Voices Across the Atlantic

The title “Voices Across the Atlantic” could refer to compositional voices or singing voices. You had Barber & Willan from our side of the pond, Brahms, Britten & Monteverdi from the other. Ditto for the performing talent, coming from many places far & near.

Such was tonight’s iteration of the Toronto Summer Music theme “Beyond Borders” venturing beyond the other festival venues clear across Bloor Street to the congenial space of Church of the Redeemer.

And it was extraordinary, professionals at different stages of their careers:

Charles-Daniels-Credit-Annelies-van-der-Vegt (002)

Tenor Charles Daniels (photo: Annelies van der Vegt)

  • Masters of the vocal art such as tenor Charles Daniels and counter-tenor Daniel Taylor (also conducting and being a wonderfully informal host)
  • Steven Philcox, one of Canada’s pre-eminent artists of collaborative vocalism, and a co-founder of the Canadian Art Song Project, at the keyboard
  • And Toronto Summer Music Fellows, a talented young group including baritone Clarence Frazer, who has made a huge impression locally (for example in Canadian Stage’s Miss Julie or more recently in the Tapestry /Opera on the Avalon co-production of Shanawdithit) while still in the first decade of his career.

Baritone Clarence Frazer

Yet everything was done in that most Canadian way, without any sense of ego or flashiness. For the audience it was an impeccable performance while for the musicians it was an opportunity for collaboration of the highest sort.

Here’s the program:

  • Benjamin Britten: Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac Op 51
  • Samuel Barber: Dover Beach, Op 3
  • Johannes Brahms: Four Quartets, Op 92
  • Benjamin Britten: Canticle IV: The Journey of the Magi, Op 86 (TS Eliot)
  • Claudio Monteverdi:
    • Si ch’io vorrei morire SV 89
    • Adoramus te, Christe SV 289
    • Lamento della ninfa SV 163
    • Beatus Vir SV 268
  • (encore) Healey Willan: “Rise up, my love, my fair one” motet #5

There was no intermission, and refreshments were offered right after the performance.

The Britten Canticles are dramas without staging, for the virtual theatre of the mind’s eye. Where the first one is solemn, the voice of God uncanny as a blend of the two high male voices and the urgent dialogue of father & son, the second with its playful text by TS Eliot is more ironic and distanced from anything overtly sacred, and feels forever timely. For the first we were treated to the blend of the Daniels’s, where the latter added the extra warmth of Frazer’s baritone. And Frazer gave a warm reading of the Barber, Arnold’s being another text that feels brand new when juxtaposed against current events.

We heard another sort of vocalism in the Brahms quartets, as two different quartets of TSM vocal Fellows each sang a pair of the lovely compositions. To close we were going back & forth between secular & sacred texts set by Monteverdi, with Willan’s motet casting the deciding vote in harmony with the church space: although the Song of Solomon would almost seem to erase any boundary between sacred or secular (speaking of “crossing borders“).

Don’t get the wrong impression, the young performers are accomplished early-career professionals not students.  And they’re performing again this weekend as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival.

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New Orford celebrate their first decade

Two for two.

It’s the second night of the 2019 Toronto Summer Music Festival and again it felt like a special event, this time in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the New Orford String quartet.  There’s a natural connection given that one of their violinists – Jonathan Crow—is the Artistic Director of TSM.


New Orford String Quartet: left to right, Brian Manker, Eric Nowlin, Andrew Wan & Jonathan Crow

They gave us another program touching upon the festival theme “Beyond Borders”:

  • Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Op 20 #4: influenced by Roma violin
  • The world premiere of Christos Hatzis’ String Quartet #5 “The Transforming”, a TSM commission, that I shall elaborate upon below
    — intermission —
  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major, Op 59 #3: again with foreign inputs

Hatzis? That’s heady stuff to be giving a world premiere, even if it’s not also sandwiched between Haydn & Beethoven, arguably the two greatest practitioners of the string quartet.

And his music wasn’t out of place.

The titles of the three movements suggest something  spiritual, the movements titled “Pesach” (the Hebrew name for Passover), “La Pieta (Jerusalem)” and “Regeneration”.  It’s often in a very rhetorical style, as though the instruments are doing call & response or dialoguing with one another.  In other places they are chordal suggestions of a choir, although I’m likely projecting something spiritual, knowing the movement titles.  In the second movement there’s a tonal melody played by Jonathan Crow, and later violist Eric Nowlin plays something that sounds a lot like Parry’s hymn “And did these feet”.  I have to assume Hatzis knows what he was doing in choosing a hymn that’s at least an alternate national anthem for England, a tune composed in the darkest days of WW I with nationalist if not imperial associations.  I’m not saying I don’t like the tune, I’m saying that suddenly it’s as though a big Union Jack was unfurled, especially as you could hear the change in the deportment of the listeners.   So be it, and perhaps this is exactly what Hatzis expected and wanted..

It’s an accomplished and polished creation with some marvelous moments. In the last movement I was especially moved by the use of harmonics to create some wild effects, truly magical.  While I don’t know if this is ground-breaking or “new” (whatever that means), it’s quite impressive whenever I hear a composer demonstrating that they knew how to achieve striking colours.  There’s a place near the end that reminds me of the last minute of Also sprach Zarathustra, where Strauss seemed to be posing the question about the meaning of life, balanced and unresolved between two opposing tonalities that might suggest negation & affirmation.  Hatzis does something similar except, once he’s posed the question, he brings us to a very firm & decisive answer at the end.  Hatzis would seem to be saying his eternal  “yes”.

On either side we had a pair of stunning quartets.  The Beethoven pushes the players to the limit.  All but smiley cellist Brian Manker wear a poker face, whereas Manker wears his heart on his sleeve.  Often he seemed moved by the lovely playing of the other three across from him.  Violinist Andrew Wan was especially strong in the opening movement, while Manker, in that wacky 2nd movement with all that pizzicato seemed to be channeling Charlie Mingus in his cool pluckings.   To begin we heard Haydn’s op 20 #4, in D, clean & as impressive as you could ask for.

For an encore we heard another Orford commission (but of course not a premiere), a lovely Pavane by François Dompierre that settled a raucous crowd down with its tranquil tunefulness.

The festival continues! While I didn’t drink any koolade yes I did buy the T-shirt.


My new T-shirt

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Beyond Borders with Toronto Summer Music

Tonight was the opening concert of Toronto Summer Music, running until August 3rd at multiple venues in Toronto. In this the third year of Jonathan Crow’s tenure as Artistic Director the talent pool seems a bit deeper, suggesting exciting days ahead.


Toronto Summer Music Artistic Director Jonathan Crow

The theme of the festival is “beyond borders”, a fascinating concept. CBC’s Tom Allen, our host for the evening, called ironic attention to the relevance of the subject since November 2016 aka the moment Donald Trump’s presidency put an additional spotlight on immigration, walls & refugees.

It was not your usual concert, featuring Allen’s ironic commentary. I’ll only quote one joke, his opening words of appreciation and pride for Toronto’s Koerner Hall: “unlikely to leave Toronto even if someone does give it $150 million”.

What can it mean, to go beyond borders? A great deal and it gets clearer if you look at the adventurous programming we can expect over the next few weeks thanks to Crow & his team.  Music sometimes crosses national borders. Allen wanted to suggest that the music doesn’t know borders, but I’m not so sure. While it was kosher to appropriate exotic cultures 100 or more years ago it’s now understood to be problematic, as the Canadian Opera Company’s experience with Louis Riel and a sacred song used without proper consent illustrates. Okay, so for centuries it’s been okay to borrow, whether it was Mozart going alla Turca or the Roma (or “gypsy”) tunes spicing up violin music. There are of course disciplinary borders too, that can be transcended in performance, between popular folk and classical, or even in the norms of what we expect in a concert.

The juxtaposition of solo piano, accompanied violin, and vocal pieces made everything seem a little edgier, the eclecticism making everything sound better. Usually we get several pieces by a composer such as Chopin, not a single shining jewel as we had tonight in the Ballade in F Minor Op 52, played by Jon Kimura Parker. Allen’s little introductions made the curatorial choices that much stronger, a series of light—hearted explanations, although in speaking of Chopin, that curious exile from Poland, Allen was much more serious, and highly illuminating.

Here’s the program:

  • Mozart’s piano sonata in A “Alla turca” –Jon Kimura Parker piano
  • Ravel’s “Cinq melodies popularies grecques” –Adrianne Pieczonka soprano & Steven Philcox, piano
  • Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen –Kerson Leong violin & Rachael Kerr piano


  • Four Kreisler pieces (La gitana, Lotus Land, Hungarian Dance 17, and Tambourin chinois)—Leong & Kerr
  • Chopin Ballade no 4 in F minor – Parker
  • Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in a new arrangement by John Greer for string quartet & piano –Pieczonka, Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet (Crow, Andrew Wan violin, Eric Nowlin Viola, Brian Manker cello)

What an evening of riches, enhanced by the contrasts between items we were hearing. There’s so much I could say, but I’ll limit it to a few key elements.

The reduced version of the Four Last Songs often sounded like a paraphrase, an original approach to a well-known piece, which isn’t to say it was bad, only that it sounded & felt new both to the ear & as I watched the artists. Curiously a paraphrase or an adaptation of an existing piece also takes us across borders to a new place. I missed the horns in the coda of the first song (“Spring”) and the woodwinds again in the opening to “September”, leading a chap behind me as we walked out to call it “fussy”. We were hearing an inner voice elevated to a prime-time role played beautifully by Crow, but all the same, changing the character of the piece. I didn’t mind although the fellow who was speaking wasn’t quite as thrilled by it. The further we went in the cycle, the more I got used to the sounds of the ensemble and accepted it as “Strauss” rather than “Greer”.

Adrianne Pieczonka-Photo by Lisa Sakulensky-Courtesy of the Royal Conservatory of Music

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Vocal careers seem to be getting shorter. Why? Perhaps the answer is: because few people show the intelligence of Adrianne Pieczonka. I don’t need to mention the voices that are gone because of bad choices. But Pieczonka is sounding amazing, the voice still luscious and round and gleaming top to bottom. Throughout I was astonished to hear her carefully holding back. The high “B” in “Spring” was sung so softly, the B-flat in “Time to Sleep” floated gently. Pieczonka has so much voice to give –she gave us a Liebestod with the Toronto Symphony not so long ago. But contrary to my dumb-ass suggestions (wanting her to undertake bigger tougher roles), the reason she sounds so youthful and indeed so perfect is because she has the backbone to say no to those who can’t see the big picture. Of course this wasn’t opera nor even a normal performance of the Four Last Songs, which normally require a singer to work against the textures of a full orchestra in a big hall, not this tiny group in a small space such as Koerner. Pieczonka’s musicianship was a display of maturity & restraint of the highest order. Artists need to say no more often, resist the temptation to ride the gravy train, because if you sing too much too soon: the career will be over. What a treasure Pieczonka is, what a great voice and especially, what a smart singer, an intelligent artist.  She was in tears at the end of the last song, and no wonder.  The cycle was given a wonderful original reading.  I hope that this version gets performed again.

Parker gave us a very romantic evening of music, whether in the incandescent Chopin that silenced the hall before it exploded in adulation, or the Mozart sonata. And just as Parker was offering virtuosity in the service of beauty & truth, which is to say, without being a show-off, Crow’s programming suggests a comfort with virtuosity for its own sake. Leong’s pieces are all crowd-pleasers, opportunities to tease an audience with pure skill, and Leong didn’t disappoint. Rachael Kerr was mostly functioning in support but had her moments as well.

The festival continues! For further information click here.

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Remembering Larry Earlix

It’s a day for sentimentality.  My mom’s had her birthday, which is of course a wonderful occasion: but I won’t talk about that here as it’s a bit too private for the blog.

Yes Virginia there are things I don’t babble on and on about. I also don’t talk about why I’ve been somewhat quiet the past few months, blogging far less than usual.  I don’t want to complain other than to say I’ve been busy due to a flood in my basement.  We’re very lucky with how it has turned out (and thank goodness for insurance coverage) but that doesn’t change the fact that one gets preoccupied with all sorts of details.  I’m going to write a long personal blog today because of how I feel about Larry and mortality and the necessity of grabbing life when you get the chance.

I hadn’t thought of Larry Earlix in ages and ages.

And he pronounced it so that it rhymes with “girl—ix” or “swirl-ix”, no matter how you might think he—a guitar player after all—should have pronounced it… No not “Ear-licks” or “beer licks” apt as that might be for a really good lead guitar.

But I was reminded of Larry listening to the radio yesterday, as we were invited on “Here & Now” (an afternoon drive-home program) to remember the Volkswagen Beetle and to share our memories.  I didn’t call because I knew at the time that what I was remembering would be impossible to capture in a little phone-call to the kind folks curating the contributions for Here & Now.  Indeed I wondered how sentimental I might become recalling Larry, the coolest person I knew at the time if not the coolest person I ever met.

Of course one man’s cool is another person’s faux-pas, so it’s relative.  Others from that era might roll their eyes at the thought. Larry was not tall.  Larry was not imposing. Larry was gentle and kind, articulate but not an imposing academic. Many knew him for his background support work, not any starring roles.

So, in the process of thinking about the car I remembered a lot of other things about someone who was for a time my best friend.

I remembered that I phoned Larry awhile ago. It must have been the 1990s, I realize now. Wow times flies.  I looked him up through something that might have been the internet.  Was there a google? No, it was long distance directory assistance. Yes I remember now you used to be able to ask for phone numbers, if you had the right part of the world.

But I found a phone number and called him up. I remember a friendly chat, with someone I’d known long before, the voice so familiar.

He suggested I come visit him in California.

If you have that impulse to call someone, to chat or talk? Do it.  Go with it. Don’t hesitate, wondering if there will be a next time.

That call was the first time in a long time, and it turns out, the last time we would or could speak.

Googling today I couldn’t find very much.  If I had, I’d do what I usually do, I’d make a list with bullet points. By now people know me for that, right? I do what I do blogging as in my life as a manager at the university, whether I’m talking to my customers or my staff or my boss.

But when you find next to nothing, bullets are out.

So what did I find?  The first link Google offered, I wasn’t even sure it was him at first.  The name Earlix is uncommon, just like Barcza, which is a huge advantage when you’re googling.  If your old pal from the 1970s is Smith or Jones or Mancini or Singh: you will have a much harder time.

Google gave me three possibles, and in each case I was skeptical (feel free to search for yourself, using “Larry Earlix”).  The second seems only marginally possible, but I’ll come back to #2 in a moment.

#1? The first thing that caught my eye was disheartening especially if I admit to myself that yes, I was hoping to talk to an old friend.  The first phrase is

“Unfortunately, Lawrence Earlix passed away at the age of 51, the date of death was 07/26/1998.”

Hm could it be the right Larry Earlix? Reading those words I was hoping it was the wrong one.

The site came up as

Lawrence Earlix (Larry), 51 – Monterey, CA Background Report

I don’t know about background reports. And I was just curious about an old friend. IS this him?  Larry was older than me.  In 1998 I was 43. Hm, 51? I didn’t know how much older he was, but that sounds totally plausible.  I saw Larry regularly in the latter 1970s when I was connected to the University of Toronto’s Varsity newspaper.  I was the classical music editor –a free job—and also the proof-reader –a paid gig. Larry used to drive me and the layouts to the plant up on Lesmill Rd. We used to go up the Don Valley.

Jeepers it’s all coming back to me, in a stream of banal details that are rich with associated memories.

I remember the guy who ran the plant where they printed the paper, who used to call the Varsity’s layout editor “Alex Alphabet”: because he had a long Ukrainian name, and in those days it was normal to mock anyone ethnic.  I don’t think there were any persons of colour, and speaking of colours, LGBTQ was barely on the horizon on a campus with perhaps one or two openly gay professors, one of whom I admired very much & studied with (although he –the brilliant Douglas Chambers –challenged me & my miserably mixed up attitude saying “why are you here”?..a question I still haven’t fully answered to this day. I’ll have to talk about him in another blog).

The only other thing I found on the internet about Larry that I’m certain is him –and which sadly corroborates the fact of his death in the first URL I shared– was a tiny page with a photo from 1995.  Because it’s again mentioning Monterey California, I have to think it’s the same guy in both and yes this is him in the photo.  It’s the third of the three things that come up on Google,, with this URL: https://www.qsl.net/kc6jev/


Ham Radio operators Greg Pool, WH6DT, and Larry Earlix, KC6JEV, During the 1995 Monterey Floods

Larry is the nerdy looking fellow on the right.  He’s likely posed standing because the fellow on the left who is seated is probably much taller.  I can hear his accent in my head, a very American intellectual kind of accent that brands him as a northerner, even if I should associate him with the mid-west.  He told me of his time in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, the Chicago riot at the democrats convention in 1968 (a time like our own?  Nixon would win that election) but I don’t know what state he actually came from, was born in where that accent originated.

…where his mother and father had lived.

So #2 is much more ambiguous. No wait, having looked more closely I’m sure it’s him also. He’s politically active back in 1987 which is the date of a news report.


I am going to quote this piece from LA Times because links have a way of ending or changing & then ceasing to work:

  • just like the phone numbers of old friends with whom we lose touch, or
  • just like the beating hearts of our friends.

The piece is written by Pete Thomas, Dec 11 1987.  And I quote:

The Alliance for Resource Management announced that an initiative to ban gill nets along the California coastline did not reach the 550,000-signature goal required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for June of 1988.

This is the second time such an initiative has fallen short of the necessary signatures. The first was sponsored last year by editor Ken Kukuda of South Coast Sportfishing magazine.

The final count is incomplete, but ARM spokesman Larry Earlix estimated the shortfall at 250,000 signatures.

Despite the failure, Earlix said he was optimistic about next year.

“We’re already prepared for next time,” he said. “We know there is a broad-based general concern and we feel confident that we have the public mandate to take our position to the California state legislature. A whole state-wide organization of activists is now in place.”

Should it fail again?

“If there continues to be a lack of commitment by the state in protecting the fragile ocean environment, we’re just going back to the people and do it again,” Earlix said.

As I quote Pete Thomas’s piece from 1987, over 30 years ago, I think I’m honouring my mother and my old friend Larry who is fading away in my dim brain.  I suppose I’m honouring myself as I meander through memories of long ago.

Larry was a political animal. I mentioned SDS right? Larry had been in Canada for awhile. I don’t know if it’s accurate to say he was a draft dodger—that bizarre epithet of another time—because I don’t know the full timelines of Larry’s life.  Given that he was at least 5 years older than me and was doing graduate work in Psychology (ah yes, I am remembering that he was involved with the student union for Psych, that was in the basement of Sidney Smith Hall), it was entirely possible that he had come here—or somewhere in Canada—during the Vietnam War.

He had been in Chicago in 1968, a decade before I met him.   Argh, there’s so much I don’t know, and will never know about him.

I remember riding in that Volkswagen Beetle, not just the twice a week runs up to the plant (hm was it twice a week? Or was it three times? I can’t remember) but a trip up north. I had told him about the Perseids, one of the great pleasures to be had in the summertime.  This year the Perseids peak on August 13th, by the way.  Larry was enthused, and so we went north on Hwy 400 until we decided we’d reached someplace that was indeed dark enough.  The Perseids are wonderful, but even more so when you travel out of town, away from the bright lights of the city.

I also remember the last chapter of our relationship, when I guess I became impossible.  I was music-directing a show at the U of T, a production of Joker of Seville with texts by Derek Walcott, music by Galt MacDermot. Ron Bryden had worked with Walcott at the Royal Shakespeare and was enthused about the show.  Ah this is one period of my life when I wish I could have a do-over (!).  I learned a great deal about middle-management working on this show, trying to cope with the acoustics of Hart House Theatre, singers of varying skill levels (there was at least one tone-deaf singer whose song was eventually cut, at least one rhythm-deaf singer trying valiantly to sing something syncopated). They were working without amplification, accompanied by a band who were perceived as too loud and therefore felt unwelcome and alien in a show where they should have been the heart & soul of the story.  I saw the hurt in their faces (Larry wasn’t the only one) and didn’t know what to do. I was young and innocent and had not yet learned that most valuable of skills, knowing when & how to keep my mouth shut.  It didn’t matter that Larry was a fine guitarist, not when we were seeking to reconcile the impossible acoustic & the unamplified voices.  I think this is where we parted company, where Larry was kind & gentle & loyal even though he had committed to something that was a lot less fun than we had expected.  But Larry was a great stabilizer, like the heavy water in a reactor that keeps things from over-heating.  He was cool and ironic and yes, distant: while perhaps nursing slights that I didn’t properly address, being swamped with demands from all sides.

But there are some great memories.

We saw Animal House together the first week it opened, possibly the day it opened.  Yes it’s the quintessentially sophomoric sexist film that is like a best friend who keeps making jokes to make a Donald Trump proud, a film packed full of talent & funny lines and also moments so politically troubling that I find the film hard to watch.  Larry saw it as a very political film; I remember he said it was about the birth of the counter-culture.  It’s very much about the end of an era of innocence when you consider that the last scene takes place on November 21st 1963: the day before Kennedy was shot.  Good or bad, I associate the film with my own youthful times with Larry. Funnily enough I was reading about this film, and the many tales of its creation on this IMDB page, which reminds me—again—of this whole process of remembrance and forgetting:
and mortality.  https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077975/trivia

But there’s no question that people like Larry punched above their weight-class, influential beyond what you might expect.  I recall a few American exiles of the 1970s, who influenced my life & influenced others in our city.  I met Kip at this time, a pacifist Quaker who had come to Toronto with his wife to avoid the draft, taking me to the Friends House.  I recall Jane Jacobs coming north with her children to keep them out of the war.  I wonder if anyone has tried to capture the cumulative influence on Toronto of this exiled group, some of whom would return to America when it was permitted.  Larry went back and had a whole life in California, trying to stop gill-netting: and who knows what else…? I hope our bad time in Joker didn’t persuade him to stop playing the guitar. He had a lovely sound, wonderfully musical.

I remember him for one clever thought he shared, that could epitomize him. He kept his valuable guitar in a beat-up case, so that one would under-estimate what might be inside.

Larry himself was easy to under-estimate, so much more than what he seemed.

If you see this and knew Larry in any capacity please feel free to get in touch. I’d love to know more.

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Operatic thought for Canada Day

Is it true that Alexander Neef, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company is headed back to Paris?

Today I read Michael Vincent’s news report  via Ludwig-van.com that was a natural segue from the conversation I had with my companion at the symphony, based on a report in Le Figaro.  Note that it is not confirmed yet.

“Une rumeur insistante court à tous les étages de la Bastille”

It’s hard to know, so while we’re on our Canada Day holiday weekend, why not let our imaginations run wild? Tuesday morning things will be back to normal (the global climate catastrophe, election talk on either side of the border, scandals & rumours).

I speculated last night as to whether we should be concerned that Neef is going to leave and poof she told me this morning about Michael’s scoop.

Later I googled “Neef Paris opera” and both Michael’s piece came up AND a piece from June 26 2008 in the Toronto Star from Martin Knelman announcing that

The Canadian Opera Company has named Alexander Neef, the 34-year-old casting director of the Paris Opera, as its new general director.” 

Was it really 11 years ago?  But the rumour certainly makes sense given that there’s already a relationship & connections going back more than a decade.


Alexander Neef (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

In the wake of last night’s concert I find myself asking questions that hopefully will occur to others in powerful positions.  Michael stated the likely impact, namely that Neef might leave before the end of his current contract.

When would he go?

And who follows? That’s where my headline comes into it. Will the next General Director of the COC be a Canadian?  I wonder if I’m the only one posing the question. It comes on the heels of last night’s concert, when I couldn’t help noticing that Peter Oundjian –a Canadian music director for the Toronto Symphony–is to be succeeded by Gustavo Gimeno, who is not Canadian.  There’s a time & place for nationalism, but loyalty to one’s own country doesn’t necessarily get you the most talented person.

So in other words I wonder: is there a Canadian who is up to the job?

And one may ask whether nationality matters, given that the German-born Neef has at times been a strong champion of Canadian talent, on either side of the footlights.  Earlier this week we saw Doras awarded to COC productions composed, directed, designed by and starring Canadians (Rufus Wainwright, Robert Carsen, Michael Levine and Gerald Finley).

Could a Canadian-born artistic director do any better than that?

Happy Canada Day.

(the song is dedicated to Alexander)

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Press Releases and Announcements | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

TSO & Gimeno: a question of leadership

Tonight was the first concert in the Toronto Symphony’s last weekend of the season, giving us a glimpse of their new music director Gustavo Gimeno. Will he come to be known as GG? While last week’s concert with Donald Runnicles suggested a proposition, tonight was QED with GG. My hypothesis: that the TSO were in need of leadership, hungry for it, starving;  the proof can be seen in their enthusiastic and committed playing, especially with GG.


Incoming Toronto Symphony Music Director Gustavo Gimeno

Forgive me, this is one of those nights screaming for a preamble, for context above & beyond the concert: which was amazing by the way. Hurry and get your tickets before they’re all gone. The pieces are great but the performances were exceptional, the chemistry unmistakable.

I keep hearing people in Toronto musing about the magic of team leaders, that je ne sais quoi that propels a Kawhi Leonard or a Nick Nurse to victory: taking the team along with them. It’s at least a bit of a chicken & egg thing, though, when you consider that the one person can’t do it alone, that you have to assemble the key parts of the team before the special individual leads them to the promised land.

I want to properly recognize where the TSO have been and where GG puts them. Under their last long-term music director Peter Oundjian they were sometimes a remarkable collection of talented players including some brilliant young section leaders, building towards a wonderful future. You might well ask, when is the future?

I relate at a deep level to the conundrum, where we found Oundjian especially good leading the orchestra in concerti –accompanying a soloist—yet lacking some essential vision when playing big works. And in the meantime those young talents were nurtured by Oundjian the mentor, a man of wonderful kindness and generosity but perhaps not enough of an egomaniac, or whatever it is that a conductor requires, to put them over the top.

What is a leader after all? Do we know them by what they do, or by the results of those who are being led? We see this over and over, that the skills of a star player –whether in hockey or basketball OR opera or symphonic music or theatre—don’t necessarily translate into the skills to lead. They’re not the same skills are they? The assumption that a good actor makes a good director, or that a good stick handler or goal-scorer makes a good coach has been shown to be wrong over and over, because of course the skills of a leader are totally different than those of a star. The baton handling is the least of it. We watch Mayor Pete or Kamala Harris or Donald Trump tell us what they believe, and for some reason some people are moved by person X more than they’re moved by person Y, let alone what they manage to achieve if/when they’re put in charge. But I’ll leave off about leadership for the time being, although I suspect I’ll come back to it again in the next little while, because it’s such an important question.

So my first observation is simply that the TSO were hungry for what GG has got and what he gives them. They played really well tonight. The response of the members of the orchestra is a symptom, like children bouncing out of bed early on Christmas morning, or a cat running towards the sound of the can-opener. I believe they were primed and ready, given that they were brilliant last week with Runnicles.

What does GG do to get that response? I can only go by the de facto evidence, both of the performances and in Jonathan Crow’s comments in the post-concert interview, when he confirmed the rapturous response of the TSO, a curious sort of chemistry.


(l-r) Concertmaster & soloist Jonathan Crow, TSO’s CEO Matthew Loden and conductor Gustavo Gimeno

Tonight we heard three works:

  • Sibelius’ violin concerto, with Crow as soloist
  • Prokofiev’s symphony #1
  • Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

As a former percussionist GG brings a steady hand to the tiller. I’m not suggesting he’s metronomic. But there is the matter of meter, a word I haven’t heard anyone speak of in awhile. Let me illustrate with reference to tonight’s concert.

Do you ever wonder how a band or a soloist avoids speeding up or slowing down? It’s a dreadful thing if you notice a change, unless it’s a deliberate effect such as you might get at the breathless ending to a Rossini Overture. While one mustn’t seem like a machine one wants an organic steadiness, a natural flow. GG gave me a new perspective on that Prokofiev symphony tonight, one I’ve heard many times but never quite like this. The first & last movements are sometimes taken so fast as to seem rushed, as though we’re watching a circus performance, virtuoso excellence balancing on the edge. What I found especially breath-taking about these four movements tonight was how everything seemed easy, relaxed, unhurried. The inner voices were not just clear, but seemed to be part of a conversation, as though the parts were answering one another, as though the players were not just playing their parts but listening to one another. The result was lusciously beautiful like a voluptuous salad, where every part enticed you. The Larghetto was slower than I’ve ever heard it, exquisitely articulated throughout. GG’s approach to the gavotte was especially interesting, as he played with the tempo, the phrases feeling like thoughtful gestures back and forth. If I didn’t know better I’d say that this is an orchestra who are feeling a great deal of trust, for their new leader & for one another, given the transparent textures & the precise entrances. There was no sign of any fear or indecision in the playing, reflecting their confidence in their leader & his tempi. For the Firebird, it’s the same quality but on a larger scale. I found that at times GG employed a slower tempo than what I’d previously encountered, in other places, faster: but in every respect, it hung together, collegial & alive. I don’t think it matters sometimes what vision the leader has, so long as they’re decisive and specific. The orchestra followed and for now at least it’s a love-fest, one you can likely see at all the concerts coming up this weekend at Roy Thomson Hall Saturday night & Sunday afternoon.

Before intermission we heard a different sort of work, namely Sibelius’ violin concerto with concertmaster Jonathan Crow as soloist.

RESIZED TSO June 28 Photo Credit Jag Gundu

Violinist Jonathan Crow with the TSO led by Gustavo Gimeno (photo: Jag Gundu)

As orchestra & conductor get to know one another –given that we’d expect this to be the beginning of a long-term relationship—it’s a great idea to have the orchestra’s resident virtuoso play a concerto, as a kind of act of calibration. They’re getting the feel of one another, right? So there they were out on the dance-floor together, getting comfortable with one another.  They reported in their post-concert Q & A that they’re speaking the same language.

Speaking of which I couldn’t help wondering: how many languages does a cosmopolitan artist like Gimeno speak? In the Q & A he spoke articulately in accented English, but I’m sure he also speaks Dutch (he had a position in Holland), Spanish, perhaps also German & French & Italian?

We have to wait awhile for the GG era to begin, not until in the fall of 2020. Our appetites have been whetted.  Argh I can’t wait.

Posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Questions for Dahlia Katz

Dahlia Katz is the Artistic Director of Solar Stage, a director/dramaturg with a lifetime interest in puppets, and a photographer.

If I exclude those who get written up in reviews (the actors-musicians-directors etc) Dahlia Katz may have appeared in my blog more than anyone, her photos often serving as the best advertisement for operas & plays.  If you’re a regular reader of blogs or reviews you have probably seen and admired her work.

Dahlia might be the best photographer I’ve ever encountered.


Dahlia Katz’s iconic photo of Jon Kaplan

Yes there are other people who take perfect beautiful pictures, but what she appears to do better than anyone I know is capture the essence of a show.

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy in The Overcoat A Musical Tailoring_Photo Credit Dahlia Katz_preview

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy in The Overcoat A Musical Tailoring (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Over and over I have used one of her images that epitomizes a piece (go see her website for more examples). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she understands her subjects from the inside because as a practitioner she’s not merely snapping pictures.


Carla Huhtanen (left at the piano) and Asitha Tennekoon in Rocking Horse Winner (photo: Dahlia Katz).

On social media she shares her excitement, humble enough to sometimes seem genuinely star-struck by the talent she encounters. Yet she is always helping the people she works with be better, the consummate team player.

Early this year, many months ago, I asked her about doing an interview, long before Solar Stage were nominated for ten Dora awards. However many of those nominations actually lead to awards, the attention changes very little. She will continue to be very busy on multiple fronts. I’m sure the recognition is appreciated, but Dahlia will keep working hard, will keep being humble.

I’m so glad she was able to find some time to answer a few questions.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

I’m entirely my mother’s daughter. She raised me and continues to raise and protect and challenge and care for me. Rachel Katz is well known amongst those who studied theatre at York University… she’s an administrator there, but a mother to all, a safe space and a caregiver and a tough-lover and a listener and a profoundly insightful influence. She will fight for what’s right, she’ll fight for you to get what you deserve, she fights for her own rights, she fights for women and young people and the frightened and the lost and the under-resourced. She doesn’t care where you came from, just how much you can dream and how hard you can work. She asks for little in return. She takes after her mother too (a refugee and survivor of World War II).


Dahlia & Rachel Katz

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

Best thing is getting to be in all the rooms, and having the warm acquaintance of so many people in the theatre community. The worst thing is only getting to wear one hat at a time.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Other than theatre? TV. I don’t watch movies, they make me fall asleep. I prefer short/episodic storytelling, and these days I keep it optimistic or light-hearted. Right now I’m all about Letterkenny, The Good Doctor, Killing Eve, Star Trek: Discovery, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Grace and Frankie, Cheers. Always re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. No, not Deep Space Nine.

When I listen to music it’s typically just classical or jazz while I’m photo-editing. Except for when I feel like some show-tunes.

What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Drawing. And keeping plants alive.

When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

These days, to be honest, I am not doing much of this. I work all the time. I do cook really well, and like to get back to it when possible.

More questions about the busy Artistic Director of Solar Stage, a self-described “puppetry coach” moonlighting as one of the most in-demand photographers in the city.

Where & how does puppetry fit into your sensibility?

Puppetry showed me how to be a rigorous student of human physical behaviour, which, as you can imagine, has many applications in what I do. It’s the basis of my theatrical sensibility, and helps me direct body language in my photography subjects. I trained in the US with Sandglass Theater and in the Czech Republic with Miroslav Trejtnar as well as with Pete Balkwill of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and Rob Faust of Faustworks. I almost completed an MA in Theatre Studies at York University, but I felt the study of directing for theatrical puppetry was something I didn’t want to just write a hundred-page paper about, I wanted it to be my life’s work. I teach puppet manipulation intensives once in a while and I hope to get back to it again soon. In a way, puppetry taught me everything I needed to know about acting, and how to make theatre a truly visual experience, a spectacle of human behaviour and universal gestures.

In a photography context, it helps me capture moments that truly translate through the still, and to anticipate moments even before they happen.

So you’ve studied the training and preparation of actors for theatrical puppetry. If money were no object, is there a project on the back burner that we might see one of these days?

Well, unrelated to puppetry, I always wanted to direct a production of Hair (the musical).

But I have always wanted to see puppets do something we’ve never seen them do before, like butoh or aerials or Mamet. Something that highlights the form but also challenges it to be done so realistically it almost becomes mundane. However I believe strongly that puppets should never be used to do something that an actor can do better; so in these modes they need to do something an actor could never do, like pop their own heads off or something. Or die. I love a good puppet death.

I love your photography. Your photos seem to genuinely channel the best moments of the shows you’re shooting. What’s your secret?

Thank you very much. I think the “secret” of any seasoned professional is just experience, but I definitely benefit from the overlaps and interactions of my various backgrounds. And some really good reflexes.

What is your mission at Solar Stage?

I’m the Artistic Director.


Dahlia’s photo on Solar Stage’s website

My husband is the Artistic Producer.


M John Kennedy, Solar Stage’s Artistic Producer: partner to Dahlia Katz in more ways than one.

This is our joint artistic statement.

“We believe in exposing audiences to diverse theatrical works which instil a sense of wonder, arouse optimism and empathy, and celebrate playing and the spirit of play. We believe theatre available to young people should fortify community and family relationships across age groups through the shared experience of performed stories. We believe in works of diversity in style, tradition, ethnicity, ability, gender, and age. We work to distill the concept of the ‘all-ages’ experience with critical, discerning artistry. We stand for community engagement, artistic enrichment and professional development. We want Solar Stage to be a part of the village that raises a child.”


M John Kennedy & Dahlia Katz: the Artistic Producer & Artistic Director of Solar Stage in a more relaxed moment.

If we were to put you on a desert island with your partner, a theatre, plus another 3 wishes, what would you wish for?

It’s a funny question because being on a desert island means being away from audiences. One of the biggest wishes I have is for strong marketing for whatever I do. And the money to pay someone to do it for me. What I most want to do is work on great text with great talent. As a director, I prefer published plays to new works. As a dramaturg, I love new plays… These are separate parts of my brain.


Jillian Jiggs’ cast (L-R) top: Megan Starkman, Dahlia K, Gabriel Vaillant. Bottom: Ann Paula Bautista, April Leung

Going by your gut feelings of pride & pleasure: what is the favourite thing you’ve done ?

There’s been a couple huge highlights this year, like directing Nora McLellan and my husband in Caryl Churchill’s ‘A Number’, shooting the new portraits for the Grand Theatre (London)’s artistic director Dennis Garnhum, getting featured in NOW magazine as a theatre photographer, and just today getting to shoot the promo images for Ronnie Burkett’s incredible new show “Forget Me Not”, but my favourite thing I’ve ever done was marry M. John Kennedy – my muse, my partner in crime, my lifeline, and my very favourite actor.


Photo taken by M John Kennedy

What part do you enjoy most?

To be frank, one of the things I have to admit enjoying most is being an artist and being financially stable at the same time. As a photographer I also work outside of theatre doing corporate gigs, weddings, events and other stuff, but I pay my bills being creative and that feels really really good. Making my own hours and being able to change and evolve as a professional according to my own design is also really valuable to me.

Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Anatol Schlosser, a professor of non-European theatre and puppetry at York University… he was a huge father-figure-like influence on me, my husband, and many other friends, students who had the great honour of being in his classes before he passed away in 2002. He was – like my mother – parental in his teaching, he cared more about inspiring you than grading you. He made you feel seen as a human being. He wanted you to respect rigour and high discipline in art, but he wanted you to play and experiment, too. He made sure while I was passionate about theatre, that I got a “real education” so I would have something to say as an artist.

I wanted to also include a picture of Claudia Jean Apricot Katz-Kennedy, an important member of the family, and one of Dahlia’s favorite photographic subjects.



Well that was fun..!

And by the way, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards will be given Tuesday June 25th.

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