Eight Singers Drinking: and Singing

While eight singers may have been drinking eight drinks at 8:00 pm on November 8th no one ate much of anything.

(see what I did there?)

At first I just thought it was a fun exercise, an excuse for a bunch of young people to have some fun flouting the rules & conventions that have applied to the older generation.

Tongue in Cheek Productions have already laid waste to a few rules along the way, while entertaining many of us here in Toronto. Little did I expect that I’d be confronted with so many profound questions along the way.

Think about it.

Performance is often an exercise in control, a demonstration of skill if not outright mastery. You learn lines, music, perhaps some dance-steps, and need to do all that precisely in time to the music.

Now what happens if you have a drink? Or several drinks..!? Does the performance improve or maybe get clumsier? Does alcohol perhaps help put you in touch with something, stripping away a phony veneer to expose the beating heart underneath?

Before the concert I perused the menu of 8 drinks, and grabbed my single drink knowing I’d be sober by the end. Hm, the menu was pretty interesting even before we saw it interfaced with each of the singers.


I had the Butterbeer

Eight times we watched some version of that question (what happens if you have a drink?!) enacted for us, but different each time, not just because of the different drinks & performers involved. Each time pianist Trevor Chartrand came along for the ride, sometimes even getting a sip for himself.

Some music sounds better with a drink, some artists improve after a swig or two.

Michael Nyby baritone under the influence of a Manhattan gave us three songs by Cole Porter.

Michael isn’t just a singer. He’s also one of the two artistic directors of Tongue in Cheek as you’ll recall from their interview.

He was pouring drinks a few seconds before he started to sing.


That’s my drink in the foreground, while Michael of Tongue in Cheek & Rachel of Opera 5 serve drinks to us… before later singing.

Aha no wonder that he sounded more relaxed in his third song “It’s De-Lovely”: when he had consumed most of his Manhattan. And the fun in the song shone through.

Beste Kalender, mezzo-soprano took us in a baroque direction with the help of a Caesar, apt for arias from Handel. As we watched her boldly consume more than expected en route to her da capo in each aria, I couldn’t help noticing. Sure, a baroque da capo is exciting, when you repeat the original tune, but dressed up with extra notes & effects. But I never realized how passionate that can seem, how it’s as though the original emotion has exploded to another level, as though (duh…) you had just chugged a bunch of alcohol. Scary as this must have been to explore and perhaps to execute, we were taken deeper into the essence of the aria each time.

I didn’t expect that.

Sonya Harper Nyby brought us unexpectedly into contact with another side of the music. Her French singing was delicate and sensitive, beginning with Viardot’s impressive vocalization of Chopin, then a delicate taste of Chaminade, concluding with a stunning bit of Fauré.

They were setting us up.

Again we went in a new direction, or perhaps more properly, an old direction. Ryan Downey & Screech took us in the direction of authenticity, arrangements of folk music without pretense. I was impressed as much by Downey’s readiness to consume Screech as by his delivery of a series of stunning songs taking us to the root of the musical impulse. For someone like me, who’s often agnostic about classical music and its failure to connect with people, this was a tonic, although no I didn’t drink any screech (not a good idea if you’re driving home alas alack).

We were at intermission, as many rushed up to get another drink.

Tenor River Guard sang songs from the realm of Broadway. These were for me the most impressive performances of the night, not least because I don’t know the artist nor do I know the latter two songs he sang. You know you’re enjoying a performance when you’re not second guessing the performance, but rather eating it up while thinking “wow that’s a great song”. Guard used every nuance and wrinkle in his voice.

He has a lovely sound but is especially a wonderful actor. I’m going to keep my eyes open because I expect great thing from him.

Aaron Durand, the other AD of Tongue in Cheek brought us songs with a connection to magic, while drinking the drink I had grabbed, namely the “Butterbeer”, apparently from Harry Potter’s world. What a fascinating trio he sang. He began with the impossible discipline of “My Name Is John Wellington Wells” sung at a bat-out-of-hell pace.

I was worried he’d be undone by the alcohol. Don’t drink Aaron!

Whew. But he did, and then segued into a romantic Warlock song. He gave us something intensely personal to conclude, including the first tentative thoughts about a new creative venture, and a song too…If performers are understood as advocates for the music they sing, somewhere Ralph Vaughan Williams is smiling.

Rachel Krehm didn’t make it to the fourth song of the Four Last Songs, which is “in the evening”. That – I believe—is why they called her set of the first 3 songs “Death in the Afternoon”. The whole time she was confronted by Absinthe, a drink with fatal associations.

No wonder she hesitated to take the fatal drink.

And by the way, Rachel will sing all four of the songs next time with orchestra as part of the program on Monday November 25, 2019 at Christ Church Deer Park in Toronto to benefit St. Michael’s Hospital (click for more info).

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel gave us another way to think of drink & song, in a bravura reading of Cincos Canciones Negras by Xavier Montsalvatge. The songs are a broad array of emotions & sounds, sometimes tender, sometimes deadly, ultimately a celebration. I understand she’s performing next week on Wednesday November 13th in Kensington at 268 Augusta Avenue (a CD launch). From what I heard you’d be well advised to check out this rising young talent.

There we were in Gallery 345, Edward Epstein’s unique venue on Sorauren.  I knew I must be in the right place when I sat down and felt a curious sense of familiarity.


zoe and me

In Gallery 345 finding myself in front of a painting by Zoe Barcza (photo: Paul McKernan)

AND SO… once again Tongue in Cheek gave us something fun, something that breaks the usual template. It was new & fun & yes, a wonderful exploration of singing.  All of the singers had a fabulous opportunity to showcase their talent while the audience had a great time.

I can’t wait to see what they do next.


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New & Improved Don Giovanni

I saw Opera Atelier’s revival of Don Giovanni that’s running at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.  I loved it last time & it continues to thrill me as though it weren’t an opera I’ve known since childhood.

But it feels new.  The headline might sound like an oxymoron if you remember that OA aim for historicity & authenticity.  As usual we hear the gentle Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, easier on the ear & the kinder to voices of the singers aiming to be heard. We’re watching the dancers of Opera Atelier’s ballet corps, and the entire cast moving with at least a nod towards the period.

But while the look is authentic, if you look closer you see a few interesting improvements. Marshall Pynkoski frames this work around Mozart’s own understanding of the opera as something comical, rather than the accumulated weight of centuries of romantic interpretations.

Pynkoski isn’t afraid to prioritize the needs of his audience, so (as in the previous Opera Atelier production) he only gives us one of the two tenor arias, which is simply logical when we recall that Mozart only added the second one as a substitute for a difficult aria, not in addition, as modern producers inevitably will do.

More intriguing was the decision to segue directly from the graveyard scene to the finale, cutting the competing prima donna arias (“mi trade quell’ alma ingrata” from Donna Elvira and the scene between Donna Anna & Don Ottavio) that always have made me find that last act leaden and wayyy too long. No that’s not something Mozart would have seen or likely approved of in his own century but even so: thank you Marshall!

The last time I saw this production with a different cast, it was years before #MeToo, before Jian Ghomeshi, when an opera about a seducer didn’t ruffle so many feathers. I think this time the emphasis on comedy is subtler, the style closer to what we usually see in a Don Giovanni, in deference to current sensitivities. Meghan Lindsay’s Donna Anna has the biggest cojones of anyone onstage, as heroic vocally as she is fierce in defense of her virtue. Carla Huhtanen sounds as though she’s moved up to a bigger more powerful vocal classification, the sound spectacularly strong yet as accurate & expressive as usual.

Colin Ainsworth sounded bigger than ever, even while making it sound easy, and with a comical dimension in our last view of him (when Donna Anna would prolong their engagement with a year of mourning). Stephen Hegedus as Leporello was a favorite in a huge role that’s even harder with Opera Atelier’s emphasis on movement.

Zerlina & Masetto, played by Mireille Asselin (who gets to sing the best tunes all night) & Olivier Laquerre (who is mad as hell all night, until they kiss & make up) were wonderfully sympathetic. Gustav Andreassen offers a bookend to the show, as the Commendatore to begin things and as the Stone Guest to finish off the Don, with a voice to match the weight of his role.

Douglas Williams is an especially strong Don Giovanni vocally, making the entire show credible with his youthful presence. The opera is immediately problematic if he doesn’t seem attractive, if we don’t see why women would throw themselves at him.  The show clicks from the word go because of the amazing chemistry between Williams & Hegedus, and catches fire whenever we’re watching & listening to the two powerful female leads (Lindsay & Huhtanen).


L-R Meghan Lindsay, Colin Ainsworth, Stephen Hegedus, Olivier Laquerre, Douglas Williams, Carla Huhtanen & Mireille Asselin (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

The key to this show is David Fallis, leading a gossamer soft reading from Tafelmusik, never covering the singers, always light & quick. The music sounds fresh in this reading, as though Fallis had reinvented the score for us.

We’re watching a production with set by Gerard Gauci & costumes from the late Martha Mann, who passed away in the spring: to whom the production is dedicated.

Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni continues until November 9th at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

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The Ethics Project

The Ethics Project presents
October 31- Nov. 12, 2019 in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal

Remembering Terezín
November 4, 10, and 12, 2019, in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.
The Schulich Singers, McGill University’s premier choral ensemble,
Jean-Sébastien Vallée, conductor, and guest artists


ITTAI SHAPIRA The Ethics (2015), for violin, piano, percussion, and chorus. With guest artists Israeli-American violinist/composer Ittai Shapira, and German pianist Constanze Beckmann.

MICHAEL SPIROFF Panikhida: Vechnaya Pamyat (Requiem: Memory Eternal) (Premiere)

And other selected works, with readings from the magazine VEDEM, by the boys of the Republic of Škid, and the memoires of the late George Brady, a survivor of Terezín.

With the generous support of the German and Israeli Embassies, the German Consulate in Toronto, the German Consulate in Ottawa, and the German Consulate in Montreal.
TORONTO: November 4, at 7:30 p.m.
As part of Holocaust Education Week (November 3-9, 2019)
Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice & the Arts, 427 Bloor St. W, Toronto, ON M5S 1X7
OTTAWA: November 10, at 7:30 p.m.
Dominion Chalmers United Church, 355 Cooper St., Ottawa, ON K2P 0G8
MONTREAL: November 12, 7:30 p.m.
Pollack Hall, McGill University, 555 Sherbrooke St. W, Montreal, QC H3A 1E3
Offered in conjunction with the choral concerts above:
TORONTO: October 31, at 12:00 p.m.
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W, Toronto, ON M5H 4G1
A new chamber version of THE ETHICS, by Ittai Shapira, performed by vocal quartet, in a one-hour program for the Canadian Opera Company COC Free Concerts Series (Vocal/Chamber Music).

About the Artistic Directors

Israeli-American composer/violinist Ittai Shapira and German-born pianist/co-producer Constanze Beckmann are based in New York.

Ittai Shapira

Hailed by the NYTimes as “an Israeli dynamo with a flourishing solo career”, violinist/composer Ittai Shapira composes music responding to critical issues facing society today, with recent premieres at Carnegie Hall and BBC National Orchestra Wales. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2003, and has since returned to that world renowned stage numerous times, including a concert with the American Symphony and most recently premiering his own work, The Ethics. Ittai Shapira has performed in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the US. He has premiered 19 concertos and recorded 20 CDs, and is the first violinist to tour regularly with his own Concertos with Orchestras in over seven decades. His most recent album features three of his double concertos, co-produced by the BBC. The Victor Herbert Foundation recently gave him a special award in recognition and support of his unique projects, which frequently involve social causes. He has collaborated with the Daniel Pearl Foundation for an HBO Film, and has performed with Glenn Close, Brooke Shields and Salman Rushdie. Shapira studied in Israel with Ilona Feher and at the Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay and Naoko Tanaka. He serves as advisor for the Music and Medicine program at Weill/Cornell, co-founder of the Ilona Feher Foundation, dedicated to the nurturing and promotion of young Israeli violinists, and “Sound Potential”, an organization exploring Music and Healing on medical, educational, and societal levels.

For more about Ittai Shapira, please go to: www.ittaishapira.com and www.soundpotential.org

Constanze Beckmann

German born pianist and curator, Constanze Beckmann, is a passionate advocate for cultural exchange and tolerance through the arts. The legendary conductor, Kurt Sanderling, praised her as “A musician with extraordinary musical taste and great potential as a performer”. As a soloist, Constanze has performed throughout Europe, Canada, and Israel; including the Berliner Philharmonie, the Konzerthaus Berlin, the Freie Akademie der Künste in Hamburg, the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Canadian Opera Company, and Koerner Hall, in Toronto. Working with musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Constanze was acknowledged by Claudio Abbado as “A sensitive and gifted chamber musician”. A sought after collaborator for singers and string players, Constanze regularly plays with musicians from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, among others.

The winner of several first prizes and special awards in major youth competitions, including the International Steinway Competition and “Jugend Musiziert“, Constanze has performed with renowned orchestras including the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra, the Kammerakademie Potsdam, and the Erzgebirgisches Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Beckmann is a graduate of The Royal Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of John Perry, majoring in piano performance. She also holds a BA in economics from the Thompson Rivers University in BC. She has participated in master classes for some of the world’s finest musicians, including Leon Fleisher, Arie Vardi, and Dmitri Bashkirov. Further mentors include Robert Levin, Elena Richter and Ilana Vered. Constanze is currently working and living in New York, completing her Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

For more about Constanze Beckmann, please go to


About The Ethics

“The Ethics”, for Violin, Piano, Percussion, and Chorus, was written as a modern day response to the Holocaust, and inspired by Ela Weisberger in memory of Eva Sachs and the children of Theresienstadt. Ela Weisberger played the role of the cat in the children’s opera even in Brundibar, the children’s opera by Hans Krasa, which was performed in the concentration camp.

“The Ethics” was commissioned by the family foundations Krueger and Blavatnik, for “Humanity in Action”. The premiere took place on May 14, 2015 in Carnegie Hall on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It has also been performed at the Holocaust Museum in Florida, and in Washington DC.

From the composer, Ittai Shapira

“In interviewing some of the survivors, my main goal with the piece was an exploration of the history, what would have happened with the children that did not survive, and what my own life could have been had I been in the camp. Thus, the piece starts and ends with a Spinoza Quote: “If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past”.”
How has it come to be presented in Toronto and why this particular group of musicians?

Constanze Beckmann lived in Toronto from 2009 to 2017. She studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and graduated 2014 under the tutelage of John Perry. While here, she originated and performed in numerous projects as a pianist and curator, including recitals as part of Holocaust Education Week since 2010, featuring works composed by Holocaust survivors. These were followed by exhibits and lectures in collaboration with well knows artists such as Samuel Bak.

In 2018, at the request of the German Embassy in Ottawa, Ms. Beckmann created and performed a musical program for the 80th anniversary of the Reichskristallnacht, with concerts in Toronto (at the COC Free Concert Series) and Ottawa.

In 2019, the German Embassy in Ottawa initiated and sponsored a project in memory of the late George Brady, and the victims of Terezín. With the ongoing support of The Embassy, Constanze curated a musical program which includes The Ethics (2015), for violin, piano, percussion, and chorus composed by the Israeli-American violinist, Ittai Shapira.

Three concert performances will feature the Schulich Singers under the baton of Maestro Jean-Sébastien Vallée, in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The Schulich Singers choir is McGill University’s premier choral ensemble, and consists of approximately 24 singers performing repertoire of all periods and styles. The ensemble presents two concerts every semester as well as several off-campus concerts and tours.

For more information, please contact
Constanze Beckmann

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The Bald Soprano

I’ve just seen the Théâtre Français de Toronto production of La Cantatrice Chauve aka The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco, at the upstairs space at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

I must apologize that the run is almost over, as I tell you about one of the most exciting things I’ve seen all year, that I would recommend without reservation.

Sorry about that.

There are two versions. One can see it as I saw it tonight in French with English surtitles (Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Oct 31, Nov 1 or 2), or in French without surtitles (Sunday Nov 3).

Christina Tannous _ Sophie Goulet_ Pierre Simpson_ Manuel Verreydt_ Geneviève Langlois_ Sébastien Bertrand_Photo_Théo Belnou

Christina Tannous, Sophie Goulet, Pierre Simpson, Manuel Verreydt, Geneviève Langlois, Sébastien Bertrand (Photo: Théo Belnou)

Do you know this play?  One might read it in a theatre or drama course, yet not have the pleasure of seeing it.  Sometimes we wonder why a piece is considered so important, and don’t have the pleasure of seeing a production that takes the text and truly brings it to vivid life.  While I’ve seen it in English this is my first time seeing it in French, and boy oh boy does this production pulse with life.

Ionesco was never so seminal as in this crazy glimpse of the bourgeoisie. All the absurdists are footnotes to this play although I suppose one could look back to Jarry’s Ubu. Yet I thought I was watching a Monty Python sketch. I thought I saw Robert Wilson’s progenitor, the groundwork for minimalism in so many actions, words, silences: that lead nowhere. We get pejorative when we start calling something ‘absurd’ when of course that’s simply the human condition, isn’t it… This was a funnier version of what we saw in Turandot at the COC.

But hang onto your hat. This is one tough play to perform, a bit of a toccata, a tour de force of verbiage that’s so much harder than what actors usually are asked to do, because unlike almost every other role, Ionesco doesn’t offer the usual semantic connectors to help with memorization or shaping phrases.   One remembers lines in reply to what is said, but that’s not available when the logic is missing or twisted.  I’m reminded of Krisztina Szabo’s describing the special challenge in learning Schönberg’s Erwartung, a piece that’s almost atonal. It’s a stunning assortment of words, ‘cascades of cacas’ (and other sounds too): if you’ll excuse me for quoting one of my favorite lines.   

There are six spectacular performances on view.

Sébastien Bertrand might get the most laughs as the Captain of the Fire Brigade, making the most of this jewel of a role. Sophie Goulet is Ms Martin, inspired or challenged by Director Chanda Gibson, to show us every subtext you’ve ever fantasized while reading this play. Geneviève Langlois’s Ms Smith reminds me of so many people I don’t dare name, a brilliant satire on suburbia.

Sébastien Bertrand is the Captain of the Fire Brigade (Photo: Théo Belnou)

Sébastien Bertrand is the Captain of the Fire Brigade (Photo: Théo Belnou)

At times we’re watching performers becoming robotic. We’re in the territory inhabited by Rossini, a kind of comedy where humans become like machines, underlined by Director Chanda Gibson in the movements she choreographed for her characters.

I was especially impressed with the way Gibson shaped the play from its calm banal opening to the frenzied minutes with which we conclude.

If there’s any way you can get to see The Bald Soprano –surtitled or not –I’d suggest you go see it.

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Opera Atelier Don Giovanni: Toronto context

Two down, one to go as far as the big operas are concerned.

Robert Wilson’s Turandot and David McVicar’s Rusalka, a pair of fairy-tale operas in visually brilliant productions have finished at the Canadian Opera Company, while Opera Atelier are about to open their revival of Marshall Pynkoski’s Don Giovanni. At the same time a series of smaller companies are offering premieres, including Loose Tea Music Theatre’s Singing only Softly/The Diary of Anne Frank to open this weekend and The Ethics, to be presented at the COC’s noon-hour concert series October 31st. No this isn’t nearly a comprehensive list, just an observation meant to illustrate a point.

There is a specific context that I have in mind, one that keeps coming up in conversations about opera-going in Toronto.

The last mainstage production of Don Giovanni in Toronto was the COC’s in 2015 directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. I put an ironic headline on my review, when I said “Some resist seduction by Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni.”  I was frankly astonished, watching an interpretation that I loved but that left a lot of people cold, and upset more than a few.

That’s part of the context right now. While I love director’s theatre, especially the controversies that erupt around creative readings such as the Wilson Turandot, they’re not for everyone. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who disliked the show.
Opera Atelier’s recognizable brand of historically informed performance represents an another alternative.

I was going to say they’re “against the grain” in their adamant resistance against modernity while insisting on a period look & feel. Even the company who are called “Against the Grain” spent the past few weeks presenting a La boheme that is recognizably Puccini, very different from what the COC offered with their Turandot.

It’s ironic that the COC are the company who seemed to be the ones working “against the grain”.  The new operas I mention above may have new scores that are not familiar but they will likely have an approach to the staging that doesn’t fight the score, the way Wilson’s seemed to.  I was sympathetic to Joseph So’s recent review that sums up Wilson when he says the following:

I argue that his vision is more suited to modernist and new music, and certain enigmatic works such as Pelleas et Melisande. I was very taken by his staging of Einstein On The Beach, seen at the Luminato Festival some years ago. I can also see his style working beautifully in certain Baroque and Classical operas, which would benefit from his formalism. But to give the Wilson treatment to Puccini (and Italian verismo in general) where primary emotions are at the core? Not to my eyes and ears.”

I saw the Wilson Turandot twice:

  • once in the company of someone expecting the usual relationships to be explored & a mise-en-scene that matches the style & dramaturgy of the story-telling: leaving that person upset & disappointed
  • once with someone having no stipulations: who loved it to pieces

I daresay that it’s a useful lesson about how to approach director’s theatre. When you show up with stipulations you’re bound to be disappointed.  Those same sort of expectations turned up in the comments about Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni, a show that I loved.  Ah but I had seen it on TVO and so had a good idea how it was going to go. But even so, it simply doesn’t work going to a show determined that it must be x or y, rather than letting it be what it is. That’s a bit like arguing with the weather or trying to change the interest rate by shaking your fist at the sky.

But unlike the Tcherniakov interpretation, there’s no danger of encountering a modernized Don Giovanni this time with Pynkoski. With Opera Atelier you won’t be shaking your fist at anyone.


It’s a wonderfully light approach, driven by…

  • Tone:
    the romantic period had a great time making the Don a tragic figure, and turning many around him into serious figures: when in fact Donna Elvira & Donna Anna can be as funny as Zerlina.
  • Pace:
    if it’s done quickly you alter the tone, making it more likely to be funny.
  • Youth:
    if Don Giovanni is young & attractive (see photo), he has credibility as the irresistible seducer
Douglas Williams Headshot

Douglas Williams, a believable Don Giovanni in Opera Atelier’s production

I wrote a fair bit about it last time they did it in 2011, totally blown away (here’s one of the reviews I wrote), when I went so far as to call director Pynkoski a genius.

I found the show amazing & original precisely because director Pynkoski resisted the usual modern tendencies, while doing the unexpected in taking us back to something lighter & funnier. I think it’s the best thing Opera Atelier have ever done, and can’t wait to see it again.

Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni runs October 31 – November 9, 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St.. Don’t miss it.

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Skye Consort and Emma Björling: right after trick-or-treating

Within the first ten seconds of this new CD I knew I was going to like it.

It’s Skye Consort & Emma Björling, and the first cut on the album is “Herr Hillebrand”, a traditional Medieval Swedish ballad, in Swedish. It’s magic. The first few times I listened I didn’t even care that I didn’t understand the words.

Her voice..(!)

But okay there’s a translation in the CD’s booklet. It begins this way:

Herr Hillebrand rides in to the courtyard of little Lena’s mansion.
If only I was young as a lily!
Lena greets him there.
You well remember Lena.

Sir Hillebrand reaches out his pure, white hand:
“Little Lena, little Lena, be my betrothed!”

I value Sir Hillebrand’s words
less than I value the dirt underneath my shoes!

(…And there is a lot more to the ballad….have a listen)

I think it speaks for itself, the musicianship, the powerful invocation of times gone by.

The whole CD is magical like that, sometimes in Swedish sometimes French sometimes English.

I wondered how Emma came to meet Seán Dagher and Amanda Keesmaat and Alex Kehler, what brought them together. I’ve seen a few different explanations but the best one is this:

Skye Consort and Emma met during a La Nef project in Montréal in October 2017 and ‘thanks to’ their mutual love for each other’s musicianship and Emma’s cancelled flight they decided to start this band.

All four of them sing to varying degrees although Emma sings lead. They’re a remarkable amalgam of instruments & cultures & ideas, mostly old compositions but some new arrangements and even a few originals. Some are fast, some are slower.

I guess if we had to identify a genre we’d call it “folk”.

And so having listened to this marvelous CD (that’s also available for digital download of course) please note that they’re coming to Toronto.

As Sean put it in his email telling me about the album, “I also want to let you know about our concert at the Tranzac Club on October 31st, right after trick-or-treating.”

Whatever costume you’re wearing perhaps I’ll greet you there.


Seán Dagher, Amanda Keesmaat, Alex Kehler and Emma Björling

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Singing through Centuries: TMC’s 125th

Today the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir celebrated their 125th anniversary with a gala concert at Koerner Hall, joined for the occasion by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (who haven’t yet had their centennial, and who only came into existence in 1922).

Led by the TMC’s Interim Conductor & Artistic Advisor David Fallis (whose title could also be “saviour” although he’d probably blush at the suggestion), the program he assembled, titled “Singing through Centuries”, is a fascinating nod to the occasion being celebrated.

  • Acknowledging the ensemble’s name, we heard a pair of Psalm settings from Felix Mendelssohn, a composer highly esteemed at the time the choir began
  • From 1894, the very year of the choir’s founding, we heard one of the earlier versions of Fauré’s Requiem (that is, not the very first version from 1890 but also not the larger-scale versions that came later), to conclude the concert
  • From the 20th Century we heard Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, at the end of the first half of the concert
  • From the 21st Century we heard a TMC Commission by Andrew Balfour, his Mamachimowin following the intermission in its world premiere.


Since Fallis’s arrival with TMC the choir has a better sound. I’ve been listening to incarnations of TMC since my childhood, sometimes singing Messiah, sometimes working on symphonic repertoire with the TSO. They were impeccable today, rising to the occasion.

In a venue such as Koerner Hall there’s no place to hide. Where the more ambiguous acoustic of Roy Thomson Hall functions like Vaseline on the lens of a camera, hiding wrinkles or flaws, one hears every detail at Koerner: and TMC sound pretty wonderful for 125. It’s an ensemble with a lot of youth and great potential for the future.

Fallis brings not just his musicianship but also that nerdy bonus, his genuine scholarship to everything he does. You’ll be able to hear him in a couple of weeks leading Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni, where many of the same tendencies can be heard. His tempi tend to be brisk in keeping with his quest for authenticity. His approach to dynamics is very sensitive to voices & soloists, tending to be softer than what you expect, encouraging you to listen, rather than big overblown climaxes. It means that the few climactic moments are that much more meaningful. It means that the voices are conserved rather than spent.

I don’t know if this is the first time Fallis has led the TSO, but they sounded great, while also playing for the most part with a gentle & restrained sound. I hope the TSO will consider him for possible guest appearances, not just because he’s a Canadian but also because of his exemplary musicianship.

For me the pieces that followed the intermission were the highlights.

Andrew Balfour wrote the following program note about his new work:

“Mamachimowin (The act of singing praises) is a choral work that explores the difficult relationship between Indigenous spirituality and the impact of the Christian culture on First Nations people. Translating Psalm 67 into Cree, I wanted to add a musical perspective that added a dimension of fragmentation into the structure of the work. Also I wanted to utilize the instrumentation of violas, cellos and double basses to give the idea of the strings representing a foundation of the ground, or Mother Earth. I wanted to present the idea of musical tension and musical phrases along with the choir whispering some of the text to add an element of uncertainty. Many thanks to David Fallis and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for commissioning this work, and I am so honoured to be part of this concert that celebrates the choral legacy of Canada’s oldest choir. Chi Migwiich!”

The text that we heard whispered from time to time reminded me of the silent witnesses in Peter Hinton’s reading of Somers’ Louis Riel at the Canadian Opera Company, as though the whispers are the voices of those who were here before on Turtle Island, and whose souls continue to be here, a spiritual presence even though they are very gentle and non-threatening. The strings intoned a very sombre pattern music, regularly returning to the minor-third interval. The choir gave us something more celebratory & decorative over the top. As a whole it reflects what we see in this country, where there are dark & troubling subtexts that can be heard, if only we listen.

We closed with a stunning reading of the 1894 version of Fauré’s Requiem. This included the choice to use the pronunciation of Latin as the French would have done it at the time. It’s not what you expect.

  • Instead of “luceat” sounding like “Loo-chay-at”, today we heard “Loo-say-at”.
  • Instead of “sempiternam” with English phonetics we heard French phonetics

And there’s more of course, but you get the idea. I remember a professor of mine dismissing a recording I had that was done this way: because it didn’t sound right to him. But it was magical & new even while taking us back; this is what Fallis’ scholarship brings to the table.

Samuel Chan gave a lovely gentle account of the “Libera me”, while Teresa Mahon’s clear flawless soprano illuminated the “Pie Jesu”.

I could also mention that after awhile I took off my glasses because there were so many tears messing up my face.

TMC will be back:

  • October 27th with Orchestra Toronto for Beethoven’s 9th
  • November 7th & 9th with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall for Massenet’s Thais in concert
  • December 3rd & 4th for “Festival of Carols” with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra
  • December 17 -22 for Messiah with the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall
  • https://www.tmchoir.org/
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