

Our fictional cult worships music as divine, which provided a way for us to use music as the primary carrier of the narrative. It’s also proved useful on a deeper level. Cults are obviously super fascinating, but in our research we always found a moment of disconnect when it came to examining their various belief systems. We’d listen to an interview with someone from a cult, and relate to them completely on a human level – that is, until they started talking about beaming up to the spaceship in order to reach the next level of existence (or whatever). But music is the most universally evocative thing we know. Everyone has had an experience of feeling healed or transported by music. So by placing music at the centre of the Silver worship, we hope that audiences will be able to enter our fictional world, feel the same emotional stakes that our characters do, and hopefully find a human connection to what it might be like to be part of an organization like this.

WN: This is billed as an immersive musical; can you tell me more about what that means?

BJ/AJ: As soon as the audience enters the space, they are guests at Dr. Silver’s funeral. We don’t waste a lot of time with exposition. The assumption is that the guests at this funeral know why they are there and know the ritual that is about to take place and their role within it. The audience is invited to discover the world by being immersed and implicated in it, sometimes even singing along.

There is also a psychedelic element to the show. Without giving too much away, the audience begins their journey by joining the cast in drinking a toast ‘to the master conductor’. From there, the style of music and storytelling evolves as the show goes on to help the audience feel like they are joining our characters on a kind of drug trip, and we try to continuously change the rules of what you can expect from the piece as we journey deeper into the cult mentality.

WN: You have collaborated before with director MItchell Cushman and his company Outside the March on the Dora award-winning Brantwood. Did Dr. Silver grow out of that initial collaboration?

BJ/AJ: Our initial proposal was anonymous, but once Outside the March selected Dr. Silver for development, our past collaboration certainly helped us to hit the ground running. This show is quite experimental and does not live on the page alone – its development has depended on a constant collaboration with our team. As such, having a pre-existing shorthand and a deep level of trust with Mitchell has been vital. Constructing a new show is a massive act of faith, and our long history of working with Mitchell and Barb [Johnston] (our choreographer/assistant director, and also a frequent writing collaborator on other projects) was what made the process possible.

WN: You have a longstanding partnership working together on shows. Did that start when you were young?

BJ/AJ: We definitely grew up making up silly songs and putting on little shows together at home – but we only began working together officially about four years ago, when we collaborated with Mitchell on Brantwood. We had been writing a lot separately and then one day decided to see what would happen if we worked together. We were amazed with the result and have just kept writing together ever since. We kind of have the ability to get inside one another’s minds and we are not afraid of disagreeing – we’re sisters, so we’ve been disagreeing our whole lives. Above all else, we just trust each other completely.

WN: The high school-aged Edge of the Sky Young Company, from Wexford Collegiate, is joining you on Dr. Silver. Can you tell us more about deciding to make them part of this project?

BJ/AJ: Wexford, under the leadership of Ann Merriam, has a truly special arts program. It’s a public high school in Scarborough whose student population comes from a super diverse set of backgrounds. Their faculty has a real focus on helping students perform authentically, as themselves, whatever that might mean – without any of the artifice or assumptions that often come along with a clichéd idea of what a musical theatre performer should be.

When we were first conceiving this show, we immediately envisioned working with a youth choir, since choral music (and youth groups!) are so deeply embedded in religious and spiritual traditions. I knew that the students from Wexford would be well-suited to the pop/classical hybrid style that we were writing in, and that they would be uniquely capable of channeling the specific energy that the show requires. So the collaboration kinda seemed like a no-brainer.

WN: Can you tell me about the choice of the historic Heliconian Hall in Yorkville for the production?

BJ/AJ: We wanted a location that felt sacred and important while maintaining a sense of intimacy. We were drawn to Heliconian Hall because of its incredible acoustics and rich history of experimental music performances. We also love how it feels like a church without being one, which felt like a perfect backdrop to construct our fictional musical religion. It’s such a cool building that hides in plain site – it’s right downtown, but no one knows about it. Plus, for over a century, it’s been a club for women in the arts. In every way, it felt aligned with both the logistical and artistic needs of our show.

WN: Did the Luminato Festival “in-progress” performances in June 2018 lead to changes in the script/music/staging?

BJ/AJ: Absolutely. We kept writing this script right up until we opened. A new work is never done and a piece this experimental requires constant trial and error. We’ve had the benefit of sharing the piece with audiences a few times during its development, which has been harrowing and super-vulnerable for us as creators, but ultimately hugely beneficial to the work. Now that the show is open, and audiences are seeing it every night, we’re learning even more things about it, and frankly already have the next draft prepped in our heads.

WN: How would you sum up in a few words what an audience member will experience coming to this show?

BJ/AJ: An experimental electro-pop opera that starts as one thing and ends up as another. An epic story about a cult that’s actually an intimate story about a family. A show that may not be perfect yet, but is courageously fighting to find a new language for musical storytelling, and in doing so is inviting its characters, its audiences, and (frankly) its creators to risk venturing away from certainty and into the unknown!

Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life runs until October 14 at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall.

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.

Photo credit: Jordan Browne.

Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.“Dance Brain is a highly innovative performance work in which brainwaves are converted into music in real time, which is then danced to. It interfaces neuroscience and performance practice, and takes advantage of the state-of-the-art technology in the LIVELab at McMaster University, Hamilton.”

That description, from the Facebook page for an event at McMaster on September 20 this year, certainly piqued my attention – yet I had a feeling for what may be brewing at the LIVELab. As an undergrad studying electronic and many other music genres at York University in the very early to mid-1970s, I witnessed and also participated in pioneering brainwave music experiments and performances under the direction of noted composers, musicians and sonic explorers David Rosenboom and Richard Teitelbaum.

Teitelbaum was the first to use a synthesizer to sonify his alpha brainwaves, along with other biological signals such as heartbeat and breath, in his composition In Tune (1967). Five years later, Rosenboom’s Portable Gold and Philosopher’s Stones incorporated the brainwaves of four “biofeedback musicians” into a unified musical work. While both Americans, they were teaching then at what was considered Toronto’s “other” university, making York for a time in the ’70s a centre of brain wave music.

Last week I spoke with Monahan, the 2013 Governor General’s Awards winner for Visual and Media Arts and the composer/sound artist behind the project, about the ambitious-sounding Dance Brain concept.

“McMaster neuroscience professor Steve Brown received a research grant to explore the intersections of music, dance and neuroscience,” said Monahan. “He was joined by Dan Bosnyak, neuroscience professor and the technical director of LIVELab, an advanced acoustic space and PA system at McMaster University, Hamilton. After a lengthy search for suitable artistic collaborators, he found dancer Bill Coleman and me last January.”

The process began with Brown and Bosnyak sending Monahan samples of recordings of alpha and delta brainwaves in the 8 to 16 Hz range (sub-audio for many of us) that they had produced at the lab. Monahan then transposed those samples up a few octaves using the software program Reaper, so they could be audible.

“Upon arriving at the LIVELab to begin work [in June], however, Prof. Brown pointed out to me that straight transposition resulted in a very compressed audio spectrum, which distorted the signal,” Monahan said. “Rather than additive transposition, as happens in music notation (when say transposing up an octave), in consultation with the scientists we tried a multiplication process which results in a full sound spectrum. Invoking my composer’s prerogative, I then made the decision to choose to use both processes (additive and multiplicative), resulting in the possibility of more and richer musical variation.”

This led to the development of several discrete compositions, each of which uses a different technological strategy. These pieces will be heard in Dance Brain’s premiere performance on September 20.

“The first work uses frequency analysis of transposed live brainwave audio brainwave audio which triggers midi notes,” says Monahan. “I then developed a patch in Max [a visual programming language for music and multimedia] to perform notes on a Yamaha Disklavier [a midi-controlled keyboard] combined with sampled sounds of an orchestral harp.

“The second piece uses brainwaves generated live by the dancer while performing, as do all the works on the program,” he adds. “These signals are hooked up to a motor which plays a snare drum, as well as to another motor which plays a long wire attached to another snare drum acting as an acoustic resonator.”

The third work uses aspects of Dollhouse, a work that Coleman and Monahan have already been performing for a few years. “It uses multi-channel spatialized dispersion and reverberation controlled by brainwaves generated in real time by the dancer,” says Monahan. “During the course of Bill’s performance he strips down to reveal the source of some of the acoustic sounds the audience hears: a number of plastic cups attached to his clothing. There’s certainly an element of slapstick humour in this part of the performance.”

What are the roots of this kind of performative-scientific exploration? Monahan immediately replied: “To me, this work shows a direct influence of Alvin Lucier’s pioneering Music for Solo Performer (1965).” Many consider the piece to be the first musical work to use brainwaves to directly generate the resultant sound.

“I bought a copy of David Rosenboom’s book Biofeedback and the Arts: Results of Early Experiments (1975) at the Music Gallery around 1980-81,” continued Monahan. “That text was a point of departure for me when starting Dance Brain.”

Are there future plans for Dance Brain? “In the scientific experimental tradition, we’re aiming to learn something from this development and performance process,” noted Monahan.

He has found working with the McMaster scientists in this project a productive challenge. “For one thing, it appeared surprising to one of our scientific collaborators when I referred to my individual Dance Brain works as ‘compositions.’ It seems to me that it can be a challenge to establish a protocol between composers, choreographers and scientists. In any case, we work together well and there are many promising aspects to the work that we've developed.”

It’s the kind of negotiation artists have to conduct when taking a major creative risk, particularly one which involves working with other disciplines. I invite you to join me for the premiere of Dance Brain on September 20 and explore this fascinating inner-outer sound-body landscape for yourself.

The premiere performance of Dance Brain takes place on September 20 at 8pm, at McMaster University, Hamilton. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/events/1087454958072962/.

Monahan and Coleman perform their work Dollhouse on September 22 at 8pm, at 201 Geary Ave., Toronto. Details at https://www.facebook.com/events/1867792106667915/?active_tab=about.

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

Nicolas NamoradzeCALGARY – My previous Honens competition report closed with the jurors’ choice of three finalists to compete for the title of Laureate. The winner receives a first prize of $100,000 CAD plus a three-year Artist Development Program that includes recitals in prestigious international venues, professional management, and a recording on the Hyperion label. In it, I lamented the elimination of Austrian pianist, Philipp Scheucher, 25, from the final round. His artistry and musical insight reminded me of a young Lars Vogt or Piotr Anderszewski, both of whom I heard at the 1990 Leeds (UK) International Piano Competition.

But now we have a 2018 Honens Laureate: Georgian pianist Nicolas Namoradze, 26, won the title at the triennial competition on Friday night (or early Saturday morning, depending how you count it). Namoradze saved his very finest playing for the last, when the stakes seemed highest in terms of making an impact on the seven-member jury (Alessio Bax, Ingrid Fliter, Wu Han, Annette Josef, André Laplante, Asadour Santourian and Minsoo Sohn) – and the audience which filled Jack Singer Concert Hall.

To be sure, the Jury Guidelines stipulate the final concerto performance counts as only 15% of the final result. The official mathematicians who tabulate the scoring weight the jurors’ votes according to this designation: 30% from the solo and 30% from the collaborative rounds in the Semifinals; 15% from the chamber music and 15% from the concerto round in the Finals, and 10% from an interview seen by the Jury before the results are tabulated. (Honens might want to rethink those proportions, and also make room for a Mozart or Beethoven concerto in the Finals; concertos by these two composers were proscribed this year.)

These numbers notwithstanding, Namoradze delivered when the psychological stakes were highest: the final concerto round. Partnered by the Calgary Philharmonic and guest conductor Karina Canellakis, his rendition of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (one of the longest and most demanding in the repertoire) was etched in long lines and executed with an apparent ease that in the moment erased thoughts of the work’s reputation as a beast to be tamed.

Not so for Namoradze, who looked and sounded as comfortable playing this work as he had been with three of his own virtuosic Etudes in the Semifinals.

The two other finalists – Han Chen, 26 (Taiwan) and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, 21 (US) each received Raeburn Prizes of $10,000 CAD (named for the late Andrew Raeburn, first artistic director of the Honens – a position now held by pianist Jon Kimura Parker). Sanchez-Werner also won the Audience Award of $5,000 CAD.

Namoradze is far from a novice in the concert world, having appeared as a soloist in Europe and the US. Performances in Hungary, Georgia, Spain and the US have been broadcast; his own compositions have been commissioned and played at US festivals; and he will perform a series of recitals with violinist Rolf Schulte, a highly-respected interpreter of contemporary music.

In addition, Namoradze has composed and produced soundtracks for feature films, including one made in association with the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. He studied in Budapest, Vienna and Florence, then moved to New York to earn a Master’s degree at Juilliard. He now pursues a Doctorate at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center, studying piano with Emanuel Ax and Yoheved Kaplinsky, and composition with John Corigliano. Namoradze himself serves on the faculty of Queens College, CUNY.

And what of Philipp Scheucher? At 12 noon last Friday, roughly 12 hours before the Laureate was announced, he played another superb solo recital, for an audience that nearly filled the lobby of Jack Singer Concert Hall. On a Steinway baby grand, he presented a different program than the one he had given in the Semifinal round six days before.  This time we heard Beethoven’s little-known Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77, and the famed “Appassionata” Sonata; then Liszt’s late, quasi-impressionistic Nuages Gris, and the Transcendental Etude No. 4, “Mazeppa”. It was wonderful – all of it.

Philipp Scheucher. Remember the name, along with that of Nicolas Namoradze.

Archived video recordings of all Semifinals and Finals performances at this year’s Honens International Piano Competition can be viewed at www.honens.com/livestream.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

Han Chen (Taiwan / age 26), Nicolas Namoradze (Georgia / age 26), and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner (United States / age 21), will vie for the title of Honens Prize Laureate.CALGARY—This sun-splashed city, with dry air and moderate temperatures, has been opening its arms to the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition. We now enter the home stretch, with the winner (“Laureate”) to be declared late Friday night. In the meantime, the ten semifinalists from nine countries have been narrowed to a field of three finalists by a seven-member jury.

The standard of piano-playing has been extremely high throughout.

I attended every round of the semifinals: 10 in all, beginning August 30. Competitors were obliged to play 65-minute solo recitals, plus 65-minute collaborative recitals with baritone Phillip Addis and violinist Jonathan Crow.

The competition is engaging a devoted audience that listens intently in the Jack Singer Concert Hall, quietly exchanging views in the lobby at intermissions. Is there something about Calgary and virtuoso piano-playing? After all, this city’s Mount Royal College is where the young Yuja Wang, keyboard phenomenon from China, first studied in North America.

Meanwhile, related events of the Honens Festival, including a series of masterclasses, have attracted young people to educational events and to piano recitals across town. The finals on Friday evening will enlist the Azahar Ensemble, a woodwind quintet.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, this year’s “Mentor in Residence,” played a substantial recital of Brahms and Chopin Tuesday evening. Ohlsson is now working with the competitors, sharing musical and professional wisdom. His playing remains masterly, allying technical brilliance with mature expansiveness.

Of course, competitions by nature invite disagreement with the decisions made, and this edition of the Honens has been no exception.

The announcement of the three finalists late on Labour Day didn’t include the name of the competitor who struck me as the most eloquent, musicianly and promising: Philipp Scheucher, 25, from Austria. Given the nature of these events, I assumed he might not emerge as the ultimate winner of the $100,000 CAD first prize, plus an Artist Development Program whose details have yet to be revealed. But I was quite sure he would at least advance to the finals. In Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, Scheucher negotiated the sprawling rhetoric with virtuosity, poetry, individuality and abandon. The final section – from the fugato to the concluding bass note – was delivered via an unassailable musical impulse.

Before that, his haunting account of Ravel’s “Oiseaux Tristes” from Miroirs, and some stylish Mozart, to me spelled “finalist.” In the collaborative round, a stimulating program of Beethoven, Schoenberg, Webern and Schubert reinforced the impression.

But it was not to be.

The three finalists?

Han Chen (Taiwan), 26, delivered a staggeringly brilliant account of Liszt’s Reminiscences of Don Juan. He confirmed his sterling credentials as an exponent of contemporary music by juxtaposing the Liszt Don Juan Fantasy with four concert paraphrases by Thomas Adès (b. 1971) on his opera Powder Her Face. Despite some over-the-top arm and hand gestures and a rendition of Schubert’s late C-minor Sonata, D. 958 that could have shown more in terms of structural articulation and lyrical impulse, Chen’s playing was sensational.

The collaborative round showcased Chen’s wonderful performance of a Britten suite with Crow.  They also essayed the early Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963) by John Corigliano, a piece that, for me, even expert advocacy couldn’t quite “sell.” Still, the collaborative performances entailed very limited rehearsal time, underlining the quality of what was achieved.

Of the other two finalists, Nicolas Namoradze, 26, from Georgia, offered three of his own études, displaying a keen grasp of the instrument’s capabilities and plenty of imagination. As a composer and film soundtrack producer as well as pianist, his intellect and gifts are in no doubt.  But I found his solo Bach (E-minor Partita) and stage presence uncomfortably tentative, and his collaborative round was less assured than the solo.

The youngest (at 21) finalist, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner (U.S.), boldly tackled Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111. This followed his brilliant performances of five Liszt Transcendental Etudes, and a contemporary piece. Few pianists manage to scale the heights of Opus 111 at such a tender age, and Sanchez-Werner was no exception, indulging in some odd distensions of tempo and caressing and emoting over individual notes, which weakened the structure. The ineffable Finale also needed conceptual tightening. Was it worth the risk of taking this piece in its current state of readiness to such a high-stakes competition? The jury clearly thought it was.

The Honens’ choice of a “Laureate” will be an updated self-definition of how it sees itself on the world stage, since the eventual winner will carry the competition’s reputation internationally.

The performances are all archived at www.honens.com/livestream. Stay tuned…my next report will come after the jury announces its verdict late Friday.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

Honens' 2018 Mentor in Residence, Garrick Ohlsson. Photo credit: Dario Acosta.This month in Calgary, one of the most prominent international piano contests enters its last laps...and you won’t need to be onsite to take it all in.

Beginning Thursday, August 30, the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition – a triennial event – will livestream the Semifinal and Final rounds [see schedule below]. The winner will receive a First Prize of $100,000 CAD and an “Artist Development Program” valued at half a million dollars, including a recording on the Hyperion label. Other elements of the program have yet to be confirmed.

During the Semifinals, the competition will showcase ten pianists, ages 21 to 29, from nine countries. The hopefuls hail from Austria, Belgium, Georgia, Hong Kong, Italy, Romania, South Africa, and the U.S., plus two from Taiwan.

The ten selected to perform were culled from dozens of contenders who recorded auditions last March in Berlin or New York. A preliminary jury selected those who would advance to the Semifinal round in Calgary. Beginning August 30, a second jury – Alessio Bax, Ingrid Fliter, Wu Han and Minsoo Sohn – will decide which three candidates make it to the Final round.

The Honens jurors won’t rely exclusively on solo playing in their decision-making. Each semifinalist must also perform a 65-minute collaborative recital with baritone Phillip Addis and violinist Jonathan Crow, the Toronto Symphony’s concertmaster. The quality of ensemble playing will be a factor in determining who advances to the Final round on September 6 and 7. The 2018 Honens Prize Laureate will be announced on Friday, September 7.

The three finalists will perform concertos with the Calgary Philharmonic, conducted by Karina Canellakis. Canellakis, a 37-year-old American, is the newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Amsterdam, and herself the winner of the 2016 Solti Conducting Award. The three pianists who make it to the Finals will also perform chamber music with a woodwind quintet, and submit to interviews with arts journalists to show their “…willingness and ability to communicate effectively with audiences of today.”

Honens prides itself on an educational component, including masterclasses with jury members. Significantly, this year’s “Mentor in Residence” will be Garrick Ohlsson, the towering American pianist whose omnivorous repertoire and blazing virtuosity have been drawing audiences for decades. A veteran of the competition circuit himself, Ohlsson first won the Busoni International (Italy) and the Montreal International competitions, before taking First Prize in the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

His thoughts – musical, pianistic, and career/professional – will prove valuable to the Honens competitors this year. As well as offering coaching sessions to each semifinalist who does not go on to the Finals, Ohlsson will share his insights with the three finalists after hearing each of them perform with the Calgary Philharmonic. Ohlsson will also present a solo recital of Brahms and Chopin works on September 4 in the Jack Singer Concert Hall.

The Honens International Piano Competition & Festival, founded in 1992, is named for the late Esther Honens, a Calgary philanthropist who in 1991 donated $5 million to endow a major piano competition in her hometown. The event also boasts an array of corporate presenting partners. The artistic director this year is Jon Kimura Parker.

The schedule of livestreams from the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition (log on to www.honens.com) is as follows:

Livestreams of the Semifinals will air at 2:30 pm and 9:30pm (EDT) on:
Thursday, August 30
Friday, August 31
Saturday, September 1
Sunday, September 2
Monday, September 3 (Labour Day)

Livestreams of the Finals will air at 9:30pm (EDT) on:
Thursday, September 6
Friday, September 7

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

L-R: Dan MacDonald, SATS students, Deb Jones. Photo credit: Mark Rash.Each year that enough donations are secured means another year of free traditional fiddle and guitar camp for Indigenous children at the Parry Sound Friendship Centre. The camp is part of Strings Across the Sky (SATS), initiated by former Toronto Symphony violinist Andrea Hansen in 1987, and led by her niece Deb Jones since Hansen passed in 2014. The not-for-profit organisation works with Indigenous youth, both to reinvigorate a long history of fiddle playing (brought over from the Orkney Islands) in Canada’s Northern communities, and provide a fun week of fiddling and playing guitar for approximately 30 students between the ages of 6 and 17.

Jones organises the SATS week, working with contacts in Northern communities. In addition, she leads the teachers and students, animatedly singing and playing the guitar – with an occasional expert yodel thrown in – at the open-plan rehearsal space nested in the Centre’s sky-blue barn-like structure on the outskirts of the Sound, away from summer tourists.

The Parry Sound Friendship Centre is an Indigenous-led, membership-driven space dedicated to serving Indigenous people living in urban communities – one of 121 such volunteer-run centres across Canada. Emerging from a grassroots movement in the early 1950s, this network of Friendship Centres provides off-reserve services for Indigenous communities. The Parry Sound location, founded in 1966 under the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC), was one of the first in the province.

“Any time I’ve walked into a Friendship Centre, they’ve treated you like they’ve always known you. They just want to help in whatever way they can,” says Samantha Depatie, a fiddling instructor at the camp who also teaches at the year-round SATS program at the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre administered by Michele Longshaw.

The will to push ahead with the SATS program, despite limited resources, is thanks to years of volunteer teaching up north by Andrea Hansen. While on tour with the Toronto Symphony in 1987 in Aklavik, she met future SATS co-founder Frank Hansen, who coincidentally shared both her last name and a desire to revive the fiddle tradition, being himself a fiddler of Danish and Inuvialuit origins. SATS has since run programs in 17 High Arctic communities and transported over 450 donated violins, free to students be they involved in programs at Algoma University, one-week workshops in Indigenous schools, or at the annual summer camp.

The SATS instructors are attuned to the importance of learning by watching – despite the challenges that sometimes-limited access to instruments can present. Andrea introduced a method that supports this, with wooden spoons standing in for fiddles, dowels for bows, preparing hand positions for the rapid experiential learning session that culminates in a performance just five days after – for many – picking up a violin for the first time.

And it works. I arrived two days before the concert, shocked to see the students’ progress. While several students, not more than 6 or 7, struggled to pay attention, most stared bright-eyed as Depatie, classical violist Ann Armin and fiddler Dan MacDonald positioned themselves among littler kids, while Niagara Symphony violist Marlene Dankiew attended to the older students.

MacDonald hails from Cape Breton and has several decades of fiddling and teaching under his belt. “It’s a way to help out in this community,” says MacDonald of his experience teaching fiddle at SATS since 2016. “This gives me a chance to make a difference hands-on. The kids are mostly here because they want to be here.” In June, Depatie’s North Bay class played with esteemed Canadian fiddler Scott Woods and a full band in what she described as a Don Messer-type setting. “For a lot of the kids the fiddle is in their blood. It’s such a Canadian instrument,” she says. “The fiddle is basically the sound of fun.”

Around 2005, a number of guitars were donated to the program, bringing with them a place for guitar teacher and prominent Toronto jazz guitarist Graham Campbell. Seventeen-year-old Ravin has been in Campbell’s “guitar orchestra” for eight years, starting first on fiddle and later adding guitar. “I was drawn to Andrea,” she says. “I like playing and then having the guitar match my voice, and just being able to create something.”

The full house at the Saturday 28 July concert in Parry Sound’s Stockey Centre seemed to like the results. Students have been receiving (generally, and certainly this time) standing ovations. MacDonald and Campbell opened with a rousing Mason’s Apron. Juniors and seniors all had their turn, playing the basic finger routines with patterns sung by Jones accompanied by five guitarists. Frank’s Delta Dream was played, homage to Frank Hansen and its composer Andrea Hansen. A young boy kept the beat on an Anishinaabe hand drum during the Canoe Medley. And they Walked the Line before launching into the eponymous Orange Blossom Special, key to the Sound given the sonorous whistle of the trains that blast through it nightly, precisely mimicked by festival director and renowned clarinetist James Campbell who jumped in on whistle.

“The Festival of the Sound has a long-term commitment to Strings Across the Sky,” says James Campbell. “Their program fits perfectly into our mandate of community outreach and education.” Jones recounts former student and gigging fiddler Charlie Wabano’s desire to take the program to his hometown of Fort Hope, saying, “There’s a real lightness of spirit that comes through. I know the difference it can make with these kids.”

Strings Across the Sky presented its final summer 2018 concert on July 28 at the Stockey Centre, Parry Sound, as part of the 2018 Festival of the Sound.

Janine Armin is a writer and organiser based in Amsterdam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It fits.

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

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

PD 89bannerChristoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.Toronto Summer Music (TSM) is in full bloom, and will be past its midpoint by the time you read this. Here are some of the highlights of the festival so far, beginning with the world-class pairing of tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake, July 19 in Walter Hall.

Drake’s pianism is pointed, characterful and tells a story; he is an equal partner with the singer. Their well-chosen program of Mahler (before intermission) and Schubert (after) – especially Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn No.9 and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, from Ruckert-Lieder – was the first of many transfixing moments in my personal journey through several TSM mainstage concerts. Indeed, the second moment came during Du bist die Ruh, D776 (from another Ruckert poem), the loveliest of ten Schubert songs (including two encores) with Pregardien bewitchingly conveying the ardour of the smitten narrator.

In his masterclass two days later on July 21, Prégardien encouraged the piano and tenor to be of equal voice in Schubert’s Liebesbotschaft from Schwanengesang, an intimate dialogue between a young man and nature. He suggested to tenor Joey Jong that he be more natural onstage, be more into the real situation of the song (just as Prégardien himself had done in his own recital). “Where your eyes go is very important,” he said. “Give the impression that you are really in a garden.” Masterclasses are a great window into performance practice – whether it be the importance of a beautiful legato line to Brahms’ phrasing, the connection between two notes being a little more elegant in a Hugo Wolf song, or the expressive, operatic, vocal lines (like recitative) in Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger.

And of course, a masterclass can provide insight into the mindset of the mentor himself. Prégardien told us that Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder No.3 is so powerful that he has to step back when he sings it. “The expression comes from the music as it goes higher,” he said.

Kinan Azmeh. Photo credit: James Ireland.Kinan Azmeh, the Syrian-born clarinetist (and member of the Silk Road Ensemble) who has been based in New York City for nearly two decades, brought an immediacy to TSM’s Memories of War theme when he performed as a member of the Kinan Azmeh City Band quartet July 18 in Walter Hall. Memories of his Syrian home (now engulfed in a horrific civil war) inspired several of the pieces the band played in a concert that turned out to be a life-enhancing shout of joy. Azmeh, whose round, sometimes sweet tone is capable of all sorts of dynamic expression, began with a haunting pianissimo note on his clarinet, then picked up a rhythmic figure in the guitar, drums and bass, and danced down the backstreets of a Middle-Eastern city seemingly across time, centuries collapsing from the past into the present. After intermission, the quartet was joined by the sublime pianist/composer Dinuk Wijeratne (who is writing a concerto for Azmeh) in the first piece Azmeh composed after moving to NYC – Love on 139th Street in D – a subtle confection that conveyed the sound of a big city. The evening ended with a dazzling evocation of weddings in a Syrian village public square, music that reinforced Azmeh’s stated belief that “simply falling in love is a right no authority can take away.”

Two concerts in Koerner Hall on July 19 fell directly within the Memories of Wartime theme, with each of the works having its own unique connection. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was written during WWII but looks inward to the American countryside for one of the Brooklyn-born composer’s most aspirational and exultant pieces of music. The TSO Chamber Soloists (led by TSM artistic director Jonathan Crow) teamed up with eight fellows of the TSM Academy to recreate the 13-piece chamber orchestra that accompanied the original ballet. The result was a lighter, more transparent rendition that avoided the moribundity that sometimes weighs down the orchestral version.

Suzanne Roberts Smith (the soldier) and Jonathan Crow.After intermission the TSO Chamber Soloists re-formed into a septet to accompany the full-length version of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, complete with narrator, actor and dancer. Written as WWI was winding down, this tale of a violin-playing soldier, whose instrument is sold to the devil for uncountable wealth, is a virtuoso showcase – especially for violinist Crow, Andrew McCandless (cornet) and percussionist Charles Settle – but Miles Jaques (whose clarinet playing was the centrepiece of the Copland), Kelly Zimba (flute), Michael Sweeney (bassoon) and Gordon Wolfe (trombone) all performed Stravinsky’s cross-rhythms splendidly.

(from left) Jonathan Crow (violin), Julie Albers (cello), Miles Jaques (clarinet) and Natasha Paremski (piano) perform Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time.'Jaques and Crow were joined by cellist Julie Albers and pianist Natasha Paremski for a transfixing performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940 where Messiaen was being held after being captured. Ethereal, otherworldly, quietly mysterious, replete with birdsong and fervent religiosity, the work demands the highest performance standards from violinist and clarinetist in particular; Crow and Jaques were up to the task and the total effect seemed to pass through the time-space continuum.

Crow returned July 24 to Lula Lounge as a member of the New Orford String Quartet for an electrifying (pun intended) performance of Steve Reich’s late 20th-century masterpiece, Different Trains. Reich took a childhood memory of transcontinental train trips he made before WWII and contrasted that with an imagined trip to the Nazi concentration camps (based on interviews with Holocaust survivors) and a third trip just after the war in which Holocaust survivors came to America to rebuild their lives. The quartet has to tailor their playing to a pre-recorded soundtrack of train whistles and track noises, as well as to repeated vocalisms from interviewees, as the piece moves from childhood wonder to mass murder to a rekindled optimism, all brought to life by the New Orford’s magnificent evocation of the relentless power of Reich’s writing.

The evening was completed by George Crumb’s Black Angels, composed during the heyday of the War in Vietnam. The quartet unlocked the feral beauty in Crumb’s radical work, an austere experiment in sonic variety that the New Orford made instantly memorable, proving once again that the immediacy of live music cannot be overstated.

(from left) Jonathan Crow, Andrew Wan, Pedja Muzijevic, Eric Nowlin and Brian Manker. Photo credit: Catherine WIllshire.A few days later on July 27, the New Orford found themselves in Walter Hall performing Beethoven’s String Quartet No.11 in F Minor, Op.95 “Serioso.” They displayed vibrant ensemble playing in this work that is compressed both musically and chronologically, falling just before the famous Late Quartets. They saved the best for last with a ravishing rendering of Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A Minor, Op.84 (the accomplished Pedja Muzijevic was at the keyboard) which the composer began in 1918 as WWI was winding down. A Romantically rich work, with melodic wisps curdling into Brahmsian harmonic colouring in its intensely lyrical opening movement, the work’s heart is in the slow middle movement with the players giving rapt attention to the subtleties of Elgar’s writing that is pure English musical poetry.

 Jonathan Crow (left) and Phil Chiu CREDIT Catherine WillshireBack in Walter Hall on July 30 for “A Tribute To Yehudi Menuhin,” Crow devoted his recital with Phil Chiu, his dexterous regular pianistic collaborator, to works the celebrated violinist played for the Allied Forces during WWII and on a momentous tour of Germany with Benjamin Britten immediately after the war. Crow exhibited a sweetness and grace in the various versions he and Chiu cobbled together of Corelli’s Sonata in D Minor, Op.5, No.12 “La Folia.” The duo’s playing of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.9 in A Major, Op.47, “Kreutzer” had the urgency and intensity the work demands, bringing an intimacy to the second movement’s theme and variations and a sparkle and drive to the third. Crow next served up three bonbons by Fritz Kreisler and we discovered that these musical embers from an older world still glowed. A bravura performance of Ravel’s Tzigane elicited a vigorous standing ovation; the sorrowful beauty of Ravel’s Kaddish made for an appropriate encore. Not only did it put a bow on the Menuhin tribute, but it harked back to Different Trains and looked forward to “War in the 20th Century,” the August 1 concert that includes two works by composers who died in the Holocaust. It’s just one of many connections that enrich this year’s edition of TSM and illustrate Crow’s skills as artistic director. We are fortunate to have him in our midst.

Toronto Summer Music continues with concerts in various venues throughout Toronto until August 4.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

The Escher Quartet. Photo credit: James Ireland.The seasonal musical oasis known as Toronto Summer Music (TSM) began its 13th edition on July 12 with a sumptuous performance by the Escher Quartet, warmly received by the Koerner Hall audience. The Eschers replaced the originally scheduled Borodin Quartet, forced by illness to cancel a few weeks ago. As a nod to the legendary quartet’s original program, the Eschers retained Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.11 and switched out Shostakovich’s Eighth for his String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major, Op.117.

The evening opened with Schumann’s String Quartet No.1 in A Minor, Op.41, its bittersweet introduction immediately displaying the group’s purity of sound. The Eschers’ musical clarity evinced a lovely transparency as the piece moved into post-Beethoven territory, its lyrical development balanced by short dynamic outbursts. Their ardent playing expressed the tenderness of the third movement Adagio as confidently as it did the effervescence of the concluding Presto.

Cellist Brook Speltz introduced the Shostakovich as “a piece we believe in very much ... each time we play it, we feel we go deeper into it,” adding: “It’s somewhat of a dream to be here replacing the Borodin Quartet.” The Eschers’ cohesion revealed intricacies of Shostakovich’s sound world in the opening movement, exposing the lush lyricism of the second and the sprightly bouncing tune of the third; the stark opening of the fourth and subsequent warm chords led into the exuberant tour de force they made of the finale.

The lustrous beginning of Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet immediately took us into a fresh new world of Schubert-like melodic filigrees. The Eschers brought out the dark Russian character underlying the lyrical voicing of the famous Andante cantabile (in which Tchaikovsky gave eternal life to a simple Russian folk tune) that featured first violinist Adam Barnett Hart’s elegant playing.

Inspired by Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole, the young American quartet (whose members also include violinist Danbi Um and violist Pierre Lapointe) took the artist’s name when they formed in 2005. The level of their ensemble playing is proof of the aptness of their choice.

Lukas Geniušas. This year’s edition of TSM – Reflections of Wartime – commemorates the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I by focusing on works written during, or inspired by, wartime. Two pieces in the July 13 Walter Hall concert headed by pianist Lukas Geniušas met those criteria: Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7 in B-flat Major, Op.83 “Stalingrad” – the middle of the composer’s three “war sonatas” – and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op.57. Written in 1942 in Georgia, where Prokofiev had been evacuated during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the sonata was inspired by the outrage of WWII. The 28-year-old Geniušas, runner-up in the most recent Tchaikovsky Competition, showed off a quick and subtle rhythmic dexterity, playing stark chords and fiery chopped-up runs with alacrity in the opening movement while conveying the world-gone-awry nature of the finale’s jagged syncopations with a well-conveyed sense of the architecture of the piece. Geniušas opened the program with Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, Op.32 Nos.9-13, where he put his broad tone to good use, conveying the composer’s melodic gifts in spacious chords and Romantic flourishes.

After intermission, Geniušas was joined by the Escher Quartet’s Adam Barnett Hart (violin), Pierre Lapointe (viola) and Brook Speltz (cello) alongside TSM artistic director Jonathan Crow (on second violin) for a superb performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, written in 1940 under the lengthening shadow of the Second World War. Shostakovich wrote the piano part for himself; it’s well worth checking out his passionate recording with the Beethoven Quartet (with whom he premiered the piece in 1940).

Geniušas and company matched that historic recording’s passion from the emphatic piano introduction to the unison strings, from the exposed violin’s first utterance of the second movement’s fugue to its exquisite heartfelt ending, from the oafish buffoonery of the Scherzo to the touch of melancholia in the Intermezzo. The Finale, with its march-like militarism that devolves into a charming lilting tune before a jaunty recapitulation, brought the evening to a jubilant close, bringing most of the capacity crowd to their feet.

Toronto Summer Music (www.torontosummermusic.com) continues in various venues until August 4.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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