Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Photo credit: Sian Richards.George Frideric Handel was ten years old and living in Germany when Henry Purcell died in England in 1695. While it is highly improbable that the two ever met in person, Purcell’s legacy and uniquely English form of Baroque music undoubtedly influenced the 27-year-old Handel when he settled in London in 1712.

Over the two decades that followed, Handel established three London-based opera companies and a reputation as a musical and dramatic genius, mainly through his composition and presentation of Italian opera to the English nobility. In 1736, Handel composed Alexander’s Feast, his first work in the English language, with a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton based on John Dryden's 1697 ode Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music, written to celebrate St. Cecilia's Day. Handel’s oratorio, which was an overwhelming success, is an important work in his career: its positive reception encouraged him to make the transition towards writing English choral works (including Acis and Galatea and the famed oratorio Messiah). And with a Tafelmusik debut presentation of this work running February 22 to 25, Toronto audiences now have the chance to experience this pivotal work for themselves.

Alexander’s Feast displays a clear and unmistakable indebtedness to the ‘English’ musical tradition, with an homage to the music of Henry Purcell. Purcell published his own Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in 1684, one of many odes written during his career, as well as composing a Te Deum and Jubilate Deo for the same feast day. The musical parallels between Handel’s Alexander’s Feast and Purcell’s own St. Cecilia’s Day compositions are abundant, so much so that certain passages of Alexander’s Feast could seem like pastiche – if not outright plagiarism – but for the unmistakable elements of Handel’s style that masterfully and seamlessly assimilate all of these references. It is Handel’s genius and compositional tastefulness that enable him to borrow, synthesize, and adapt the stylistic traits of Purcell and combine them with distinctly Handelian musical ideas and gestures to create something exciting and new.

Handel’s score for Alexander’s Feast is indeed an ode to music: a mixture of styles and forms that incorporate elements from opera and oratorio (arias, recitatives, and choruses), as well as three concertos (one for harp, one for organ, and a concerto grosso) dispersed within the drama – perhaps in reference to Handel’s tradition of performing concerti, usually on the organ, between acts of his operas. On the Tafelmusik stage, those concertos will be performed by Julia Seager-Scott, harp, and Neil Cockburn, organ.

On Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to hear Tafelmusik’s final working rehearsal of Alexander’s Feast with the chorus and orchestra, which was an illuminating experience. Deliberately refraining from any preemptive listening or score reading, I approached the rehearsal with fresh ears and an open mind, and the music and its interpreters did not disappoint.

Led by conductor Ivars Taurins, it was fascinating to witness the orchestra and chorus exploring Alexander’s Feast together, refining and coordinating finishing touches, discovering familiar patterns and ideas in a relatively unfamiliar work. Compared with other Handel works such as Messiah or the Concerti Grossi, for example, Alexander’s Feast is relatively unknown, but the musical material is still familiar, quintessentially Handelian in its genetic coding, the same way one can know Bach, Mozart or Beethoven after only hearing a few bars.

One of the most striking features of Tafelmusik, whether in rehearsal or performance, is their attention to tuning. In this rehearsal setting, both chorus and orchestra warmed the air with purely-tuned intervals and shimmering chords, creating that bright sound that is so characteristic of and unique to Renaissance, Baroque, and occasionally Classical HIP ensembles. Even in rehearsal, it is rare to hear a misplaced note, interval, or chord – these professionals are so in tune with one another, both literally and otherwise, that the slightest disagreement in tone or temperament is rectified immediately, their constant communication manifested in swaying heads, bows, and bells, and in glorious sound.

And this was just a rehearsal! We are immensely fortunate to have an ensemble of Tafelmusik’s calibre in residence here in Toronto and I encourage you to attend a performance of Alexander’s Feast at Koerner Hall this week. Whether a fan of English or German music – Purcell, Handel, or both – this unique and innovative work is sure to entertain and inspire, an all-in-one program containing sublime vocal, choral and orchestral music. For those who only know Handel through his early operas or later works like Messiah, Alexander’s Feast is a fine opportunity to meet the composer as a younger man, well on his way to being regarded as one of the greatest composers of his time.

Tafelmusik’s presentation of Handel Alexander’s Feast opened on Thursday, February 22, and runs until Sunday, February 25 at Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Cetacea, performing at Ratio in 2014. Photo c/o Ratio.Hugh’s Room, the Matador and the Music Gallery, just three of Toronto’s smaller-scale spaces dedicated to music performance of various kinds, have all been in the news. For one reason or another, they’ve all been struggling to keep their doors open, to re-open after a hiatus, or – in the case of the Music Gallery – are scrambling to find alternative performance venues after being forced for the time being to unexpectedly vacate their current location.

Now Ratio, another treasured small venue, has announced its own “Decreation,” winding up its operations with four final concerts. Run by a cadre of artists, musicians and dancers, another player in Toronto’s constantly evolving intimate music venue landscape is turning off its lights for the last time.

Booked for June 2, 3, 4, and 10, Ratio’s final concerts feature returning local as well as visiting musicians – a blend it has maintained from the outset. While some of the concerts will have already happened when you read this, it is worth investigating Ratio as a case study of just one place for “alternative” music presentation in our city. Supported by audiences small in number though significant in passionate commitment to their music of choice, the importance of such venues as valuable cultural incubators is too often overlooked by the mainstream.

Ratio opened with a bang in the winter of 2014. Just months later, the venue surfaced on the city’s cultural map with an honourable mention in blogTO’s Top 10 intimate concert venues in Toronto. In its December 4, 2014 story, blogTO reported that “tucked in a second floor apartment above a variety store at 283 College in Kensington Market, the venue has kept busy, often hosting multiple events per week from live concerts to film screenings to art pop ups, all or nearly all with an experimental bent that the bar scene is often hostile to.”

During its three-year run, Ratio proved to be a big tent adventure. The multidisciplinary creative minds who lived there were mirrored in the diverse bookings that filled it. Despite being run on the thinnest of shoestrings, its genre-rich music programming nevertheless included ambient, free improvisation, drone, sound art, new music, abstract electronic music, wayward pop, rock and folk projects. It also presented a few select non-Western musicians.

Ratio’s story links with larger community concerns around the availability and viability of Toronto’s alternate music (and other performing art) venues, public places we enjoy experiencing live music in – and ones which seem to be under mounting threat. It’s also about the broader music scene: local and visiting musicians, their audiences, as well as the people behind the scenes who finance, program and run such small venues. Their devoted work is seldom parlayed into substantial income – yet as Ratio’s track record illustrates, it can yield significant dividends to the communities they serve.

In late May I spoke to Nick Storring, a cellist, composer, music journalist and one of Ratio’s resident programmers, to explore what made it tick. Storring recounted Ratio’s backstory. “A bunch of us – seven people actually – wanted to create an artists’ colony,” he said. “We eventually found that [for all its successes] it also had its challenges.”

“It’s also significant to note that it was a live-work space,” Storring added. “Part of the mystique of the space was that the audience actually entered a home. The seating was approximately 50 to more than 60 people on any given night, an intimate, inviting space.”

“We wanted two large categories of listeners intersecting at Ratio – both [those comfortable with concert music conventions] and those with less exposure to those conventions, and frankly were weirded out by it. The presence of both brought a lot of [positive symbiotic] complexity into the fold,” he said.

I asked about Ratios’ mission over its three years. “We wanted a space where high quality listening was central, but which was also relaxed…a community gathering place,” said Storring. “I feel we made a contribution to the tangible community of local and international exploratory music scenes. It was inclusive in the sense of age, genre, scene, and gender – it wasn’t just a ‘boys’ club’.

“As a practitioner of exploratory music I know people performing that music are thirsty for places to play. Some of our programming was generated via social media [and also publicised there]. For example, the Toronto première of American composer and innovative improvising pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn came about as a conversation on Ratio’s Facebook page.”

Does it not sound similar to the role of the Music Gallery, when it first set up shop in 1976 on 30 St. Patrick St. as the home of the CCMC, two generations ago? “There’s definitely a similarity in intent I think, except that we actually lived in the [Ratio] space,” replied Storring.

“In addition to music, we also had a few gallery shows and interdisciplinary performances,” he added. “The Mystic Arts Collective events coordinated by J.D. Pipher are an example. Dancers also used the space. Kathak dancer Deepti Gupta rehearsed at Ratio, and Dance: Made in Canada launched one of its seasons here.” However, Ratio remained primarily a music venue, indicative of the vibrancy of Toronto’s underground music scenes.

By all outward appearances the place was humming – so why the Decreation? “The space turned out to be prohibitive to run,” said Storring. “The rents in the neighbourhood are constantly rising. It’s just not sustainable to run an arts living/presenting space today [in the city core]. In retrospect, it was very much a labour of love.”

What can audiences expect to hear in Ratio’s final Decreation concert, on June 10?

“We wanted to cover a broad scope of music [in our final series], and present music that was important to us. Much of it we have featured before,” said Storring. More information on the June 10 concert, which features Chik White, Slow Attack Ensemble, A Pure Apparatus, and Fleshtone Aura, can be found on the Facebook event page.

Ratio’s presentation track record shows an unwavering support for a far-reaching range of live music, patronised by exploration-hungry audiences. As of this month, it is passing on that torch.

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

Univox in rehearsal. Photo by the author.Dallas Bergen conducts big – really big. His grand gestures and huge sweeping movements carry right off the stage. He even hops and swings around the front of the choir, gesturing generously to convey his message. Univox, the choir in front of him, giggles and laughs, but mostly, they follow along. When stray tempi appear every so often, they are guided back on track with the metronomic snapping of a finger – Bergen is there, ready to help them keep moving forward.  

There’s a huge multitude of choirs in Toronto. Even after writing about choirs for two years and being involved in the choral community for a decade, I’m still surprised at the many choirs that I continue to learn about. Univox is one of the many choirs that make up the diverse fabric of our city’s music scene, and my favorite part? They’re non-auditioned. Bergen says that “it is great to create cleanly polished ensembles with trained and experienced voices, but group singing at a high level shouldn’t be exclusive.” Univox is 12 years old with about 70 singers. There is also a sister choir in the organization, Florivox, a women’s chorus conducted by Joshua Tamayo.

I happen to be a firm believer in non-auditioned choirs. As an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, I was unable to access the Faculty of Music’s choirs, which were focused on the Faculty’s own students and were a daunting challenge to join. A host of other choirs existed throughout campus but none created the type of environment I was looking for, a community of more than just singing. Univox chorister Ryan Kelln feels similarly about a greater purpose for a musical community. “Univox is different for me because it is trying to be more than just a place to sing,” he says. “The choir is run by the members, we are involved in the local community, and work with local charities and host non-singing events for members.” Their partner for this weekend’s concert is the Toronto Wildlife Centre.   

Bergen spends a lot of time working on technique and educating the ensemble. The choir starts off rehearsal with arpeggios. Different phonations are proffered by Bergen to get them warmed up: “wee wee”, then “oo oo”. He spends time singing on the “ng” phonic, one that will be helpful for the French songs of the program. “Working with untrained voices and individuals who don't have proficiency in the language of music puts more need on the conductor to teach all of this – or inspire the singers to learn it,” says Bergen, “in addition to getting to the heart of the music. I appreciate the reward of accomplishment, having them take a masterwork like a Bach motet from a horrendous first read to a well-executed and inspired performance.” The music only improves as the singing improves and Bergen recognizes the importance of teaching technique to get there.

The upcoming Univox concert, “Promises, Purpose, Presence,” focuses on the myriad themes of spring, Easter and Passover. The most unique offering for their concert is Le Chant des Oyseaux by Clément Janequin. From 1529, this is polyphonic music but not sacred – creating the effects of birds with onomatopoeia, repeating sounds and fun rhythms. There are “trrs”, “vrrs”, and “qrrs” evoking cymbals, “cou cou’s”, and an overall fun feeling. Bergen eggs the choir on throughout, asking for them to feel and emote the music as a “cacophony of birds.”

When I ask Bergen about composers he likes to program, Sydney Guillaume comes up. The choir is performing his Ego Sum. A Haitian-American composer, Guillaume mostly writes choral music. He’s especially fond of using the poetry of his father, Gabriel T. Guillaume. Ego Sum is one of his more gentle, interior songs, bringing the listener and singer to contemplate the individual and the greater universe. Known more widely for his Creole- and African-influenced music, Guillaume shows with Ego Sum that he is equally at home composing chorales.

The poetry of Guillaume Sr. fits well into the overall approach of the choir. The tension of being greater than just the whole, and the complicated identities we have as individuals, come into play very clearly in a musical ensemble. “The choir is filled with old and new friends who get to blend their voices together to, quite literally, make a whole greater than the sum of the parts,” says Kelln. “[The choir] succeeds because of the combined efforts of everyone and the support and acceptance required to get there.” It means that the poetry – “Ego sum, ego sum…I am that I am…but me, I am just a man” – provides a wonderful textual journey for the choir.

The song finishes with a beautiful setting of “Merci, Merci seigneur” (“Thank you, thank you Lord”). There’s a dissonant chord before a resolution at the end. The choir doesn’t quite hit it. Bergen has a constant smile on his face, even when the choir goes awry. He hops on the piano to correct the notes as the choir backs up a few bars. They go back through, and the baritones lead this gorgeous close before the choir decrescendos to null. Good stuff.

Univox presents Promises, Purpose, Presence, conducted by Dallas Bergen on March 25, 2017 at 8pm, at Christ Church Deer Park, Toronto. For details, visit our listings or http://univoxchoir.org/

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

The York U choirs in rehearsal for Carmina Burana. Photo by the author.The York University Concert, Chamber, and Men’s Choirs will present Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (Mélisande Sinsoulier and Edward Moroney, pianists; Lorne Grossman, percussion director; Lisette Canton, conductor) at 3pm on March 19, 2017, at Tribute Communities Recital Hall, York University, Toronto.

The York University choir belts out the final “Plangite (Weep)” of Carmina Burana with Lisette Canton at the helm. “No. No,” she cuts them off, “the walls better shake!” With a huge cue, high in the air, the sound rips forth and I feel it deep inside my body, vibrating my little heart. The ending to Carmina Burana is notoriously difficult to sustain, especially at a high volume. The choir brings the heat – spine-tingling, goosebump-inducing, brain-rattling excitement. I can’t wait to hear this put together with the percussion and dual piano reduction they are planning for their upcoming performance.

Carmina Burana (1937), by Carl Orff, is perhaps the most popular choral secular work ever created. It’s one of the most performed and well-loved choral works. It’s complex and interesting and equally pleasing to audience, chorister, and accompaniment alike. The text is evocative and mischievous, reflecting an odd little snippet of history created by a collection of strange monks’ poetry from about 1000 years ago. The piece is also fraught with complicated history in Nazi Germany, in which Carmina Burana was often performed and held in high-esteem. Carl Orff managed to be very successful under the Nazi regime.

Canton last led the York University Choirs in Carmina Burana in 2012. For baritone Taylor Gibbs, Carmina was part of his first year and will now be his final concert in his undergraduate studies. He’s one of only two students who have ever performed this piece before and was “so excited” when Canton announced the piece at the end of last school year. Gibbs is knowledgeable about the work, which he’s featured in as a soloist along with seven others. Rather than featuring the conventional three soloists – bass, soprano, and roasting swan tenor – Canton has spread the talent through eight soloists who also sing in the choir when not featured. Gibbs loves that Canton has played to the strengths of the soloists. “It’s great to see them, my friends, doing their thing,” says Gibbs. It’s a collegial and supportive environment to sing in.

The many soloists are helpful from an audience perspective, as well, because the roles are distinctive. The drunk Abbot of Cockaigne is a very different character than the hopeful young man of “Omnia sol temperat.” Each soloist gets to put a stamp on their performance, evoking the various characters created by the monks’ original text. I’m especially enamoured with the Blanziflor and Helena pairing. Helena (Kayla Ruiz), cradled in the arms of her Blanziflor (Sebastién Belcourt), sings “Sweetest One! I give myself to you totally.” Not only pitch perfect, the visual is simple, yet so effective.

Lisette Canton’s production is a semi-staged version of the work, not just a standard straight-up concert. The three major sections of the work will have unique staging and lighting to get at “the beauty of the experience,” says Canton. The first is titled “Spring,” the second “In Tavern,” and the third “The court of Love.” The works flow through different places and times to evoke different themes. The light freshness of “Floret Silva” (the Forest Flowers), sung earlier in the work, is markedly different than the heavy manliness of the second section’s “Estuans interius (Seething Inside)”. Canton’s production choices will shape the performance of each section differently. The choir, specifically the men, are excited about the “In Tavern” portion. They’re moving off the risers as the stage transforms into a 12th-century bar. We’ll have to see where these jaunty young men take us on the grandest choral homage to drinking ever written. The entire production is being set up to “get the whole story and the movement and intensity” of the music, says Canton.

Paying attention to the text of the work is essential to a performance of Carmina Burana. It’s racy and playful: “Mea mecum ludit virginitas (My virginity makes me frisky!)”. It’s pleasant and hopeful: “ad amorem properat animus herilis (the soul of man is urged towards love)” . It’s hilarious and light-hearted: “girat, regirat garcifer; me rogus urut fortiter (The servant is turning me on the spit: I am burning fiercely)”. At times, it’s even uncomfortable and wildly inappropriate: “Oh, totus floreo (Oh, I am bursting out all over)” (normally sung by a children’s choir and repeated many times). Orff has created a story from these bizarre writings and Carmina Burana is a fantastical musical journey.

York University’s music program continues to provide an exemplary interdisciplinary arts education in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance, and Design. The students keep coming back too, they “keep singing,” says Canton. Several alumni are part of this performance. If you’ve never been to see a York choral ensemble in action, I highly suggest you catch the choirs in their presentation of Carmina Burana. Canton promises wall-shaking sound, “top-notch soloists and choir,” and drinks in the lobby afterwards.

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

The final concert of Choirs Ontario's SingONtario!. Photo by the author.There are two rows of little boys bobbing up and down, dressed in matching white dress shirts and bright red ties that can’t help but be oversized. They’re singing Puttin’ on the Ritz as they turn sideways and gesture to the audience. It’s incredibly cute and the audience eats up the charm offensive. This is the ASLAN Boys Choir, the second of six choirs performing at SingONtario!.

SingONtario! is a signature event of Choirs Ontario, the umbrella organization for choral music in the province. This year, there are six choirs that have been performing under renowned Venezuelan conductor and educator Maria Guinand (whose presence in Toronto was the culmination of work involving Hilary Apfelstadt at the University of Toronto, Elise Bradley at the Toronto Children’s Chorus, and Choirs Ontario). Concurrently, there are clinics being offered by various choral leaders from around the province. They finish the day with a concert and a massed performance.

The University of Toronto Women’s Chorus opened the concert and I was instantly focused on the abundance of vibrato, especially in the second sopranos. The percussive rhythms of the Mata del Anima Sola were muddied by the unsettled pitches. There are many different types of voices in these six choirs, and the diversity of the choirs involved gets to the heart of why choral education is so important – whether it’s maturing female voices like those trying to build their instrument in university music programs; very young boys who don’t yet have the physiology for much depth of sound; or emerging singers who may have never sung in choirs before a few months ago. The good thing is that these voices are supported by a host of capable choral educators. That is the strength of an organization like Choirs Ontario: to continue to advocate for not only great music, but great people, at every age and ability.

In contrast to the younger women’s voices of the University of Toronto, the Ave Choir was a welcome addition to the choral community – only one year old! There are some incredibly deep, warm, lovely alto voices in that choir. Biebl’s Ave Maria was an ambitious choice, yet ultimately unfulfilled. Young Voices Toronto brought us a great arrangement of a traditional Filipino song Orde-E, evoking birds with vocal ornamentations like swoops, caws, and slides. They also featured a drum, as did the Etobicoke Youth Choir in Sarah Quartel’s The Beat of a Different Drum. Quartel has many published works and her name is increasingly popular as a local Ontario composer. Also – a new discovery to me – it is pretty fantastic that Etobicoke has a youth choir, and has since 1976.

The Toronto Youth Choir, the last of the six choirs I’ve mentioned, managed to fill the church with a warm and balanced presence. Their presentation of Eatnemen Vuelie was especially fun; an arrangement based on the choral music popularized by the movie Frozen. The massed choir that closed the concert was guided by Maria Guinand herself, in two songs. El Campo Esta Florido (Vals venezolano), arranged by Alberto Grau and Verde Mar de Navegar, arranged by Capiba. The latter song was full of energy and the choirs exuded joy as they sang through it. Guinand added appropriate snapping, clapping and dance to the song. This kind of movement and connection in the music might come naturally to Latin Americans, but not quite so to the overly polite and stodgy Canadian. This momentary lapse of guardedness was very welcome.

Prior to the evening’s concert, I attended two of the clinics offered on choral music topics. Jackie Hawley, an Ottawa-based choral educator and founder of the Cantiamo Girls Choir, shared her experiences working on an exchange of students between Ottawa and Iqaluit. Her presentation got to the larger issue of choral music-making in a diverse country like Canada. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and while community-building is a very important part of the work of a choral educator, it is a skill that is learned and developed through doing, not in textbook or university classrooms.

Hawley spoke of working in Iqaluit and trying to arrange workshops that no one was attending. It wasn’t until someone pointed out that it was because there were only 2 hours of sunlight some days, so people were spending it outside with their families, not inside away from the light. Ultimately, the process of being effective is one of preparation and adaptation.

Another key issue of tension in the workshop was that of cultural appreciation versus appropriation when Indigenous art is shared with a wider community. At what point does music or art become one or the other? Are they two sides of the same coin? A lot of that depends on the types of conversations that are being made over the art and the process of its creation. There is no straightforward answer for this tension.

This issue also arose in a later workshop on choral music and the Muslim world with Hussein Janmohamed and Shireen Abu Khader, both accomplished musicians and doctoral students at the University of Toronto. As artists interacting with the music of the Middle East and/or from Islamic tradition, they gave insight into culture and conversations of choral music that isn’t so dominated by Western influences and tendencies. Janmohamed reveled in the freedom to explore sounds, stories, and conversations about music, shaped by music, and through what he calls “meeting each other sonically.” “Sonic” is a good word, an active word that evokes doing. Abu Khader shared her insights on the rich choral traditions in Christian churches of the Levant, but the lack of secular choral work. Both clinicians presented works they have written, amongst others, and we sang through excerpts.

At the end of their workshop, Janmohamed and Abu Khader invited the participants into the creation of a song. The process was quite inspiring and wonderful. Using the templates and ideas of songs they had introduced over the last hour, they broke us into two groups and allowed us to have a “sonic conversation” based on what we had learned. After a few technical prompts amongst the group, we actually just started singing, and it all sort of settled into something lovely and improvisational. In that moment, we were able to have a conversation about music that brought ourselves directly into the creation of something new. It was a complicated conversation, conveying thoughts on education, what we were hearing, playing with text, rhythm, listening to what we liked, testing out something new, modulating to fit into the larger whole, bringing in external influences, and so much more – all in two minutes of singing with each other.

Choral music allows us to have complex conversations like this one – and with choral leaders like Abu Khader, Janmohamed, and Hawley (amongst many, many others), Choirs Ontario continues to support this important sonic work.

SingONtario! took place at Christ Church Deer Park, Toronto on Sunday, March 5, 2017. The next big event on the docket for Choirs Ontario is the annual Ontario Youth Choir program, which is being presented by Elise Bradley at Carleton University, and applications are now open. For details, visit http://www.choirsontario.org/index.jsp.

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

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