The NSO, Chorus Niagara, and soloists in performance on May 21. Photo credit: Robert Nowell.Sometimes, there is nothing better I can say about a performance than thank you. For the inspired interpretation, the energetic musicianship, the blended mustering of forces, and a musical alignment that allows a performance to be exceptional – thank you to the NSO, soloists, and Chorus Niagara.

On Sunday, May 21, the combined ensembles brought a deep satisfaction to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, providing an interpretation that was lively, proficient, and moving. Mahler’s 2nd is not the type of piece that a musician shows up to and taps away at; more often than not, it requires a depth of understanding and connection in order to journey. Mahler is unique in his ability to compositionally build and carefully deemphasize. The NSO showed itself very capable of providing this connection. Bradley Thachuk, conductor of the NSO, showed great control and expression in his work.

The first movement was disciplined and contained. It is also a big movement, with portions that rival the explosive final movement. It is easy for an ensemble to lose itself in the texture of Mahler and forget that there is much more to come. Thachuk’s tempi and spirited conducting kept the NSO moving briskly without stumbling. The last movement, in my opinion, is truly one of the most moving, devastating and triumphant pieces of music ever written. The NSO did not disappoint – in fact, they elevated this music with great soul. There are several solos and features throughout the entire work – too many to mention individually. They were all well-executed, from piccolo- and flute-bird singing, to the harp at the end of the Andante, to the clarinet Scherzo; to the trombone-and-tuba funeral dirge. There was much to like about this performance.

The vocal soloists provided masterful integration throughout the texture of the work while providing the necessary energy to drive the lines above the large orchestra and choir. Allyson McHardy’s mezzo-soprano was warm and inviting. She began the fourth movement with the gentle caress of her voice. Her interpretation of the fifth-movement text “Dein ist, ja dein” was strong and certain. The duet near the end of the fifth movement combined Allyson’s mezzo with soprano Lida Szkwarek. Szkwarek was light and her voice matched perfectly with the voices of Chorus Niagara, providing a delicate highlight instead of a glaring solo. Her measured control and emotional delivery were most delightful. When combined, the two soloists provided an exhilarating rush that drove into the choir with their final minutes of rising power.

My one reservation about this performance was the crash cymbals. In the 2nd, Mahler uses these to great effect at the start and end of his biggest moments. There are few sounds that evoke waves of crushing sound quite like crash cymbals. The standard cymbals in this performance could have easily been doubled for greater effect, allowing that extra bit of sonic disturbance to drive those quintessentially Mahleresque moments of devastating catastrophe.

Chorus Niagara was articulate and balanced. The choir provided a powerful accompaniment to the large orchestra, never feeling buried or missing. Their German was on point and very audible. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is a wonderful venue that allowed the choir to excel. Bob Cooper, conductor of Chorus Niagara, is well-known and well-versed in choral music, and his preparation was very evident. Mahler’s 2nd is notoriously absent of vocal music until the mezzo-soprano solo in movement 4, and even in the choral movement, no. 5, there is no singing until about almost half way through – but the final ten minutes of the work are transcendent because of the choral writing. Chorus Niagara managed to start singing after all this time with great blend and intonation, providing an inviting sound. Not only adding to the thickness of the orchestrations and density of the sound, Mahler’s choral lines, sung aptly by Chorus Niagara, provided the music at this moment with a visceral human quality.

At the end of this work, with its driving force of choral and orchestral power, I could not help but feel changed by the experience. The NSO is a gem to enjoy and continue to watch. As they head to their 70th anniversary season, I’ll be sure to trek out to FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre again soon. I think you should too.

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra presented Arise!, featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection,” with Alyson McHardy (mezzo-soprano), Lida Szkwarek (soprano), Chorus Niagara and guest choristers (with conductor Robert Cooper), on Sunday, May 21, 2017, 2:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

 

2208 HT BannerAndrei Feher, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s Music Director Designate. Photo credit: Matthieu Gauchet.The end of a season is always a time for shifts of musical leadership—and this year in particular has seen more changes of conductors, concertmasters, and artistic directors than most. And while, between Toronto’s closing venues and school boards’ slimming down of performing arts programs, most news on local music has waxed apocalyptic, these changes offer something more familiar, and more hopeful: local stars leaving the spotlight, and fresh, promising faces taking their place.

One of those places is at the helm of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. After ten years with the orchestra, artistic director Edwin Outwater is stepping down, finishing his tenure at the end of the 2016/17 season. Known for his charisma on the podium and for his knack for inventive programming, Outwater’s absence is sure to be felt by the orchestra and its audience alike.

“Edwin came to us just in the nick of time,” writes K-W Symphony principal oboist Jim Mason, on the tribute page the orchestra has put up in Outwater’s honour. “We were floundering and going nowhere, still in a world of strife as an orchestra. He came and led us, both on the podium and off, showing us what we were capable of and making us believe in ourselves. He added life to the organization and the city. I wish him all the best and I will sorely miss him.”

The K-W Symphony’s upcoming concerts on May 26 and 27 will be Outwater’s final concert with the orchestra. Titled “Grand Finale: Edwin’s Farewell,” Outwater will lead the orchestra, the Grand Philharmonic Choir, and the Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto in John Adams’ Harmonium, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and Richard Reed Parry’s Outwater Fanfare, composed in Outwater’s honour. Following the show, Outwater will assume the title of Music Director Laureate, and will hand over his role to 26-year-old Romanian-Canadian conductor Andrei Feher, who will serve as Music Director Designate in 2017/18 before officially taking over leadership of the orchestra in August of next year. For more information on the concerts, or on the orchestra, visit www.kwsymphony.ca.

Here’s a recap of other arrivals and departures in local classical music leadership.

St. Thomas’s Anglican Church

Departing: John Tuttle

Arriving: Matthew Larkin

John Tuttle, organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church since 1989, retired from his position there last July, and has just been replaced by incoming organist and music director Matthew Larkin (effective August 2017). Larkin, perhaps best known to WholeNote readers as conductor of the Larkin Singers, comes to Toronto from Ottawa’s Christ Church Cathedral, and is a former organ student of the University of Toronto—where he studied with none other than John Tuttle himself.

More info: http://stthomas.on.ca/.

 

Pax Christi Chorale

Departing: Stephanie Martin

Arriving: David Bowser

Stephanie Martin, artistic director of Pax Christi Chorale since 1996, will be departing at the end of this season. Taking her place will be David Bowser, who is already active as a local conductor with the Hart House Chorus and the Mozart Project and who will lead Pax Christi in a 3-concert season beginning in the fall. Details: http://www.paxchristichorale.org.

 

Tafelmusik

Arrived: Elisa Citterio

This new arrival is already well-known to many local Tafel fans, having just co-directed her first concert as the baroque orchestra’s Music Director Designate earlier this month. She’ll be officially joining the orchestra, taking over from longtime director Jeanne Lamon, in the 2017/18 season. More info: www.tafelmusik.org.

 

Luminato

Arrived: Josephine Ridge

Josephine Ridge joined the Luminato Festival team in summer 2016, moving to Canada from Australia, where she was artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, and taking over from outgoing Luminato artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt. This summer’s festival, taking place in various locations throughout the city June 14 to 25, will be the first edition under Ridge’s leadership. More about Ridge in the upcoming summer issue of The WholeNote; and more on this year’s festival at www.luminatofestival.com.

Young Voices Toronto

Departing: Zimfira Poloz

Arriving: TBA

Zimfira Poloz, who has been a conductor of the children’s choir Young Voices Toronto since 2002 and artistic director since 2004, will be leaving her position at the end of the season. Young Voices Toronto still hasn’t divulged who her replacement will be, but will do so in the coming weeks—look for an announcement in the June issue of Halftones! More info: http://youngvoicestoronto.com/.

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at editorial@thewholenote.com.

2208 HT Banner2Flutist Leslie Newman.Once a year, Hamilton’s street-level music scene gets a welcome classical infusion as the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra hosts its annual What Next Festival—a celebration of up-and-coming music from Canadian-born composers. This year, the festival’s seventh, the theme is based on the specifics of Canadian regions such as its land, wildlife and folk music—and has composers writing about what Canada is to them.

Directed by Abigail Richardson-Schulte, the festival—for which all tickets are PWYC—takes place between May 23 and May 28, in various venues around Hamilton. Of particular note is a concert on May 27, where the HPO’s principal flutist Leslie Newman will be a featured performer in a chamber ensemble playing pieces by Hamilton composer William Peltier. Peltier's work (which appears alongside pieces by John Beckwith, Brian Current, Barbara Monk Feldman, Derek Charke and Liam Ritz) has Newman imitating loons, stomping on plywood and playing with throat singers on a recording, as well as playing a jig. Straying away from the traditional classical style of Mozart and Beethoven to introduce a more contemporary sound adds a level of intrigue that makes this music worth experiencing in person.

The What Next Festival will feature both prominent and emerging composers: Hamilton locals William Peltier and Liam Ritz, as well as renowned composers Marjan Mozetich, Sir Ernest MacMillan and Allan Gordon Bell. The music that will be played ranges from works for full string orchestra to solo and small chamber ensemble performances.

On May 28, HPO principal clarinetist Stephen Pierre will be playing a program of music that reflects nature in Canada through the eyes and compositions of its composers. When asked what piece Stephen is most excited to share, he pointed to La Nuit s’ouvre (The Night Opens), a solo work by Elma Miller. “The piece is for unaccompanied clarinet and represents the shimmers of light and life as day becomes night,” explained Pierre. “The freedom Miller has granted me in creating this atmosphere in sound is something that is seldom afforded a performer. Animal sounds, weather effects and changes of luminosity produced by the clarinet timbre are challenges that inspire creativity in a performer. The work is brilliant and Miller will be on hand to introduce it to the audience.” The magic of pieces like this is in how it encourages one to use their imagination, and create picturesque imagery inspired by the music that is being performed.

As a musician who doesn’t have a lot of money and loves classical music, it is exciting to be able to attend an affordable festival featuring renowned musicians and composers. The chamber music in smaller and more intimate settings is what first caught my eye and makes me excited to attend. I'm sure that this, plus the allure of a string orchestra with solo performances, will entice classical and new music lovers from across the greater Toronto and Hamilton areas to attend and enjoy this wonderful event.

For more information on the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s What Next Festival, visit http://hpo.org/whatnextfestival/.

Cole Gibson is a freelance woodwind player based in Hamilton.

 

The Toronto Consort, in rehearsal for Helen of Troy. Photo c/o the Toronto Consort.Even though only his La Calisto is now performed with regularity, Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was a prolific operatic composer. Elena, one of a handful of his other operas making cross-century comeback, was first revived in 2013 and we are lucky that the Toronto Consort nimbly followed suit and programmed it as their opera-in-concert this season. The printed program adapts the opera’s title as Helen of Troy, but it might have been more accurate to call it Helen Before Troy, as the libretto invents the shenanigans around the kidnapping of the mythical Helen before she was married to the Mycenaean king Menelaus (of Iliad and Odyssey fame), from whom she was later to be abducted by Paris of Troy. The original story of Helen’s marriage to Menelaus is a more sedate affair involving the drawing of straws—attention, I am about to compare the “official” Greek mythology line with its Italian baroque riff, I love my job—and therefore not particularly useful to the early opera. Librettists of Elena Nicolò Minato and Giovanni Faustini needed a much wilder story of how Menelaus and Helen ended up together, so they created one.

Men in dresses are not unheard of in Greco-Roman mythology (see Achilles on Skyros) but there are more to be found in Italian baroque opera. Menelaus of Elena spends most of the time cross-dressed as an extraordinarily muscular Amazon who impresses young Helen with her wrestling prowess and becomes her intimate. Both of them, helpless women that they are, get abducted by Theseus (who also has a yen for Helen) and his sidekick Pirithous (who casts his eye on “Elisa” the Amazon) and are brought to the court of King Creon. There, Creon’s son Menestheus—you guessed it—also falls for Helen, and we learn that Theseus is actually already engaged to Hippolyta, who is one of those low-voiced, no-nonsense, sword-wielding women in the style of the female knight Bradamante of the Italian epic poems on the adventures of Orlando. Intrigues ensue. Helen finally decides that of all the suitors she prefers Menelaus—who finally comes out as a man—and Theseus returns to Hippolyta.

Musically too, Elena is an entertaining hodgepodge of comedic and solemn elements. The required instrumentation can be as small as half a dozen people at most points, one or two melody instruments against the basic continuo. (For a more luxurious sound with a bigger period ensemble, see the 2013 DVD of Elena from Aix-en-Provence with Cappella Mediterranea in the pit.) In the Toronto Consort’s version, Lucas Harris (theorbo), Felix Deak (cello) and Paul Jenkins (harpsichord) made up the continuo, which was joined, as required, by violins (Patricia Ahern and Julia Wedman) or recorders (Alison Melville and Colin Savage). Bud Roach, a one-man show as the court fool Iro, both sang and played baroque guitar.

There are five pants roles inherited from the castrati roles in Elena, and for this fan of pants roles that is not a small thing. TC’s music director and conductor David Fallis honoured all but one: Menelaus is sung by a tenor (Kevin Skelton), while Pirithous, Menestheus, Castor and Pollux were all indeed sung by women—Vicki St. Pierre, Katherine Hill, Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova respectively. Kevin Skelton, luckily, has a beautiful and agile tenor voice that made this Menelaus rather a good catch. His cross-dressing was achieved by way of a Wonderwoman apron. Cory Knight’s Theseus was paired with the ever reliable and the velvetiest mezzo of the TC ensemble, Laura Pudwell. That this Hippolyta was slightly older than her betrothed added a welcome May to December (or should I say, Emmanuel Macron-ian?) dimension to the story.

Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre’s pinpoint dexterity with melismas was back in town (the singer now lives and teaches in New Brunswick) for a spirited take on Pirithous. The young Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova were an intriguingly girly take on brothers Castor and Pollux, who happen to stop by Creon’s Tegea on their way from capturing the Golden Fleece. Their voices were bright and youthful.

Delicate sopranos are a mainstay of Toronto’s early music scene, which favours l’esprit de corps (those sopranos often play one or more period instruments too) to individual vocal vim. Oftentimes a pretty, light, vibrato-less voice is all one needs for particular pieces; but sometimes I wish the music director looked further from his usual pool of voices. Katherine Hill was somewhat underpowered as Menestheus who needed more vocal heft to come alive. Michele deBoer made a fine if at times pale Helen, the arm wrestling scene with Kevin Skelton notwithstanding.

But no matter: all said and done, this Elena was a big treat. David Fallis’ translation of the libretto, projected in the form of supertitles, added entertaining contemporary touches at many a turn. And when the voices were called to come together, as in the choir of the Argonauts, were moments of breath-taking beauty. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to see this staged (by a company other than Opera Atelier). Directors coming out of Toronto’s independent opera scene—Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Amanda Smith, the Applin sisters—your turn.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

 

 

Stephen Schwartz.What an inspiring evening! I have always loved musical theatre, so to have the opportunity to meet and spend 100 minutes listening live to one of today’s musical theatre greats was an opportunity not to be missed. Presented by the Canadian Musical Theatre Writers Collective (CMTWC) in association with ASCAP on Sunday night at Mirvish’s Panasonic Theatre, multi-award winning composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz sat onstage in conversation with Michael Kerker of ASCAP in a casual but structured talk about his career highlights (and funny moments), interspersed with illustrating performances by some of Canada’s top musical theatre talent, including Cynthia Dale (Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife), Charlotte Moore (Children of Eden from Children of Eden) Erica Peck and Danielle Wade (For Good duet from Wicked), Chilina Kennedy (Day by Day from Godspell), a choir made up of Sheridan College students, and a breathtaking performance of Corner of the Sky from Pippin by emerging star Jahlen Barnes, all under the musical direction of Joseph Tritt.

Schwartz at the piano.Perhaps the most enchanting part of the event was the master himself at the piano, whether starting the evening off with the bilingual Chanson from The Baker’s Wife (which seguéd into a discussion of how you properly start a musical), treating us to a mash-up combination of Colours of the Wind (Pocahontas) and When You Believe (Prince of Egypt), or – one of my favourite things all evening – a mini masterclass on how to write an “I want” song using Jule Styne’s I’m the Greatest Star from Funny Girl as a starting point and then taking us through the creation and development of Elphaba’s The Wizard and Me from Wicked.

For a hugely successful, award-winning composer/lyricist, Stephen Schwartz was disarmingly charming, self-deprecating, and funny. It also became clear that he's a good teacher of what he does. In fact, he had spent the previous Saturday teaching a masterclass for the CMTWC as part of the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, where two Canadian musical theatre writing teams presented 50 minutes of their new works and received feedback from a panel of Broadway experts: Schwartz, Joe DiPietro (Nice Work if You Can Get It), Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf) and Michael Kerker, the Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP.

A performance from the evening.The Sunday evening performance I witnessed felt like both a culmination and synopsis of this workshop process, as we were treated to stories from Schwartz’s career, from his early creations of Godspell and Pippin, to his collaboration with composer Alan Menken at Disney on such hits as Pocahontas and Enchanted, to his more recent musical Wicked. The evening culminated with a showstopping performance of Day by Day from Godspell by Chilina Kennedy with Schwartz on piano and the Sheridan College choir as backup. An encore from his newest creation in Denmark, a new musical about the life of Hans Christian Andersen, sent me off into the night delighted and inspired.

“An Evening with Stephen Schwartz” took place at the Panasonic Theatre on Sunday, May 7 at 7:30pm.

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.

 

 Tafelmusik MusicDirectorDesignate Elisa Citterio 01 HighRes Credit Monica Cordiviola BANNERTafelmusik music director designate Elisa Citterio. Photo credit: Monica Cordiviola.Audiences in Toronto expect that a Tafelmusik performance will be pleasing, well-executed, and committed to artistry. Their performances of Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 and Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, at Koerner Hall May 4 to 7, were no exception.

We saw the two creative heads of the organization at play, with Elisa Citterio (artistic director designate) leading from the principal seat in Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 and then choral conductor Ivars Taurins leading, with Citterio as concertmaster, for the Mozart Mass in C Minor. As Toronto audiences get to know Citterio, we’ll have to see how she balances the rigours of historical performance with opportunities for creative licence in her work with the orchestra. These concerts provided a good chance for Tafelmusik’s devoted audiences to get some early clues about Citterio’s future tactics with the ensemble.

The Haydn opened the concert with a fast-paced, precise, fluffy jaunt. As the master of the symphony, Haydn provides work that is both playful and orderly. The first movement, Adagio – Allegro, showed a disciplined yet not emotionless interpretation. The syncopation amongst the high strings helped shape much of this sound. (In the pre-concert chat, Citterio noted that this was a new piece for both her and the orchestra, thereby providing a level playing field for Tafelmusik to align under their new leader.)

The orchestra is a great size for Haydn. During the performance of the symphony, Citterio, who was mostly aligned to face the orchestra, gave the audience two knowing glances. Near the beginning of the second movement, the Adagio, she gave us a look that I read as a playful “Enjoyable? Yes!” The cadence with double pizzicato at the end of this movement revealed the precision and structure of the orchestra. In the fourth movement, the Presto, we got a second look from Citterio, which felt like “Here we go!” driving the energy straight to the end. An awkward page turn in this movement was the only odd event that stood out of a pleasing performance.

The precision of Citterio’s Haydn in the first half initially left me confused at Taurin’s comparatively heavy-sounding interpretation of the Mass in C Minor. Mozart, known for his lovely, light, vocal runs, flows best in my opinion when not encumbered by heaviness. That isn’t to say that heaviness isn’t needed at times in the effect of the piece. The heavy interpretation was well suited to the “Qui Tollis”: this stirring, flowing liquid gold poured out of the choirlike a cone of sound shaped around the gorgeously luscious alto section.

In the more agile runs of the “Quoniam” and “Jesu Christe,” and “Cum Sancto,” the vocal lines were audible but, for me, diminished by the thickness of the orchestrations and the sustained playing in the orchestra. The sustains in these parts, whether in instrument, choir, or soloists, held over, covering much of the intricate work happening underneath; work, in my opinion, that is more interesting than the long notes. The sopranos of the choir, often leading fugues throughout the piece, were delightfully focused and pleasing throughout the work.

There was a shift after the tuning prior to the Credo. The sound was distinctly lighter and brighter. Soprano Julia Doyle, on the “Et Incarnatus Est” was exquisite. Taurins shaped and supported the soloist with a remarkable woodwind accompaniment. The remainder of the concert was a pleasing middle ground of the bright and light with the heavier sound as with the contrast between the two directors and the two composers, it was an exciting balance.

Tafelmusik continues to provide incredibly high-quality music for audiences the world over. With Citterio at the helm from September,  we have much to look forward to, including that grandest of choral works, the Bach Mass in B Minor.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

 

 

Adam Fisher, singing “Lenski’s aria.” Photo credit: Amanda Hadi.Going to hear live opera – or classical music in general – can be daunting to the novice. On your first outing to the opera or the symphony, you will question everything from what to wear to when to clap; you will feel pressure to remain silent, to stay for the whole performance, to not wear scented products, and so on. There’s a pernicious brand of purism and elitism that surrounds this type of music, and in my observation, it deters potential listeners. There’s this impression – this illusion – that there’s a minimum base of knowledge that’s prerequisite to understanding and enjoying classical music, that’s only possessed by an elite few.

Of course, that’s nonsense. The only thing that’s required for a person to enjoy a type of music is to listen to it. If it moves you, it moves you, and it if doesn’t, it doesn’t. Sure, exposure and familiarity, as well as deeper knowledge, will help to enhance your appreciation. But ultimately, the music should speak for itself, regardless of what you know, where you are, what you’re wearing, or when you clap. In my view, it is the responsibility of the performers of this music to actively fight against elitism, and to make classical music accessible again.

That’s where Against the Grain Theatre’s Opera Pub comes in. Opera Pub takes place at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club (ABC for short) on the first Thursday of every month, excluding their summer hiatus from June to September, and costs precisely nothing (though there is a tip jar). The pub, which resides in the same building as the Old Spaghetti Factory, is the kind of place you’d expect to see a blues-rock band, an open mic, or amateur stand-up comedy. A bar, a few booths, nice food but nothing too fancy. The stage is only slightly elevated, and upon it sits a piano with a colourful mural painted on the audience-facing side. That piano, which was a lucky Craigslist find, belongs to the AtG troupe.

The man at the piano is David Eliakis, a thoroughly experienced accompanist, who, for the duration of each 15-20 minute set, adeptly accompanies a series of arias and songs. While the majority of the programmed repertoire is operatic, there is the occasional song from a musical, and there was, when I went, one Beatles song accompanied by, in addition to Eliakis’ playing, various snaps, slaps and taps from the audience, designed to sound like rain. And this diversified repertoire is in good hands. This is not amateur hour; the featured performers are skilled operatic singers and actors, often with established careers in the field.

Opera Pub isn’t much of a production; obviously effort was put into the show, but the vibe isn’t of some big, fancy spectacle. It’s of a group of friends having fun and making music together. There aren’t really any props, nor are there elaborate costumes. Some of the performers are in formalwear, but at least one was wearing jeans. The arias come in an order, but there doesn’t seem to be an overall story arc. Yet there’s a subtle drama behind every duet sung which makes the meaning clear, even when it’s in a different language.

Alex Dobson, singing at the May 4 Opera Pub. Photo credit: Darryl Block.Sometimes there’s choreography, such as in Papageno and Papagena’s duet from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which the singers began from the audience, popping up in different places like a game of Whack-a-Mole to sing their playful “pa” sounds at the opening before making their way to the stage for a romantic reunion. Rather than explain the context within the opera, host Topher Mokrzewski explained that it was “a song about ornithological mating.”

It’s the contrast between the informal presentation and setting – a Craigslist piano on a bar stage, friends making jokes with each other, people walking around, ordering drinks, coming and going at will – and the highly disciplined artistry on display, that I find so fascinating and endearing about Opera Pub. The next one will be happening on Thursday, October 5, 2017 at Amsterdam Bicycle Club on The Esplanade by the Old Spaghetti Factory. I couldn’t sing its praises highly enough, but – please excuse the pun – perhaps one of AtG’s featured sopranos could!

AtG's final Opera Pub of the season, on May 4 at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club, featured a variety of repertoire sung by Alexander Dobson, Jeremy Ludwig, Julie Ludwig, Adam Fisher, Gwenna Fairchild-Taylor, Emma Char, Jonathan MacArthur, Andrew Love and Ellen McAteer, with David Eliakis on piano.

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

 

Echo Women's Choir. Photo by the author.The Church of the Holy Trinity is a gem of the Anglican tradition in Toronto, steeped in history and activism. There are few barriers in the open space, and art and displays clearly stating “this is a place of social justice and a place of God” – open and welcoming at the same time. As their April 30 concert at the Church of the Holy Trinity demonstrated, Echo Women’s Choir is much the same way: an open and welcoming ensemble that proves that music is a surefire way to not only build community, but also to leave it changed.

This is not going to be a typical concert report, because something along the lines of what Echo brings cannot easily be summed up by just performance alone. There’s a history and a story in the faces of the choir; these are activists, community changers, and beacons of a world we wish to see. Under the leadership of Becca Whitla and Alan Gasser, the ensemble has access to folk, historical, and contemporary music arranged just for Echo. The choir was also joined by Juno-nominated Annabelle Chvostek as artist-in-residence, and for this performance, by musical satirist Nancy White and her daughter Suzy Wilde. There’s a community at play here – bringing people together, sharing music, and being political.

It is often said that privilege allows one to be apathetic, to disregard the plight of others and to not be involved in politics. In this concert, Echo Women’s Choir is anything but apathetic. First they excel in the old North American church hymns adapted by Gasser and other arrangers. The singers get the right drawl and swoops for the effect of this early church music. The spread vowels with a slight nasal resonance are perfect for the music. Some choristers provide additional passages to a Timothy Swan tune, Poland. All of this sets up the audience for songs telling stories of environmental degradation and mining. There are also two gems of Georgian tradition, providing some amazing minor chords and intervals well-executed by Echo.

Nancy White and Suzy Wilde provide a fun two-song set: Big Fish, a commentary on Starbucks and Walmart and on Canada being the “little fish” to the US; and the incredibly charming Les Belles Belles Fesses, a French and English story of a man with a gorgeous butt.

Chvostek then conducts the choir in her arrangement of her song Firewalker. She describes it as “a song for intense times…[inspired by a] dream of being in a warzone with people I love.” It’s evocative and scary, very much telling the story of Syrian refugees seeking safety around the world today. It is a story of drones, robots and flames. The blend of folk music into choral arrangements is one of Echo’s strengths, and Chvostek is a real pleasure to see in action.

And then we come to the final song of the concert – and it is the most powerful by far. MILCK’s Quiet has become a bit of a firebrand amongst singing ensembles, having come to prominence at the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017 and part of a campaign called #ICANTKEEPQUIET. Choir! Choir! Choir! brought MILCK to Toronto, where the work was learned and performed at the Phoenix Concert Hall in February. Echo has sung this work now at City Hall and for the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. As they don their Pussy Hats and gear up, they start singing and you can’t help but be changed.

Near the start, “Shut up and smile, don’t spread your legs,” I’m already covered in goosebumps. With “if I don’t say something, if I just lie still” I’m emotional, thinking about all the people for whom this is their story. By “I can’t keep quiet, for anyone, not anyone,” the song becomes personal. With Chvostek at the front of the choir, leading the insistency and power of the song, the singers are louder, righteous indignation flowing, a declaration and celebration: “There’ll be someone who understands, let it out, let it out now!” With clapping and stomping from the audience, they roar: “No! I won’t keep quiet.” And they shouldn’t. Even after 25 years. They should never keep quiet and neither should we.

Echo Women’s Choir, with special guests Nancy White, Suzy Wilde and Annabelle Chvostek, performed “We Can’t Keep Quiet!” on Sunday April 30 at 3pm, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Payadora, at a previous performance at the Four Seasons Centre. Photo credit: Chris Hutcheson.Except for the occasional touring tango group, Toronto’s Payadora Tango Ensemble doesn’t seem to have much regional competition. It’s true that Quebec’s Quartango is in its third decade of mining the tango motherlode, but Payadora may well be the sole GTA group dedicated to the Buenos Aires genre. And while the group has been actively performing around town since 2013, except for visits to their YouTube videos, their April 25 Gallery 345 concert was this listener’s first live taste of Payadora’s artistry.

During an earlier stage of its development the tango was often played by an ensemble known as the orquesta típica. It included at least two violins, flute, piano, double bass and two or more bandoneóns. The concertina-like bandoneón has a fascinating lineage and current geographic distribution. Of 19th-century German origin, it’s been essential to most tango ensembles from its earliest days – as well as in the folk music of Lithuania.

Payadora’s instrumentation however is much leaner than the orquesta típica. The quartet’s lineup includes violinist Rebekah Wolkstein, accordionist Branko Džinović, pianist Robert Horvath and Joseph Phillips on double bass. These highly skilled, classically-trained musicians all pursue successful Toronto-based music careers when they are not performing tango.

But what is tango? The dance and the music which accompanies it originally developed in Argentina in the late 19th century among former communities of African slaves and European immigrants. The resulting hybrid dance, earmarked from early references for its sensuality, its complexity and couples’ improvisation, became a mainstay entertainment in the underclass urban districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The music for the tango was a hybrid of various European music genres, its performers making use of popular European instruments of the day: the guitar and the aforementioned bandoneón being perhaps the most characteristic.

By the early 20th century the tango was attracting professional Argentinian musicians, bandleaders and composers. Payadora’s repertoire includes key works of this period by Eduardo Arolas (1892-1924), Julio de Caro (1899-1980), Osvaldo Pedro Pugliese (1905-1995), Aníbal Carmelo Troilo (1914-1975) and Horacio Adolfo Salgán (1916-2016). In its April 25 concert, Payadora focused on instrumental tangos designed for listening in a concert setting rather than those intended for dancing.

While it was initially part of the soundtrack for the lives of Argentinian urban criminal groups and the poor, tango achieved wider national social acceptance and global recognition only later, when tango groups began to tour internationally. In the years just prior to the First World War, a veritable tango craze swept European and American cities. Payadora’s Wolkstein mentioned at the concert that the tango was especially popular in early 20th-century Paris where it was cultivated in a gentrified form, its attractions appealing to all classes. It was then subsequently reintroduced back to its homeland, becoming finally socially acceptable to a much wider audience.

Payadora performed tango compositions of the so-called “golden age” (roughly 1930s-1950s), but it also played a composition by perhaps the most famed composer who emerged from the tango world: Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the very influential bandoneón virtuoso and bandleader. His piece Escualo (Shark) is imbued with a jittery version of the characteristic tango rhythm. It also deploys musical features reflecting his cosmopolitan compositional influences and tastes. These include rhythmically angular melodic lines, harmonies and instrumentation which may remind listeners of Stravinsky’s work, plus timbral textures produced via slaps on the bass and scrapes on the violin strings behind the bridge. Escualo serves as a good introduction to nuevo tango, Piazzolla’s signature extension of the genre, making use of extended forms, harmonies, dissonances and counterpoint.

Centred on the large repertoire drawn from the Buenos Aires tango tradition, Payadora has not neglected homegrown talents, premiering its pianist Horvath’s first tango composition Tavasz. Meaning “spring” in Hungarian, the composer’s mother tongue, it was a timely seasonal homage. The work began with a slow free tempo exploration on the piano, but then gained steam propelled by the tango rhythm, relying on virtuoso interplay between all four instrumentalists.

In addition to tango, Payadora also performed two Argentinian vernacular dance music genres. The zamba is set in a slow 3/4 meter – or is it in 6/8? – while yet another couples’ dance, the chacarera, also plays on similar hemiola syncopation. These two standards of Argentinian folklore received polished, sophisticated renderings by the musicians and served to expand the audience’s appreciation of that country’s musical expression beyond that of the tango.

The intimate Gallery 345 concert closed with an enthusiastic encore. It was clear that Payadora’s fans – attracted by its musicians’ playful unforced technical virtuosity, rhythmic precision, and evident commitment to the tango repertoire and ethos – are ready for much more.

Payadora Tango Ensemble performed at Gallery 345 in Toronto on Tuesday, April 25.

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

Daniel Houck in Strad Style.There are at least 20 films with a significant musical component in this year’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, which runs at various Toronto venues from April 27 to May 7 (hotdocs.ca). There are must-see movies and others of more than passing interest among the several I’ve already seen; many promising titles are tucked away among the 230 in the 2017 lineup.

My review of Integral Man, Joseph Clement’s vivid portrait of the late mathematics professor, LGBT activist and orchestral violinist, James Stewart, can be found in the May issue of The WholeNote. Stewart’s unique Toronto home, Integral House, built into the side of a ravine with royalties from his best-selling calculus textbook, is integral to the documentary, as is footage of Measha Brueggergosman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs in the house for Stewart and his guests at his own living wake.

Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour rich exploration of The Grateful Dead, presents a definitive picture of the iconic band including its cultural and musical origins (from Jerry Garcia’s early connection to the Beat Generation of the 1950s to Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests of the 1960s). There are many nuggets to chew on: one in particular from Joe Smith, the Warner Brothers executive in charge of The Dead and a fount of key information. He recalled that the film crew whom he hired to document the band’s 1974 European tour were continually being given drinks by the band members; he said that he would never accept a drink from The Dead (because more often than not they would be laced with LSD; one of the band’s central tenets was to have fun). Needless to say there was no film of that tour.

Stefan Avalos’ Strad Style chronicles the improbable but triumphant story of a reclusive Ohio violin-maker, Daniel Houck, whose confidence that he can produce a copy of “Il Canone,” the Guarneri violin built in 1742 that Niccolò Paganini played, carries him through an eight-month journey that threatens to be derailed more than once. A violin aficionado who loves listening to old masters like Oistrakh and Heifetz and idolizes Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari – all from Cremona, Italy – Houck suffers from bipolar disorder but functions with medication. He befriends Razvan Stoica on Facebook when he discovers the Romanian-born violinist has won the Strad Prize at a Salzburg festival and offers to make him the Canone replica. There is magic stuff here.

The Genius and the Opera Star, Vanessa Stockley’s no-holds-barred depiction of the love between a 92-year-old former opera singer, Ruth Berk, and her 55-year-old daughter, Jessica, proves convincingly that parental love goes both ways. Living in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment that’s often occupied by the daughter’s empathetic boyfriend, their days are marked as much by Ruth’s singing along to Sinatra records as by Jessica’s complaining. The vintage home movies and tapes add another layer.

Raise Your Arms and Twist, Documentary of NMB48 takes you deeper than you may ever want to go inside the bizarre phenomenon of the Japanese pop idol groups. NMB, from Osaka, is at the top of the charts, with nine of their first ten songs Number One hits. Dozens of teenage girls dressed like dolls in short skirts are coached and choreographed to appeal to their thousands of adoring fans; management is all-knowing and all-pervasive, down to the handshake events in which fans get approximately ten seconds of intimate conversation with an idol. One singer after shaking 3000 hands in a nine-hour session said: “It gives me energy; it’s like spending the whole time with your friends.”

The Road Forward chronicles decades of Indigenous activism in Canada through song, print and struggle. The Native Voice newspaper (since 1946) and the Native Brotherhood (which began in 1931 in BC’s fishing villages) both fought for Native rights. Archival footage is amplified by several Indigenous performers who carry on an oral tradition that reaches out inclusively beyond the personal.

The Batwa Music Club in Ghosts of Our Forest.Daniel Roher’s Ghosts of Our Forest follows a 24-year-old Ugandan Batwa (pygmy), who has formed the Batwa Music Club to perform the spiritual and traditional music of his people, all of whom were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in 1992.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World devotes its energies to ten Indigenous North American musicians who made considerable contributions to the musical life of the last century. Taking its cue from Link Wray’s influential 1958 guitar instrumental, Rumble, Catherine Bainbridge’s doc includes blues great Charley Patton, songbird Mildred Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and more. Bainbridge is best-known for Reel Injun, her examination of the movies’ treatment of Indigenous people.

La Chana is a portrait of a Catalan flamenco legend and her triumphant return to the stage after years out of the limelight.

Chavela recounts the story of the legendary Mexican chanteuse, who defied sexual convention and challenged macho cultural norms with her music and her love affairs.

Fatou Seidi Gahil performing in Illighadad, Niger in A Story of Sahel Sounds.A Story of Sahel Sounds follows Oregonian Chris Kirkley as he travels to Niger in search of musicians he’s never met to be part of his Sahel Sounds project. The soundtrack looks to be a keeper.

Give Me Future uncovers the ingenuity with which Cubans share banned music while ostensibly focusing on a concert in Havana by Major Lazer in front of half a million people.

A poor African-American family in North Philadelphia opens up their basement music studio to the neighbourhood in Quest, an in-depth portrait filmed over the course of ten years.

Resurrecting Hassan studies a family of blind Montreal buskers who fall under the spell of a Russian mystic who they hope will resurrect their sighted son/brother, a drowning victim. The heartfelt passion of the wife/mother’s singing reflects more than the grief over her loss.

Tony Palmer, this year’s recipient of Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Award, has made more than 100 documentaries. Six of the seven being shown here have a musical component. Palmer had unlimited access to Leonard Cohen for Bird on a Wire, an intimate look at Cohen’s 1972 overseas tour; it’s essential viewing. All My Loving, Palmer’s second film, was facilitated by his friendship with John Lennon. Conceived as a means of getting performers like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Eric Burdon and The Who onto the BBC, when it finally aired in 1968, its effect was transformative. All You Need Is Love (Ep.14 The Beatles) is taken from Palmer’s 17-part 1976 historical series; The Beatles and World War II (2016) combines war footage with covers of Beatles songs. Margot, Palmer’s film about England’s greatest ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, would strain credulity as fiction given her tragic life history. The Harvest of Sorrow (1998) is a compulsively watchable portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff, much of it told by the composer’s own words spoken to great effect by Sir John Gielgud. Archival footage, talking heads and modern performances (pianists Mikhail Pletnev and Valentina Igoshina; Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) combine to produce an insightful portrait of one of the most popular figures of the 20th century.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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