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.

Trio Magnifico. Photo credit: Vladimir Kevorkov, c/o Show One Productions.There are few of us about – the Netrebko timbre sceptics: music lovers who are more puzzled than attracted by the colour of the voice by the world’s best known soprano, Anna Netrebko. There are going to be even fewer here after her Toronto and Canadian debut on April 25 at the Four Seasons Centre, in recital with tenor Yusif Eyvazov and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under the baton of Jader Bignamini. I must admit I went in as one, but came out finally able to understand much of her scenic appeal. Anna Netrebko live is a veritable bête de scène, that rare performing artist who is at absolute ease on stage, well-prepared and spontaneous both, always generous, with something of a serene childlike instinct for play.

Hers is an unusually dark and cavernous soprano, with ample lower register and confident and equally ample bright top. In live performance, it’s a voice-kaleidoscope with never a dull moment. Her repertoire has changed over the years from the bel canto of the youthful years to Verdi, the Russians, and the first Wagner forays recently – and there’s a Strauss Salome in the near future. At the FSC recital presented by Show One Productions she sang the Act 4 Marfa’s aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride; Cio-Cio-San’s ‘Un bel di vedremo’ – usually sung by brighter and smaller-engined soprano voices, so this was a treat; ‘Stridono lassù’ from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci; and a luxurious, dramatically precise Moon aria from Dvořák’s Rusalka. With Yusif Eyvazov, she sang a cheerful little duo from Lehar’s Das Land des Lachelns, ‘Tu che m’hai preso il cuor’. The duet and the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin closed the concert.

The audience that packed the FSC was rowdier and more enthusiastic than is the Toronto operatic average, which was a welcome change. The Hvorostovsky fans were particularly vocal and it’s no wonder: as the baritone is not yet taking on a full performing and touring schedule, every concert is an occasion to relish. He sang Rigoletto’s ‘Cortigiani vil razza dannata’, an aria each from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Rubinstein’s The Demon, the famous “Tri karty” aria from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, and in the encore on behalf of the entire trio, probably the best known Russian romance song of all times, ‘Ochi chyornye’, while Netrebko waltzed around the stage. (And does she got rhythm. Can we have more of the dancing Netrebko on stage, opera directors?)

All that said, it was Yusif Eyvazov who actually stole the show. Is it ungentlemanly to say that the diva’s husband, when it strictly comes to singing, impressed the most? Because I am about to say it. Perhaps because he is still fairly young and up-and-coming with more to prove than either of the two established star colleagues, Eyvazov came spectacularly well-prepared in a program that had two of the best known tenor arias of all time – ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca, and ‘Vesti la giubba’ from I Pagliacci. He made both of these frequently recorded and performed arias uniquely his own. Eyvazov’s tenor is of a rare beauty of tone and consistent throughout the range, with a free and secure top. Volume is always impressive and impressively controlled. What he has in common with his spouse is the unfussy presence in the singing role – there is no withholding and no distance. To the lesser-known tenor arias ‘E la solita storia’ from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana and ‘Prosti nebesnoe sozdanye’ from Pique Dame he immediately gave a living, breathing character. There is much to look forward to from Eyvazov in the years to come.

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

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song. Photo credit: John Lauener and Dahlia Katz.When asked what was the initial inspiration for Century Song, Neema Bickersteth says she wanted to see if she could sing and dance at the same time. 

From that initial experimenting grew a beautiful, moving, and yet enigmatic piece of music theatre that defies definition. It is part opera, part dance, part video installation, and all intriguing collaboration by Bickersteth and her creative partners both onstage and off. Musicians Gregory Oh on piano and Ben Grossman on percussion and computer are visible and intimate partners in the live experience, and Kate Alton (choreographer), Ross Manson (director), and video creators fetFilm, Germany Hinrichs and associates Cameron Davis, Kaitlin Hickey and Jeremy Minnagh, have worked together with Bickersteth to create a seamless combination of many elements into a short (50-minute) but satisfying whole.

Without being too specific or detailed, Century Song gives us a glancing glimpse of the history of black women in Canada over the last century, in a format that references and evokes Virginia Woolf’s Orlando without losing its own identity. There is a deep seriousness to the piece and yet also a sense of fun that grows as it moves along the timeline from the early 1910s through the later 20th century to the modern day. Interestingly, the fun elements come mostly through some very clever time-hopping and era-juxtaposing video sequences, featuring Bickersteth in many guises.

The decision to stick with vocalises – wordless songs – felt right, though by the end I felt that if there was a longer version, or a companion piece, that I would want words to be back in the recipe. I had first encountered Neema Bickersteth back in 2010 as a talented singing actor in both Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis at the SummerWorks Festival and then in Staniland and Battson’s dramatic oratorio Dark Star Requiem at Luminato, so I was curious to see her in this concentrated spotlight and in the role of creator as well as performer. Century Song is a great showcase and an intriguing hors d’oeuvre to what she may create in the future. The answer to her beginning question? Yes, she can sing and dance at the same time, and beautifully.

Century Song has toured across Canada, the UK, and to Belgium and runs in Toronto until April 29 at Streetcar Crowsnest, Crows Theatre’s very attractive new home at Dundas and Carlaw. $15 Rush tickets are available in person half an hour before the show.

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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