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.

This article is part 3 of a 3-part series on the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

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jazzfest bannerPhoto c/o the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.The 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival celebrated two important birthdays this year. The first: the festival, originally founded in 1987, is now in its 32nd year. The second: 2018 marks the second year that the Jazz Festival has been based in the Bloor-Yorkville area, with, as advertised on the official schedule, “more than 165 free shows and events.” These free events took place both out- (on temporary stages erected throughout Yorkville for the festival) and indoors (at Heliconian Hall, Isabel Bader Theatre, Church of The Redeemer, The Pilot Tavern and Sassafraz Restaurant.) There was also a nightly jam at Proof Vodka Bar in The Intercontinental Hotel (hosted primarily by the Lauren Falls Trio), and ticketed events at Koerner Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, The ROM, The Danforth Music Hall, The Horseshoe Tavern and The Church of The Redeemer. As for clubs that present jazz year-round (beyond The Pilot), there were only two: The Old Mill, which hosted a four-evening “Heather Bambrick & Friends” series, and The Rex, which presented 3-4 shows daily, with an emphasis on progressive, young-ish acts.

Both the free outdoor shows and the scaled-down club content represent a major shift in the festival’s direction from years past. Until the 2017 festival, outdoor shows were in large tents in Nathan Phillips Square, and were often ticketed, rather than free. There were also a large number of clubs that presented their own content under the auspices of the festival, but, according to artistic director Josh Grossman, that the festival didn’t have input into booking; as such, as of last year, the festival-affiliated club dates were largely removed from the schedule. Beyond the artistic concerns, it also seems like this extended network of restaurants, bars and clubs hosting official Jazz Festival shows presented certain physical challenges; it is hard, after all, to wander from a venue like the late Gate 403 in Roncesvalles to a centrally-located outdoor festival site. The result of the recent changes was, both last year and this year, a festival experience that felt leaner, stronger, and, with echoes of analogous outdoor Jazz Festival spaces in Ottawa and Montreal, efficiently centralized. It also felt – for only the second time, in my experience as an attendee – easy to navigate, comfortably accessible, and, most importantly, festive.

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Some of the things that I overheard at the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Outdoor Grounds, Yorkville, at various points between June 22 and July 1:

“My dad is, like, obsessed with jazz. I think that’s why I like it.”

“I can’t wait to see Herb Hancock!”

“It’s so wonderful to see so many women onstage. And so young, and so talented!”

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The Tara Kannangara Group at the 2018 Festival. Photo c/o the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.I played two shows at the festival this year, both close to the beginning of the schedule. The first, with the Tara Kannangara Group (Tara Kannangara, voice/trumpet; Chris Pruden, piano/keyboards; Julian Anderson-Bowes, bass; Mackenzie Longpré, drums; and myself on guitar), took place on the afternoon of Sunday, June 24 on the OLG Stage on Cumberland; the second, with Collective Order, took place on the evening of Monday, June 25 at The Pilot. Through some happy freak-of-scheduling luck, my playing obligations preceded my responsibilities for The WholeNote, which were to watch and write about Savion Glover and Marcus Gilmore at Koerner Hall on June 26, to watch and write about Starebaby at The Rex on June 28, and, finally, to watch and write about an unspecified number of free shows in Yorkville on June 30 (which follows in this article).

Through another happy freak of luck, I also found myself – both this year and last – living within walking distance of the festival grounds, and watched quite a few other free festival shows throughout the week. On Monday, June 25 I checked out the Teri Parker Quartet (Teri Parker, piano; Luis Deniz, alto saxophone; Mark Godfrey, bass; Mackenzie Longpré, drums), an accomplished group that primarily played Parker’s original modern jazz compositions and arrangements. Singer/ukulelist Lydia Persaud played material from her new Low Light EP – along with additional original material and a few choice covers – to a receptive and appreciative crowd on Tuesday, June 26 (with Dean Drouillard, guitar; Kyla Charter, voice; Robbie Grunwald, bass and keyboard; and Mike Ardagh, drums). Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School – a modern big band project helmed by saxophonist/composer McBride – showcased both original compositions and the talents of a number of young Toronto-based musicians on Wednesday, June 27, at the tail-end of their cross-Canada tour. On Thursday, June 28, I caught re.verse (Robb Cappelletto, guitar; Damian Matthew, bass; and Chino de Villa, drums), an excellent trio that specializes in modern interpretations of hip-hop and R&B repertoire (performing with the KeepRockinYou dance collective), and The Carn Davidson 9, a “chordless” ensemble anchored by co-leaders William Carn (trombone) and Tara Davidson (alto saxophone), whose rock-solid arranging skills were on full display, underscored by the strength of the band. Finally, on Friday – as the temperature crept up to 30° in the late afternoon – I heard Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop (Tara Davidson, alto sax; Will Carn, trombone; Joel Frahm, tenor sax; Adrean Farrugia, piano; Dan Loomis, bass; and Ernesto Cervini, drums) which, despite the weather, performed a high-energy show to a large, happy, sweaty crowd.

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Some more things that I overheard:

“If I don’t get out of this sun immediately I’m literally going to die.”

“You know, I didn’t think I liked jazz, but since I had some water and a snack I’m really starting to enjoy myself.”

“So, they’re just, like, making this all up, right?”

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I am typically not much for activewear – a friend once commented, during a shared trip to the gym, that I have “the legs of a scholar” – but, in preparation for my day of outdoor music-watching, I purchased a pair of shorts. According to weather.com (consulted, in research for this piece, after the fact) the high in Toronto on Saturday June 30 was 35°. The heat was not, however, a deterrent to festival attendees. As is so often the case during episodes of mild meteorological oppression, the shared burden had somewhat of a unifying effect on audience and musicians alike: together, we sweat.

The first show of the day was the Allison Au Quartet, with special guests Michael Davidson (vibraphone) and Daniel Fortin (bass) joining bandleader/saxophonist Au and Fabio Ragnelli (drums) on the OLG Stage on Hazelton Ave. at noon. The AAQ were wrapping up a tour of Canadian jazz festivals, and both new material and older compositions sounded fresh and exciting. Au was playing as part of the Junos 365 Acts series, featuring past Juno winners and nominees – as was baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage, who played on the OLG Cumberland stage at 12:30pm with a quartet featuring Nancy Walker (piano), Mike Downes (bass), and Ethan Ardelli (drums). Highlights of Beddage’s set included the gospel-tinged 9/8 ballad The Long Goodbye, complete with key change, and the Giant Steps contrafact Angle of Incidence, with great playing from the whole band. Later, on the same stage (and as part of the same Junos series), bassist/vocalist Brandi Disterheft led her quartet in a bluesy set with Grant Stewart (tenor sax), Alex Minasian (piano) and Mark Hundevad (drums), at the same time as guitarist/singer Luis Mario Ochoa put on a joyful, confident show at the Yorkville Village – The Lane stage (with Jeremy Ledbetter, keyboard, Louis Simão, bass, and Amhed Mitchel, drums).

Andrew Downing.The final show that I watched on Saturday was Andrew Downing’s Otterville, presented in the mercifully air-conditioned Heliconian Hall. Named after the village in Norwich Township, and designed to “evoke the peace, quiet and simplicity of small-town Ontario,” Otterville is probably best characterized as a “chamber jazz” ensemble, with unusual instrumentation (this performance featured Allison Au, alto sax; Michael Davidson, vibraphone; Christine Bougie, lap steel guitar; Mike Smith, bass guitar; Nick Fraser, drums; with bandleader/composer Downing on cello). Downing exudes a quiet charm, reflected both in the group’s music and in his interactions with the audience; he elicited immediate chuckles when, following the medium-slow Fall in Line, he introduced the piece A Pair of Eyes with the caveat that they were going to “slow things down a bit for [the] next song” (which was true). A fellow audience member close to me called the song “a beautiful daydream,” which is an apt description of the show as a whole, although the metaphor fails to capture the careful compositional rigor that seemed to undergird even the most wistful, breezy moments in Downing’s music.

At the end of the day, it seems as though the festival had done well in their choice of local programming, not just in picking acts that are representative of Toronto, but in acts that are representative of the many unique scenes that constitute Toronto jazz/improvised music as a whole. Programming a festival is a fraught business: there are sponsors to please, a limited number of spots, and the feelings of a community at stake. That being the case, it was gratifying to see, in the choices at this year’s Jazz Festival, that a serious effort was made to celebrate the accomplishments of the musicians, curators and venues that contribute so much to Toronto music year-round.

The 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival took place from June 22 to July 1, in various locations throughout 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.

This article is part 2 of a 3-part series on the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

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Dan Weiss.This is the metal, and this is the jazz. Drink full and descend.  

On Thursday, June 28, Dan Weiss’s Starebaby performed for the second time in a two-night engagement at The Rex as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. Fans of The Rex may be surprised to learn that this year marks the first time that The Rex has been an official part of the festival’s programming. In previous years, The Rex has presented its own “Rex Jazz Fest,” running concurrently with the Toronto Jazz Festival; this year, The Rex’s June calendar read “TD Toronto Jazz Festival Co-Curated Concert Series @ The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar.”

The Rex has always presented a healthy mix of musical acts, both in terms of genre and provenance; it is typical, during any given week, to find trad jazz bands, Toronto jazz veterans, bands led by young musicians from Humber and U of T, and touring out-of-town groups, often based in New York. It was, in fact, at The Rex that I first heard Weiss, playing with the Chris Tarry group, back in 2007. In the past few years, The Rex has been especially proactive in bringing progressive international groups to Toronto, with an emphasis on projects that feature new music from just outside of the modern mainstream scene, although the players who constitute these groups typically have bona fide jazz tradition credentials.

This is certainly the case with Starebaby, which, in addition to leader Weiss (drums), features the talents of Ben Monder (guitar), Craig Taborn (piano and keyboards), Matt Mitchell (piano and keyboards) and Trevor Dunn (bass), any of whom could have headlined at The Rex as leaders of their own bands. Starebaby’s music is composed by Weiss, and is influenced by David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks: The Return. This influence is apparent in song titles, including “Badalamenti,” named after series composer (and longtime Lynch collaborator) Angelo Badalamenti, and “Episode 8,” named after a particularly explosive episode; in the intensity of the music (Twin Peaks: The Return is, in many ways, a masterclass in intensity); and in the Black Lodge t-shirt Weiss is wearing in the group’s recent live performance videos on his YouTube channel.  

Before the band adopted the Starebaby moniker (“Starebaby” is also the title of the group’s debut album), they were identified as the Dan Weiss Metal Jazz Quintet, and there are obvious influences from both the metal and jazz traditions in the group’s music. What is compelling about Starebaby, however, is that it is so effective in synthesizing its influences into a new musical language; Weiss’s concept for the group seems to be strong enough that, unlike a lot of new bands, it seems to have emerged more-or-less fully formed.

The show started with "Depredation", a hard-hitting piece that, like many of Starebaby’s songs, juxtaposes pulsing, stripped-down rhythm section parts with an intervallic melody, played, in this case, by Monder and Dunn. The song dissolved into a beautiful solo guitar section by Monder, with heavy overdrive and reverb, which resulted in a sense of both mystery and visceral immediacy that effectively established the tone for the rest of the performance. As the set progressed, it was the attention to textural detail that emerged as one of the most meaningful aspects of the band’s music. “Episode 8” – the final, longest, and most suite-like of the first set (and the album) – featured exciting shifts, and stellar individual and ensemble playing, but it also, much like the Twin Peaks episode for which it is named, asked listeners to examine the depth and nuance found during extended visits to either end of the dynamic spectrum. Beyond the impressive virtuosity of all involved, it was Starebaby’s patience – whether offering a musical rendering of a nuclear blast or a man slowly sweeping an empty bar – that made the show memorable.

Check out the album, watch them live, and also, maybe, watch Twin Peaks.

Starebaby performed on June 28 as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, 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.

Peter Oundjian receives applause. Photo credit: Nick Wons.Peter Oundjian closed out his remarkable 14 years as TSO music director with five programs consisting of nine concerts spread over 18 days, June 13 to 30. From Mozart@ and New Creations to the Decades Project, Oundjian has been an innovative programmer who more often than not included stimulating content in what he offered audiences. I was fortunate to attend four of the five last programs (missing only Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare), and was particularly interested to hear Oundjian’s own rationale for why he programmed these last concerts the way he did.

Peter Oundjian conducting Jon Kimura Parker and the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.June 13. He introduced the June 13 evening by reminiscing about his arrival in New York City in 1975 – not quite 20-years-old – to attend Juilliard as a violinist, and getting a call from Leonard Bernstein to appear with him the next morning on the Today show. Hence the inclusion of Bernstein’s Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free, which the orchestra played with an appropriate rhythmic suppleness. Oundjian spoke about the music of George Gershwin being in the air in NYC in the 70s, typified by the lush score to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Jon Kimura Parker proved to be a most worthy last-minute replacement for Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, very comfortable in the composer’s jazz-based idiomatic score. In an encore, Parker showed his jazz chops with a rousing performance of Oscar Peterson’s Blues Etude. An unexpected coincidence: Parker and Oundian graduated one after the other from Juilliard, with Oundjian getting his diploma ten seconds ahead of Parker thanks to the alphabet.

Later in Oundjian’s first year at Juilliard, Herbert von Karajan gave a masterclass, saving the last 20 minutes of it for the student orchestra’s “concertmeister” who was also studying conducting. Karajan stood three feet from Oundjian, and as if that weren’t intimidating enough, covered the score of the slow movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. “You know it, my boy,” he said. That same Brahms symphony completed Oundjian’s trip down memory lane, the French horn statement of the fourth-movement’s main theme reminding us of just how fresh the music of this repertoire standard can be.

June 16. After the focal dystonia that made his position as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet untenable, Oundjian accepted an invitation by conductor and pianist André Previn, a chamber music collaborator, to talk conducting in Previn’s home. Previn was artistic advisor to the Caramoor International Music Festival at the time and asked Oundjian to make his professional conducting debut at Caramoor’s 50th anniversary concert in July 1995. The first piece on that program was Glinka’s repertoire staple, the Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. Oundjian chose to open the June 16 TSO program with it – and the orchestra, just as they had done with the Brahms, infused it with new life.

Oundjian conducting the TSO and pianist Daniil Trifonov. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.The first concert Oundjian attended in Carnegie Hall (also in that pivotal year, 1975) was Emil Gilels and Eugene Ormandy performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor, Op.30. Who better than the dynamic young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov to fly from Moscow to Toronto for two days, to perform the same work for this special occasion? Trifonov delivered a brilliant, sensitive interpretation, dashing off the technical challenges with ease and upping the audience’s satisfaction quotient with a relaxed version of the second movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.8 as an encore. Completing the all-Russian program was a stunning performance of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, included because it was the first piece Oundjian ever recorded with the TSO. The TSO shone in this orchestral showpiece, with each section taking their lead from the trumpet’s opening Promenade as they rose to the occasion with dazzling playing throughout.

Pianist Emanuel Ax with Peter Oundjian and the TSO. Photo credit: Nick Wons.June 20. The evening of June 20 began with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G Major, K453. Oundjian said that Ax was the first soloist he accompanied with the TSO (in Chopin’s First Piano Concerto) and his presence on June 20 marked him as the final soloist of Oundjian’s time as music director. Ax played with a characterful solidity, a well-defined round, lovely, singing tone geared to the composer’s melodic sensibility. The orchestra was a balanced and transparent collaborator.

Mahler has long been a favourite of Oundjian and so he (appropriately) chose the Symphony No.9 in D Major to mark his departure. Oundjian set up the work by referring to the passion and tenderness of the opening movement, the parody of country life in the second (which Mahler asked to be played in a cumbersome way), and the third movement Burleske, which Oundjian saw as opening the door to the 20th century. The remarkable Adagio, “one of the most extraordinary experiences known to man,” lived up to Oundjian’s words given the TSO’s nakedly emotional, tender performance. The audience, rapt, waited close to a minute to break the spell with a standing ovation.

The TSO with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists. Photo credit: Nick Wons.June 28-30. The conductor let the music speak for itself on June 28 (and reportedly on June 29 and 30 as well), and wisely so. These last three performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D Minor, Op.125 “Choral” needed no words apart from those in its fourth movement. Is there any music more elevating, more soulful than the merger of the heavenly and the earthbound in its inspirational choral finale? Oundjian took a propulsive, no-nonsense approach to the work from its opening: doom, tension, release, tentativeness, foreboding, clarity, its intermittent roiling nature swept up by structural inexorability. The second movement’s rhythmic centrifugal force was delivered with the sensitivity of a chamber musician, while the wild and tuneful trio shimmered in the hands of the oboe and French horn. The Adagio molto e cantabile began with noble strings and horns setting up a graceful theme that moved from violas through violins, unhurriedly spoken by the woodwinds before the fateful announcement in the brass that led into the finale. Intimations of the Ode to Joy appeared before the baritone solo statement that heralded the participation of soprano, mezzo, tenor and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in the exultant beauty of a piece of music that stands the test of time.

It was a fitting exit for the TSO’s new conductor emeritus.

Peter Oundjian says goodbye. Photo credit: Nick Wons.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

fringe bannerThe summer in Toronto is jam-packed full of musicals. Between the Toronto Fringe Festival (running until July 16) and the Summerworks Performance Festival (August 9-19), Toronto has become a hotbed of musical theatre creation – and the local summer festival circuit is becoming even more of a recognised launching pad for local musical projects.

This summer at Fringe, there is a particularly wide range on offer – so many musicals, in fact, that the festival has given them their own section in the official program that lists all shows by genre this year. And at the Summerworks Festival in August, there are fewer productions to choose from (only 32 in total, compared to the 150+ at the Fringe), but still a variety of experimental approaches and genres, split equally this year between finished works and works-in-progress.

Here are 10 music theatre shows that caught my eye at Fringe and Summerworks this year.

TORONTO FRINGE FESTIVAL (until July 16; details at www.fringetoronto.com)

1. The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act One)

Hannah Levinson as Polly Peel. Photo credit: Sam Gaetz.The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act One), with a book by Julie Tepperman and music and lyrics by Kevin Wong, is top of the list, as it stars young Hannah Levinson (who won a Dora award earlier this year for her incredible performance as “small Alison” in Fun Home). Julie Tepperman has a growing reputation as a creator of fun contemporary lyrics from her work at Tapestry New Opera, and Kevin Wong is an intriguing emerging composer who is also the associate artistic director at the Musical Stage Company. Originally inspired by acclaimed Canadian painter Paul Peel’s The Young Biologist, the musical explores a family grappling with death through the eyes and imagination of a biology-obsessed 11-year-old girl.

2. Andy Warhol Musical: ln Rehearsal

A new musical-in-progress, Andy Warhol Musical: In Rehearsal has a book by Vinetta Strombergs that explores Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory and the people around him who helped define an era. The music and songs are taken from Robert Swerdlow’s 1970s musical Justine and updated to fit the show by Peter Nunn (of the group Honeymoon Suite). Strombergs, known for her 2013 Fringe Hit Musical of Musicals the Musical and the recent excellent pop-up immersive production of the Chekhov inspired Stupid F**king Bird, also directs.

3. Josephine, a Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play

Tymisha Harris in 'Josephine.'Performed by Tymisha Harris, Josephine has been travelling the North American fringe circuit  for the past two years to rave reviews and arrives in Toronto at last. Combining cabaret, theatre and dance, the musical  tells the story of the iconic Josephine Baker, darling of Paris in the 1920s, and considered the first African-American international superstar. Not recommended for children because of adult content.

4. One Small Step

Who could resist a musical about the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, operate Canadarm, and command the International Space Station? Not me. Particularly as this is the latest creation by Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, the Dora-nominated duo who  previously brought to the Toronto Fringe the hits Summerland, Blood Ties, The Fence and True North Mixtape. One Small Step is a teenage backstage musical as well: “When their annual musical is cancelled, a group of public school drama students set out to put up a show of their own – but in order to get funding, they have to make it about something Canadian.” Featuring a cast of young professionals and the high-school-age Wexford Gleeks, this should be a lot of fun.

5. #KanderAndEbb

#KanderAndEbb is Ryan G. Hind’s personal one-man journey through the lesser-known parts of the Kander and Ebb songbook, with true life encounters with stars such as Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera chronicled along the way. Musical direction by Tara Litvac.

6. Judas Star Supersong

Judas Star Supersong is a one-woman journey through the musical we know more traditionally as Jesus Christ Superstar. Dora award-winner Paula Wolfson plays 18 characters in 50 minutes, with musical direction by Giustin MacLean.

SUMMERWORKS PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL (August 9-19; details at www.summerworks.ca)

7. CAFÉ SARAJEVO episode 1

A podcast/work-in-progress from internationally acclaimed performance makers Bluemouth Inc., CAFÉ SARAJEVO episode 1 uses dance, text, music and 360° video to create an immersive experience inspired by the 1971 televised debate between French theorist Michel Foucault and American linguist Noam Chomsky.

8. fantasylover

fantasyloverfantasylover by Rock Bottom Movement, choreographed by Alyssa Marin to music by Sydney Herauf, promises “a feverish ride on the dream cloud of modern romance that invokes icons of pop music, Canadian Olympics, obscure Shakespeare, and the millennial experience.”

9. YES

YES is an irreverent romp through the turbulent history of modern dance from performer/creator Linnea Swan, integrating theatre, dance and bouffon to address Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 No Manifesto and its legacy on the current state of contemporary performance.

10. ZAYO/THIRD WORLD

FLY LADY DI (in THIRD WORLD).Finally, two shorter works, each exploring identity through music and dance, have been paired up to make an intriguing double bill. ZAYO, created, directed and choreographed by Elsie Mensah for a group of dancers, explores the tests a man, Ouhna, undergoes as he strives to achieve his destiny. THIRD WORLD, created and performed by Diana Reyes – aka FLY LADY DI – to a score by Alexander Junior mixes Voguing, Waacking, Hip-Hop, B-Girling, and House dance with Filipino folk dance and projections to explore isolation, loneliness and identity.

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.

TOJazzFest 2018 Savion Glover and Marcus GilmoreThis article is part of a 3-part series on the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

On Tuesday, June 26, tap dancer Savion Glover and drummer Marcus Gilmore performed at Koerner Hall as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. Toronto-based tap dancer Allison Toffan – founder of the Toronto International Tap Dance Festival – introduced Glover as “the best tap dancer in the world.” Since making his Broadway debut at age 11, Glover has earned multiple Tony and Drama Desk awards, made numerous television and film appearances, and has been active as a choreographer, including for the George Miller-directed motion picture Happy Feet. Though Gilmore is almost always introduced as “the grandson of Roy Haynes,” he has developed a unique voice of his own as a leading drummer in modern and avant-garde jazz projects, including work on albums by Chris Potter, Steve Coleman, Mark Turner, Vijay Iyer and Chick Corea. Together – and largely without the use of narrative, harmony, or melody – Glover and Gilmore created an intimate, clattering masterpiece, notable for its humour, for its generous interplay, and for its deep commitment to artistic integrity.

Before continuing, let me clarify that I know very little about tap dancing, and that I make no claim to any tap-specific expertise. What I can say with confidence, however, is that part of the show’s charm was its accessibility for audience members who located themselves at any point on the music-dance spectrum. Glover danced on a large wooden board, elevated approximately twelve inches off of the stage floor, with microphones underneath routed to a small mixing console adjacent to the board and accessible to Glover. Positioned stage left of Glover, Gilmore’s drum kit was set up at a 45-degree angle to the front of the stage, to afford easy eye contact with Glover.

Glover and Gilmore performed two pieces, the second of which functioned as a kind of built-in encore. The first piece – which, at approximately an hour long, constituted the bulk of the performance – began with Glover dancing sparsely, using the outside of the board to create tight, high-pitched tones, as Gilmore joined, using his bass drum and toms to create complementary sounds, before moving to his full kit. The full significance of the performance was not apparent until twenty minutes in, at which point Gilmore triggered a few ambient chords with the aid of a laptop. Until that moment, the show had contained no sounds other than those generated by Glover’s tap shoes and Gilmore’s drums, but had already elicited multiple rounds of spontaneous applause and cheers from the audience. To describe the experience as “stripped-down” or “spare” would do a disservice to the music, which was rich and captivating from beat one, but it seems important to mention that there was no real narrative, very little harmony, and no melody in the traditional sense (with the exception of a few phrases of Mongo Santamaría’s Afro Blue, sung by Glover). In the absence of these elements, the focus was squarely on rhythm and texture, and, with ample acoustic space in which to work, small shifts and subtle interplay between Glover and Gilmore became the most exciting parts of the evening. At one point, when the two were trading, the music felt like modern small-ensemble jazz; at another, when the two were playing longer sections together, the music felt like a Steve Reich composition. During the second piece – which followed a standing ovation, a loudly proclaimed “Thank you!” from a member of the audience, and a brief water break – Glover used a delay effect on his board to create ethereal, percussive sounds, pausing briefly to deadpan “Kids, don’t try this at home.” Leaving the show, it was reassuring to witness that this was not taken seriously, as many members of the audience danced their way out of The Royal Conservatory, responding physically to a show that was one of the highlights of the 2018 festival.

Savion Glover and Marcus Gilmore performed on June 26 as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, at Koerner Hall, 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.

 

Christopher Plummer with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.The moment Christopher Plummer walked out through the orchestra onto the stage of Roy Thomson Hall on June 26 calling out “How now my hearts, where are these lads?” this concert was everything I had hoped it would be: a heavenly blend of Shakespearean soliloquies and sonnets with music inspired by the plays, filled with what felt like a magnetic spur-of-the-moment connection between actor, conductor, orchestra, and audience.

This is the way a “words and music” concert should be – alive and organically structured, with an arc from beginning to end, and with Peter Oundjian not only a superb conductor and the TSO an excellent orchestra with the music in their bones, but a superb actor with the music in his bones equally to the Shakespearean text. Unusually, this show was created by its star, Christopher Plummer, about seven years ago with Julian Armour, artistic director of Ottawa’s Music and Beyond festival. Over this past year, Plummer revised and reworked the show slightly with Oundjian to suit the scale of a full classical orchestra onstage.

With the text almost entirely memorized, Plummer moved around the stage, establishing a partnership with the conductor and orchestra and talking to us directly – in character or as himself to introduce a new section of words and music.

The selection of words was both expected and unusual: after Hamlet came both Oberon and Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with excerpts from Mendelssohn’s famous Dream music, but then Plummer turned to us to introduce those two rather un-feminist and frustrated scoundrels Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing and Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew, interspersed with some of Nino Rota’s music for the film of Shrew, before sending us off to intermission with a short quote from the loveable “Bully Bottom” from Dream.

After the intermission the really big guns came out. Plummer began with, perhaps, his most famous Shakespeare part – Henry V – followed by the equally famous music created by William Walton for Laurence Olivier’s film of the play. This was particularly glorious to watch, as Plummer clearly knows and loves this character and the music, moving freely and energetically declaiming the speeches to us and to those onstage. Watching this, it is no wonder he has famously performed a full program of Henry V with Walton’s music with orchestras around the world (including here with Oundjian and the TSO in 2011).

Also expected on the program was Romeo and Juliet, which came next, but unexpected was Plummer’s intro note that, although he had performed both Romeo and Mercutio in the past, now that he is “grown up” he was going to take on Juliet who has (as I recall him saying) “some of the best poetry ever written about the beauties and agonies of love.” He launched into a heartfelt, lovely rendition of Juliet’s soliloquy “Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds.” Prokofiev’s dramatic Romeo and Juliet music was interwoven perfectly through this section. Next were excerpts spoken and musical from Cymbeline and then, again an expected inclusion, Prospero from The Tempest, a play believed by most scholars to be Shakespeare’s own farewell to the theatre and a part that Plummer played to acclaim at the Stratford Festival not long ago.  Unexpected to finish was a happy, short quote from Much Ado About Nothing: a cheerful, upbeat note to finish a magical evening of superbly interwoven words and music.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare” on June 26 at Roy Thomson Hall, 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.

Pianist Eve Egoyan. Photo credit: Sam Barnes.Back in April of this year, I had the opportunity to speak at length with pianist Eve Egoyan for my WholeNote column in advance of her concert on April 14 at the Music Gallery. When I asked her about upcoming projects, she spoke about her major project to be premiered at the Luminato Festival – SOLO FOR DUET: works for augmented piano and images, which received its premiere this week on June 19 and 20. One of the things I remembered her saying was how this was the most extroverted performance she’s ever done. Known for creating a depth of intimacy between herself and the audience at her performances, this new adventure was certainly an example of risk-taking by the performer, and I was curious to experience how this new venture played out.

The title of the piece, with its somewhat contradictory references to a work that is a ‘solo’ but yet a ‘duet’, turned out to be an accurate description of what unfolded on the stage. Moving beyond a mere concert presentation of the six chosen works by six different composers, a coherent flow was established between the pieces using theatrical elements and costume, a result of the work by director and dramaturge Joanna McIntyre. The other core elements of the entire program were the use of projected images as well as performing on a Disklavier, a keyboard that doubles as a digital version of the player piano, capable of performing programmed sequences and processing the sound. Present throughout the entire evening was a felt sense of the ‘other’ with whom Egoyan was in dialogue with, whether that be the composer, the images, or the music itself.

From the beginning, a distilled presence was established as the music began in darkness.  Using an extremely gradual fade-in of the light, slowly we began to see the score on the piano, the performer, and a long expanse of fabric weaving its way on the floor like a river. The first work, Thought and Desire by Linda Catlin Smith, was a love song between two people using text by William Shakespeare. Egoyan’s voice could gradually be heard as she sang the melodic line created by the short chordal harmonic progressions. Switching to a completely different persona for Homonymy by John Oswald, Egoyan put on her shoes, grabbed a whip and emotionally declaimed a series of words in partnership with a profusion of stream-of-consciousness of similar words projected on the screen – a play on the possibilities of the homonym. Oswald makes great use of the Disklavier for this piece, with programmed sequences joined at times by Egoyan playing live, along with piano preparations and inside-the-piano gestures and objects.

Nicole Lizée’s signature aesthetic of merging glitched film with virtuosic musical performance was mesmerizing in a piece entitled David Lynch Études. Using footage from Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990) for example, Egoyan was synced up with the performers onscreen to create an aura of surreal obsession. Surface Tension is a series of five visual/musical works created by Egoyan and David Rokeby that appeared in three parts spread out over the last half of the concert. Rokeby’s interactive software created visual worlds in response to Egoyan’s performance, with the concept of ‘duet’ very much in evidence as she improvised  in dialogue with unfolding images that moved from simple to complex designs.

The technical prowess of the Disklavier really came to the fore with the final two works. EVƎ (solo piano for Eve Egoyan) by Michael Snow was created through a translation process. Snow began by improvising on the Disklavier keyboard that was subsequently transcribed into musical notation designed by Rokeby. Egoyan’s genius of being able to embody and translate notation into her own expression brought the work to life such that it felt like the two creators were merged into one. As the concert wound down to its close, Egoyan gradually removed parts of her costume, let down her hair and took off her shoes. This more naked visual image of the performer was a perfect visual complement for the moment when she premiered a work of her own creation – DUET for Solo Piano. The piece was born out of the desire to have the piano sound like she wished it could. What we heard from this exquisite work, my favourite of the evening I might add, were the subtle detuning of pitches, pitch glissandos, and the impression at times that a larger ensemble was playing. In the end the piece perfectly embodied that fluid space between solo and duet.

Eve Egoyan presented SOLO FOR DUET as part of the Luminato Festival on June 19 and 20, at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

Ryuichi Sakamoto.“I’m fascinated by the notion of a perpetual sound,” Ryuichi Sakamoto says. “One that won’t dissipate over time.“ He’s seated at the piano listening to the sound he’s just made melt into thin air. But as Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Stephen Nomura Schible’s meticulous documentary on the now 66-year-old composer-performer indicates, Sakamoto’s own music is likely to outlast him.

Sakamoto with bow and cymbal.The film, shot over a five-year period, begins with footage of Sakamoto playing a piano that survived the 2011 tsunami. We follow his anti-nuclear activism triggered by Fukushima and then enter with him into his one-year sabbatical from music while he fights throat cancer. Once he’s able, his musical career resumes with the scoring of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant and working on his first solo album in eight years, async. We see him assiduously creating soundscapes on his computer (while sitting on an exercise ball), using natural forest sounds, for example, or delighting in the imposing result of a violin bow stroked over a cymbal that becomes fodder for The Revenant’s main theme. He imagines that his new album will be like composing for an Andrei Tarkovsky film that doesn’t exist.

Coda is that rare document that captures a composer’s creative process. There are no talking heads, no mention of Sakamoto’s personal life, marriages, children and the like. Instead we see his fascination with the great Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky’s use of Bach chorales. Sakamoto is consumed by the melancholy of Bach’s music.

Schible uses 1979 footage of Sakamoto from his synth-based heyday with the influential Yellow Magic Orchestra as a stepping stone to an overview of his film career. When Nagisa Oshima asked him to act in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence opposite David Bowie, Sakamoto refused unless he could also write the score. The result was arguably the most iconic and recognizable of his entire musical output, a simple repetitive tune that is as beautiful 35 years later as it was when the film was released in 1983. That led to his Academy Award-winning contribution to Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic Oscar winner, The Last Emperor (1986), and his echt romantic score for Bertolucci’s gorgeous follow-up, The Sheltering Sky (1990). We watch Sakamoto conducting an orchestra for the soundtrack in studio while the matching footage for both movies is shown onscreen.

Sakamoto playing the tsunami piano.The Sheltering Sky was based on a book by Paul Bowles, who had a cameo in the film. Sakamoto thought Bowles was the best thing about it and used Bowles’voiceover in async’s fullmoon, the album’s emotional centre. “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,” Bowles says. “How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

In choosing sounds for his new project, Sakamoto is also responding to the improvisatory nature of music and the way life itself has seemed to mirror it. Even the tsunami piano is returning to its natural state, he says. Schible’s lens captures it all for posterity.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda plays on June 20 at 7pm as part of the 7th annual Japanese Film Festival in the Japanese Cultural Centre, Kobayashi Hall, 6 Garamond Court, Toronto.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Rachel Poirier (right) and Alexander Leonhartsberger in Swan Lake. Photo credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou.Luminato’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is not Swan Lake as a ballet fan would expect. There are no kings, no queens, princes or princesses, and yet – there is enchantment, dancing and magic; there is beauty at the heart of darkness.

The setup is odd, almost disconcerting: on a bare stage with a metal platform stretching across the back, random step ladders around the edges, with abandoned sets of white wings scattered here and there, an older man wearing nothing but dingy underpants is tethered by a rope around his neck to a concrete block at the centre of the stage, bleating like a goat or sheep as he walks in his wide restricted circles. He is there as we enter to find our seats, and still there as the lights dim for the show proper to begin.

To the moody haunting music of Irish/Nordic trio Slowly Moving Clouds (onstage and playing throughout), three men in old fashioned black suits and hats (looking a bit like Mennonites) approach the man/sheep and proceed to ritually “slaughter” him through choreography using bright red towels to signal the spilling of blood. (By the end of the show we will have seen this man's journey, a descent from man to vicious beast, retroactively making more sense of this animalistic beginning). At the end of this ceremony the man is dressed in nondescript dark shirt and pants, set up on a stool with a microphone to speak into but refuses to say anything until given a cigarette and some food. Once he has these, he begins to tell a tale: Teaċ Daṁsa's version of Swan Lake, Loch na hEala (with echoes as well of the Irish legend The Children of Lir), which he soon begins to become part of and reenact for us, taking on the roles of three dark characters who together embody this story's version of von Rothbart, the dark sorcerer of the classic ballet who turned captive maidens into swans.

The first of these characters to whom we are introduced is the most crucial, as it is he who creates the swans – a false priest who threatens the handicapped girl he abuses and her sisters, promising that they will be turned into “brute beasts” if they dare to breathe a word of what they have seen. He and the other two ‘dark’ characters, a corrupt local politician and an easily corruptible policeman who help to take the story on a tragic downward spiral, have been described by Irish critics as Irish “mythic demons.” Indeed, there is a definite archetypal quality to these men, although they are also very definitely contemporary, as is the story and setting. Acclaimed Irish actor Mikel Murfi is extraordinary, as these three ‘demons’ and the narrator.

The only other speaking character is an ancient, poverty stricken, wheelchair-ridden widow, the mother of the 'prince' in this version of the story – her 36-year-old son Jimmy, clinically depressed at the recent loss of his father and the looming loss of his ancestral cottage which his mother is determined to have replaced by a cheap modern “council house.”

The ugliness of the modern setting and story is so striking that at first the universality is not apparent, and the visceral connection made by Irish and British audiences to the production is not the same for a Canadian audience distanced by an ocean and by a different cadence of speech.

What is magical and striking, however, is how the ugliness of the modern setting sets off the transcendent beauty of the two central pas de deux for Jimmy and Finola, the abused girl who becomes a swan whom he meets in a lake behind his house. This first meeting of the two misfit outsiders is breathtaking, and had me on the edge of my seat in wonder at the emotion and vulnerability expressed by the choreography (and through the exquisite dancing of Alex Leonhartsberger and Rachel Poirier). Director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan grew up in a place where the swans returned for winter and he seems to have absorbed their physicality and passed it on to his dancers, who echoed a real pair of swans in the tentative beginnings of their dance and the twining gentle beauty of their coming together.

The second “black swan” pas de deux – which in the classical ballet pairs the prince with the evil sorcerer's flashily beautiful daughter Odile who, disguised as the good (white) swan Odette, wins the prince for herself – is here a second meeting of Jimmy and Finola, each more damaged than before but still inescapably drawn to each other.

As in the ballet, both Jimmy and Finola die at the end, but in this case there is a “coda” of sorts which, while it felt the other night a bit detached from the story, seems to be intended as a recovery or rediscovery of joy as all the cast dance and move around the stage in an improvised tumble of real swan feathers – punctuated at the very end by the sad figure of Finola, sitting on top of the ladder downstage right looking out over the audience.

A wonderful beginning to the 2018 Luminato Festival.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala ran from June 6 to 10 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto.

The Luminato Festival runs in various locations throughout Toronto, from June 6 to 24.

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.

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