A Tafelmusik Christmas

Do you remember how, at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (that great film encouraging us to be grateful, to appreciate what we have): George Bailey celebrates and appreciates a return to normalcy after the end of his nightmare?

He laughs that his mouth is bleeding.

He cheers when he sees the Bedford Falls sign, he runs through the streets shouting Merry Christmas, grateful to have his old life back.

That’s how I felt tonight, watching “A Tafelmusik Christmas” at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, a concert to be repeated Nov 26 & 27, and premiering online December 16.

I’m not saying the pandemic is over, but it has been a nightmare that we have been unable to go into concert halls or theatres. It’s also poignant because we haven’t been able to have church services, yet there we were inside Trinity-St Paul’s, enjoying a lot of music with connections to Christmas.


And just like George I was overjoyed to see the familiar mundane aspects of the concert experience, like the St John Ambulance volunteers that regularly help make the concerts a safe experience.

St John Ambulance volunteers

That’s all preamble to saying that perhaps this won’t seem objective, not when the George Bailey who shouts “hurray” (I actually shouted “bravo”) is writing a review. I told my wife when I got home that I thought it might have been the best concert I’ve ever seen.

It was more than a concert. It was truly an occasion. It’s almost been 21 months since their last live public performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall. And A Tafelmusik Christmas also serves to launch Tafelmusik Chamber Choir’s 40th anniversary season, an extraordinary ensemble led by Ivars Taurins since its founding.

There have been personnel changes in the interim. A couple of familiar faces were missing (@baritonekeith? Brenda Enns? ) and not just because features were concealed under a mask. But departures are inevitable given the challenges of the past year and a half. Tafelmusik are fastidious about more than just music. This is the first time I’ve seen a performance where the entire ensemble of singers and orchestra plus their leader wore masks, with the exception of wind players.

Although I am a loyal supporter of companies like the COC or the Met, who offered virtual performances during the pandemic: yet I’ve been pining for the chance to hear music in person. I remember something I heard from the composer Domenick Argento, who spoke of voices in live performance as genuine magic. You can’t fake what singers do, how they can make you feel, by making your air vibrate within you. And thank God they’re back.

Ivars is a scholar of choral music. We had a little something from several centuries, with the Coventry Carol from the 16th century, a piece by Marc-Antoine Charpentier from the 17th, lots of Bach and Handel from the 18th, Hector Berlioz from the 19th and Francis Poulenc in the 20th. Throughout we were also hearing the exquisite sounds of the Tafelmusik baroque orchestra in support of the choir.

Ivars is the most remarkable conductor you will ever see, a choral conductor who treats the orchestra as though they were merely another group of singing voices. There’s this thing he sometimes does, that I’ve only seen once from another conductor, namely Zubin Mehta, where he will create a unique gesture encompassing an entire phrase. So instead of beating the usual way, he is shaping phrases, sometimes big ones, sometimes smaller ones. It’s breath-taking not just because it’s original, but especially considering how well it works. While it’s not a long concert, Tafelmusik chamber choir and Ivars had a workout tonight, singing a great deal of music over the course of the 85 minute concert. Except for two orchestral performances accounting for perhaps ten minutes, a bit like interludes, the chamber choir sang for over an hour, often in extended passages of counter-point, including several big choral excerpts from Messiah, all apt for Christmas. Ivars rarely pushes them, keeping the ensemble prudently within their limits, usually mezzo-piano, gently intricate rather than overwhelming. But they often sing pieces like the Messiah choruses faster than I’ve ever heard them sung, and make it sound easy.

I’m not sure what I’d identify as my favorite. I love “Lift up your heads,” Handel’s miniature demonstration of religious dialectic before our eyes. No other ensemble I’ve heard manages to sound so clear in this piece, so well-enunciated, so intelligible, so persuasive. The Berlioz “L’adieu des bergers” was stunningly atmospheric, Poulenc’s “Videntes stellam” subtler still.

Ivars and the choir concluded the concert with Christmas carols, leaving the audience jubilant over their concluding “In dulci jubilo”.

In retrospect I realize I was a bit insensitive corralling Ivars for a selfie afterwards.

Thank you Ivars Taurins..!

His conducting style is astonishing athletic, a bit like watching a swimmer from overhead for the generous investment of physical energy, his eloquent body language inspiring the singing. In stopping to let me get the selfie he was polite even though my God, that must be exhausting, almost as many moves up there as Cab Calloway. I’m thankful.

The concert is to be repeated Nov 26 & 27, and premiering online December 16. For further information go to https://www.tafelmusik.org/

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TSO Winds, Brass & Percussion Spotlight

We’re still in the earliest days of Gustavo Gimeno’s tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony, enjoying the pandemic protocol of smaller groups onstage playing for smaller groups in Roy Thomson Hall, in 60 minute concerts. That’s why we had a focus on the strings earlier this week, and tonight we got the rest of the orchestra, the spotlight on the winds, brass and percussion.

What an hour of contrast, variety, surprise.

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1 by Joan Tower
Serenade in D Minor, Op. 44 by Antonín Dvořák
Music For Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich
Symphonies of Wind Instruments by Igor Stravinsky
Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion by Oskar Morawetz

Considering that we were not hearing from the entire orchestra, there was still an astonishing variety.

Tower’s fanfare (one of five) is a thrilling little curtain raiser for our evening.

Antonín Dvořák

The Dvořák Serenade is a four movement masterpiece that (as mentioned in my previous review) drove me a bit nuts when I first heard some of it on radio, but couldn’t identify it until years later. Its opening sounds like a baroque overture, a pompous processional. The second movement minuet is a sunny delight more typically Slavic in its pastoral splendor, until we get to the unexpected rhythms of its trio. Then there’s a tranquil romance, and a quick finale.

Gimeno again hinted at romantic tendencies, quick off the mark in the finale but pulling back for the second subject, breath-takingly quick in the trio of the minuet. Some of the dynamics bely the usual expectations for this piece as “chamber music”, especially when Gimeno turned the brass loose for the big fanfare in the coda. While the dynamics were very gentle in the romance, they didn’t hold back when invited to make a bigger sound. So far the players are responding to his leadership.

The applause after that Serenade led to one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen from the TSO. Gimeno pulled something out that I thought might be a microphone. But no, he was holding pieces of wood, given that he was about to play. Ah yes, I had heard that Gimeno used to be a percussionist.

And he still is, it seems!

The version of the piece I checked out yesterday has all five of the players onstage, as you can see in this video.

Cool piece, right?

But Gimeno and the TSO added something a bit different, to make it a whole lot more dramatic.

As mentioned, Gimeno took centre stage while the ensemble we’d heard for the Dvorak took their instruments off the stage. I’m trying to recall, did he even wait for them to leave? I guess he probably did. But I was watching, fascinated.

Gimeno, alone at centre stage, began to play a steady beat.

After awhile a person strolled onto the stage from stage left, also carrying pieces of wood. And joined in.

Then another person walked onstage, this time from stage right, with his own pieces: and joined in.

Person four came from stage right, then a bit later, person five from stage left.

The piece is like a cleanse for the mind and the ear. While I find the Dvořák is a bit of an ear-worm in the best sense, passages resounding in my head for days after a hearing, this simple piece had me forgetting all that. All you hear is the clicks.

Steve Reich

You may know the words “minimalism” and “minimalist”. Reich and his music have been identified by the epithets even if they’re not offered in any desire to be complimentary. The number of heads I saw bobbing, hands smacking legs, or feet tapping (guilty), might suggest we weren’t at a symphony concert. But of course we heard something that doesn’t resemble classical music in the usual sense. Not only might it change some minds of those who think of classical music as stodgy or square, I think they’d love it.

It was especially magical to watch Gimeno at the centre, not as conductor but as a participant. His role is a bit like a metronome, which come to think of it is a lot like what he does as a conductor, if we deconstruct his role into the simplest essence of what conductors must do in keeping a steady beat. His metre is solid. It was exciting to see him playing among other players, and later watching him cue them in other compositions.

He is no hoary maestro.

Igor Stravinsky

We had gone from brief fanfare to delicious wind serenade, to pieces of wood, and now, even though Gimeno didn’t emulate John Cleese by saying “And now for something completely different”, he certainly enacted the contrast for us, as we next went to Stravinsky.

I’m a bit hypnotized by this work, that sometimes brays loudly, sometimes squawks sweetly. At the risk of pronouncing heresy, I love that over its roughly eight or nine minutes, nothing happens.

I listened to the usual version of the piece then found a piano transcription. I find them fascinating both for the way they help you get insights about a piece of music, and for the way you literally get inside the piece, enjoying it at the keyboard. The piano version highlights the rhythms and harmonies of the composition even as it removes all the orchestral colours.

If you listen to it you can see what I mean.

The featureless sound of the piano (the absence of the variety you get with orchestral timbres) suggests something I’m tempted to identify as minimalist. We won’t have symphonic development or strict form to impose meaning, but rather a peaceful stasis in this curious soundscape. While it has none of the usual assonant tonality of a minimalist composer, it reminds me of a slightly dissonant Slavic-flavored version of something Debussy might have written, a bit like Nuages only without any pressure to be beautiful or to give us changes; perhaps I make the connection due to Stravinsky’s dedication to the French composer, who died two years before the piece was written in its original form. Debussy of course wanted beauty above all, where Stravinsky lets things be just as they are. I admire this piece, enjoying its refusal to do what others would do. Of course the colours have been removed at the piano, so when you reconstitute it with orchestral colours it’s especially stunning.

Oskar Morawetz

And for the final work we were again in the presence of the Slavic sensibility, via Oskar Morawetz’s Sinfonietta. I was sad that I couldn’t find him on Youtube, a testimony perhaps to shifting fashion rather than any weakness in his music. We’re hearing some of the same modernist tendencies of Hindemith in the bold use of orchestral colour, sometimes suggesting mystery or satire, although Morawetz is an original. This is a music unafraid to take the stage, theatrical or perhaps cinematic, full of energy. Where the subtleties of the Stravinsky drew a polite response, Morawetz inspired a big ovation.

I’d like to hear more.

The concert repeats Saturday November 20th.

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TSO String showcase and what’s to come

In this the second week of Gustavo Gimeno’s tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony, we’re already seeing some exciting programming choices.

Incoming Toronto Symphony Music Director Gustavo Gimeno

Someone thought to limit the number of players onstage to around 50 as a safety measure, affording them the pretense to get creative. Tonight and tomorrow the works employ the strings, while Friday and Saturday the spotlight shifts to the winds, brass and percussion. They’re also reducing numbers in the audience (safety again), offering as a byproduct, the improvement to Roy Thomson Hall’s acoustics.

Or in other words, they sound tremendous.

Gimeno’s choices of music also seem a good match for a changing audience, accepting of experimentation and eager to explore new repertoire:

Composer Caroline Shaw

The repertoire offered tonight and tomorrow:
Boris Kerner by Caroline Shaw
“A Letter from the After-life” from Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems by Dinuk Wijeratne
Rains of Ash and Embers by Kelly-Marie Murphy
Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) from Arnold Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg

As I peek at upcoming programs I wonder if this will be the new normal. We shall see!

Shaw’s piece acted as curtain-raiser, Joseph Johnson’s solo cello joined by Charles Settle playing a series of flower pots selected perhaps for their pitch and their resonance, the two blending wonderfully with the cello line that began a bit like a solo Bach composition.

We segued without pause (or without sufficient audience response when the piece was over) into “A Letter from the After-life”. Murphy’s bittersweet piece followed, the third consecutive piece to be heard that was composed in the 21st century: and it’s not even February. The applause was enthusiastic, although relatively tame compared to the response to the two 20th century works.

How we listen has changed radically. At one time it might have been unthinkable to program a single movement from a Mahler Symphony, particularly one with a reputation as one of his greatest hits, as we might say of the Adagietto from the 5th. The safety requirements push us to listen to new combinations of repertoire from different groups of instruments onstage. I wonder if this will persist after the pandemic is over? Nowadays we listen to single movements on our devices, on the radio, mixing idioms promiscuously, pragmatically.

Playing through the single movement followed by Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, encouraged us to notice their affinity. I’m looking forward to hearing Gimeno survey symphony literature, enjoying his tendencies. Gimeno’s rapport with his orchestra is manifest, even at this early date. Maybe it’s the acoustics, but I hear a delicacy of sound in genuine pianissimos, a real sustained softness of texture, musicians listening to one another.

I also want to mention that they fixed the one problem from last week, namely the bottleneck of personnel checking our vaccination credentials at the door. We started more or less on time.

Coming up in the concerts Friday & Saturday, I’m eager to hear Dvorák‘s brilliant Serenade for Winds. I remember being puzzled and driven a bit crazy when I heard a small excerpt on the radio, but missed hearing who wrote it. Oh no! Unable to identify its unique & original idiom, I had it in my head for years until I stumbled upon a performance conducted by the late Kerry Stratton who also programmed it on CFMZ. And this wonderful piece that we wouldn’t usually expect to hear from the TSO is only one part of the upcoming concert, that also includes works by Joan Tower, Oskar Morawetz, Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich.

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Oakville Chamber Orchestra: A Baroque Festival

It’s so exciting to enjoy live music again. Last week I saw the Toronto Symphony. This afternoon I went with friends to see & hear the Oakville Chamber Orchestra in a baroque program featuring Vivaldi, Lully, JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti at St Simon’s Church, led by their music director Charles Demuynck.

I’m again thinking about trade-offs. With the TSO using only 50 players and limiting capacity to 50% they not only lessen the hazard of inhaling airborne droplets carrying coronavirus, they also improve the acoustics. Imagine the same thing (the safety and the acoustical benefits) on an even smaller scale. At St Simon’s we were only permitted to sit in every second row, enjoying the sounds of roughly 20 players.

We heard Bach’s keyboard concerto BWV 1052; Symphonies #17, 7, 3 and 10 from D Scarlatti; a suite from Lully’s music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme; and a Vivaldi concerto for 2 violins in A Minor that may be familiar to you when reconstituted on the organ by Bach.

I spoke of trade-offs. We hear the rosin on the bows vibrating the strings. We hear anxious players sometimes making sounds before they’re cued to begin. Everyone is exposed because of the intimacy of the space, and there are plenty of opportunities for eye contact too.

I’m especially enamored of Lully, the greatest composer who is mostly unknown, a huge success in his time but often misunderstood nowadays. In Opera as Drama Joseph Kerman dismisses him, without having a clue how his operas work. Not only are his operas worth a look, his music is gorgeous: as we heard today from the OCO.

Jason Cheng was the excellent soloist in the Bach concerto on the piano, a pianist I hope to hear again someday.

Next came four brief symphonies from Domenico Scarlatti, the last a veritable oboe concerto, brilliantly played. I wish I knew which oboist listed in the program (either Wendy Bornstein or Heather Ryan) was the soloist. Perhaps they’ll tell me?

Aha I hear that it’s Wendy Bornstein. She also has awesome hair by the way.

To close we heard Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins played by concertmaster Alain Bouvier and David Rehner.

As I look at the OCO’s upcoming concerts, I have to admit that not only does Music director Charles Demuynck have a clear & steady baton, not only does he curate a season of fascinating musical selections, but he’s also very entertaining in his introductions to the pieces.

Oakville Chamber Orchestra Music Director Charles Demuynck

Demuynck and the OCO will be back with three different programs in 2022. For further information have a look at their webpage.

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I was among the ecstatic audience for the opening of Zorana Sadiq’s MixTape tonight at Crow’s Guloien Theatre.

Yes we’re thrilled to be back in a theatre, delighted to be looking at one another, guessing identities behind the masks. Was that Michael Mori, perhaps Allegra Fulton, or Chris Abraham? In any other city it might be trouble to perform such an oxymoronic ritual as this business of pulling out photo ID rendered meaningless by our face coverings. It’s a silly masquerade, joy overflowing, leading to a brilliant show.

The first half hour was full of big laughs, the audience drawn in by Zorana’s primal TED talk.

Zorana Sadiq in MixTape at Crow’s Guloien Theatre (photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

While I am completely fascinated by the phenomenon of the mixtape, that personal artifact curated from our shared culture: but this is so much more than that, as we soon discover.

Director Chris Abraham explained a bit about the creative process for the piece:
“As part of last year’s pandemic response, we welcomed artists at Crow’s Theatre to create new works and to develop them through a series of creation residencies. Like Cliff’s As You Like It, and several of our digital offerings this year, MixTape was developed as part of this new Multi-Platform Program.”

I think I discredit it to call it “performance”, when it seems so genuine, so authentically confessional. We’re exploring interconnected aspects of voice and sound and music, the body of the singer being the nexus. This investigation of live music-making and singing from first principles is the most natural place to resume theatre after the hiatus we’ve all been through. Anyone who sings or speaks on a stage will be drawn in irresistibly and enjoy the spirit of discovery & insight.

Is it ironic that the sound design for MixTape is live? Thomas Ryder Payne as sound designer and live sound operator dances on the edge of that interface between live sound and recording. We listen to an organic combination of Zorana and her many voices, the boom box onstage plus the subtle sounds coming from the P.A. that couldn’t possibly be put onto a tape, at least not if it was going to properly respond to the living voice. The sounds (not sure if I should call it a “score”) enact that ideal of being so minimal, so understated as to be subliminal, gently supporting Zorana’s every nuance, virtually unnoticed as a subtle background.

I experienced a few epiphanies. While I avoid spoilers I must quote one at least. I loved hearing Zorana say that the shout is a weaponized use of the voice. A shout can hurt the instrument as much as it hurts the ear of the listener.

It should go without saying that singers aren’t just vehicles for music. The music that moves us moves them too, and all that emotion can get in the way of the process. They are their own instrument, the curator of their music and their own audience.

What does a child hear in the womb and what is the effect?

Zorana submits to a fearless self-examination, in this work that she has been developing for years. She is both the performer and the specimen, both doctor and patient, sometimes opened up for us to discover what’s inside. And she even gives you her playlist afterwards.

MixTape continues at Crow’s Guloien Theatre until November 28th. Purchase online at crowstheatre.com Call 647.341.7390 ext. 1010 email boxoffice@crowstheatre.com

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TSO and Gimeno return

This Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert was a happening.

They’re back!

The audience clapped when the players appeared. And we clapped when Gustavo Gimeno came out for his first appearance as our New Music Director. The occasion was special for several reasons.

While we’ve seen him guest conduct this is different. He made a brief passionate speech about music and its power to communicate: and then defended his thesis in no uncertain terms.

I heard that the TSO are welcoming a thousand healthcare workers to concerts this week as a way of saying thank you for their heroics during the pandemic. Hear hear!

Everything about the concert seems new, partly because we’ve all been away.

The program notes are almost completely online now, saving a great deal of paper. I used to find it heart-breaking looking at the immense amounts of paper generated at the TSO as well as other venues around town. There’s just enough info in this program, as we know how many movements each piece has: except I was so lost in the experience that I applauded between movements, forgetting myself completely.

The gent sitting directly beside me happened to write the program notes, namely Michael Zarathus- Cook.

I asked for a selfie with Michael Zarathus-Cook, then captioned it on Facebook/Twitter as
“Wow the gent beside me seems to know as much about the music as the guy who wrote the program note. Remarkable.”

The protocol is new. The concert was roughly an hour long, that began 20 minutes late likely due to the bottleneck at the entrance as a big audience were required to show our vaccination documents. We had an hour without an intermission, likely because there is no way to accomplish social distancing in the Roy Thomson Hall washrooms (at least that’s my best guess). This surely hurts their revenue stream due to the loss of intermission sales. As I wondered whether this is just tonight or for longer, I saw on the TSO website the following statements about “resetting the stage”, and I quote:
• November through February concerts will be 60–75 minutes without intermissions, and include approximately 50 musicians on the stage.
• March through June Masterworks and Pops concerts will feature the entire ensemble in full-length programs with intermissions.

I also saw this factoid under :safety measures”
“Approximately 60% of available capacity will be offered for TSO performances in November at Roy Thomson Hall (roughly 1,550 seats out of 2,600).

I wondered a couple of times: is it my imagination? The acoustic of the hall seems: different. The brass especially had extra pop. I wondered if that was because of the new onstage configuration of players. The concertmaster and principal cello used to stare eye to eye from the lip of the stage, but Joseph Johnson’s cello cohort are now alongside violins on the same side of the stage, with the double basses deep on that side as well. The brass were fully upstage close to the wall.

Perhaps the powerful acoustic is a function of the hall capacity, given that a full hall of people sucks the energy out of the music, while an empty one would have more energy.

It’s nice if the pandemic can offer us a bonus.

Oh wait, and then there’s the music. Our hour-long concert was a wonderful welcome back, both for the audience and the TSO, consisting of four works:
Anthony Barfield’s Invictus in its Canadian Premiere
Haydn’s Overture to L’Isola disabitata (The Desert Island)
Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass Op 50
Schubert’s Symphony #5

Recalling the promise I mentioned to limit the players onstage to roughly 50, it’s a brilliant choice of works. Both Barfield’s and Hindemith’s boast a dozen brass players featured prominently, while the Haydn and Schubert conform to a typical chamber orchestra giving us a wonderful contrast between the different sorts of musical sounds & styles in our hour.

Those two brass-heavy works (Barfield & Hindemith) reminded me of the good old days of stereo, when we’d select a work especially to test a sound system. I’m glad the brass (mostly) got to rest in the other pieces. Indeed we need to remember that in a real sense Gustavo Gimeno is testing out the fit between himself, the orchestra and the hall, calibrating the way they respond to him, like a driver taking his car for a test drive, noticing how the engine responds when he accelerates, how it corners, how it feels when he puts on the brakes.

I wonder how his experience compared to what he heard in the audience?

Meanwhile, I’m intrigued by what I’ve heard from Gimeno so far, a series of impressive performances. No wonder the TSO like him. During the ovations he was very generous in sharing the spotlight with his orchestra. Tonight they played for us and played for him, but that’s no surprise considering the special occasion.

It’s early days, but I think I detect signs that Gimeno is a “romantic” in his approach. In the Schubert, there were clear distinctions as he’d consistently get a slightly slower tempo for the second subject in the exposition, the repeat of the exposition and again in the recapitulation, but much more brisk in the main orchestral tuttis. When there’s a dotted rhythm Gimeno demands crisp & clear articulation, and seems to want them to play a bit faster. This was also evident in the Schubert finale, taken faster than I’ve ever heard before. Gimeno has a strong sense of meter, not just in his accuracy but also in his interpretive ideas. I think I remember hearing somewhere that in a previous part of his career he was a percussionist, which might explain his clear beat, his consistent and solid grasp of meter. The fast passages in the Haydn and the Schubert put me in mind of practitioners observing historically informed performance, for the brisk tempi and the crisp approach to articulation. But the story of Gimeno’s art will unfold in the years to come.

It’s going to be wonderful to hear what Gimeno does this season, especially with big powerful pieces such as the Mendelssohn “Reformation” symphony and the Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony. Not only do we have the adventure of discovering the quirks of a new artist who seems to have a strong set of ideas about the music, we also have the adventure of hearing the music in halls with reduced capacity, aka enhanced acoustics.

Roy Thomson Hall never sounded so good.

This program will repeat Thursday November 11 and Saturday November 13, each at 8:00 pm.

Roy Thomson Hall never sounded so good
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Meghan Lindsay and Carson Becke in Recital

I was invited to an intimate performance by Soprano Meghan Lindsay and pianist Carson Becke at the Heliconian Club on Hazelton Ave last night.

I’m a lucky guy. I think I’ve explained before that this is my mantra, a self-fulfilling prophecy once you learn to say “I’m lucky” every day regardless of whether fortune smiles at you or gives you a wedgie. I must never forget how precious music and performance is, like the air we breathe.

Having seen Meghan so recently in the film Angel from Opera Atelier, that company known for authentic movement vocabularies and dance, I’m not surprised that she looks thin and fit: that is until I recall that just eight months ago she gave birth to a baby girl. You’d never know it.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay

The main item on the program was a cycle of songs taken from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, leaving out some songs in hopes of improving the cycle. If the COC can remove offensive parts of Magic Flute why not edit a song cycle? And I think it’s an improvement. Meghan explained that their modified Schumann cycle was to be filmed in collaboration with Jennifer Nichols.

Carson also spoke of musical transitions between songs, of the history of improvised connections, something Clara Schumann for example used to do. I don’t know this cycle well enough to properly appreciate the changes he made, although it sounded very good, very idiomatic.

I hope Clara would approve.

Meghan and Carson took us in several different directions, with music by Poulenc, Duparc, Golijov, Obradors and a delightful encore by Reynaldo Hahn. After last night I must report that Meghan’s voice is in great shape, that there’s a great deal more to her than you might surmise from her usual Opera Atelier repertoire. Everything sounded fresh and relaxed.

Partway through Carson gave Meghan a bit of an intermission by playing a solo, Grainger’s take on Richard Strauss’s concluding love duet of Der Rosenkavalier, delivered with great delicacy. I was intrigued to hear about his concert series (he is co-director) Pontiac Enchanté. I looked it up online. While they perform in a lovely rural venue thirty minutes drive from Ottawa, that doesn’t have to stop anyone given that one can tune in virtually via YouTube. I’m intrigued to read about Carson’s February reunion with Meghan for their version of Enoch Arden. We read “In this performance, Meghan Lindsay and Carson Becke will weave music by other composers into Strauss’s score, using these pieces to expand on the ideas and emotions expressed in the story“. If you can’t wait that long, there’s a concert next weekend featuring works by Zemlinsky and Brahms. And there’s another concert each month through the spring.

Go to https://www.pontiacenchante.ca/ for more information.

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Cheryl is back with a new team

I had my first salon hair-cut in over a year.

While the pandemic helped some billionaires increase their billions, as some businesses increased profits—so long as they were able to use the word “essential” to describe their work—many others have had a brutal time of it.

You know that for some it’s been rough.

“Lone and Co” live on, even if the original staff complement all departed in the carnage of forced closures. They opened for awhile in the summer of 2020 then closed again when infections surged in the autumn last year. They really re-opened in summer 2021, in a new and improved location but on the same stretch of Queen St East near Broadview. We’re all vaccinated, as another business carefully re-opens with a few special procedures and caveats. I’m glad to get back into the salon, but things have changed, and so have the people.

Four years ago I interviewed Cheryl Lone. But she is not the same person. Now she’s seeming more relaxed. No wonder when I think of the ordeal she’s gone through. To say nothing of the money she’s gone through.

This is a different space, a different sort of team. There’s less of an emphasis on brilliance, more on kindness. Is that because of who Cheryl has become? Possibly.

She tells me that they’re all empaths. That was the focus. Instead of hair virtuosos, she looked especially for communication and people skills.

In my first 30 minutes I talked to everyone on the new team, which come to think of it is more contact than I had with the other ones in five years. The previous group could be a little daunting and proudly so. This group are super friendly.

Of course it’s easy to be friendly to people when you’re all wearing masks.

Who is that masked man…(?)

Jeepers that’s a complication.

How do you cut hair without hitting the strings in the mask? Obviously it can be done –and I watched Cheryl do it—but it’s a new set of procedures. When doing the short hair around my right ear, I took off the string on that side, while holding the mask in place, until she’d finished on that side. And then we did it on the other side. If there’s a procedure it can be learned and even before you know it, the new procedure becomes part of a routine.

But for me it’s a fascinating change. After all, the facial shape is altered by this weird thing covering my mouth and nose.

Cheryl laughed, pointing out another challenge. “Try cutting a new client with a mask on”. She explained that with me, even with a mask on, she knows what I look like.

Dudley who sniffed me up and down because he could smell Sam on me, and Cheryl

Dudley is a new member of Cheryl’s family, and just like me he’s had a haircut too. Okay maybe not precisely like me. Dudley is about two years old.

I had been pleasantly surprised when I called up to make my appointment. It used to take a long time to get an appointment, but now I could get an appointment much quicker: because business is slower.

Why I wondered..? The world has changed. Some of us are cutting our own hair (guilty as charged… at least for the past year, with Erika’s help). Some of us work from home. Some are retired (me again). Some have moved away, out of the city altogether.

It’s a weird time, to be sure.

There’s an outside patio in the back of the new space. They used to have a liquor license (a previous tenant was a restaurant or bar), and might again, because Cheryl’s thinking of serving alcohol. I can’t be the only one who would love to have a beer while I get my haircut.

The patio in the back

I’ve found my thrill, not on Blueberry Hill, but holding Dudley. I may not be allowed to hug people yet, but for now I’m content hugging the adorable canine. He let me hold him and it was wonderful.

Lone & Co at 711 Queen St East can be reached at 647-351-8480, loneandcosalon@gmail.com

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Art, Architecture & Design, Personal ruminations & essays, Press Releases and Announcements | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Quality of Life and Playing God

Pet-owners often make profound decisions about their dog or cat, given that the law treats animals as property, ours to dispose of as we wish.

I shudder when I think about it, ashamed of the time 32 years ago when I was a coward, bowing to my landlord’s wishes to have our cat de-clawed, a brutal procedure that amputates their main weapon for self-defence.

Crystal lived a long life, clawless.

Yes I felt bad afterwards. But I wonder if I had any idea of how the cat felt?

News-flash #1: animals can’t talk, can’t tell us how they feel, except their screams of pain.

News-flash #2: humans have a great deal of power over animals.

Excuse me if I state the obvious. But we don’t always think about it, don’t always notice as we subdue the Earth.

I’m thinking about this a great deal lately, living with a beloved dog nearing the end of her life. It’s a version of palliative care. We haven’t treated Sam’s cancer. She has a huge lump that keeps growing. We were offered the option to remove it, but Sam would have been learning how to function on three legs as a senior citizen: so we chose to leave her more or less intact while aiming to manage her symptoms.

Sam and her lump

When she seems to be in pain we give her a pain reliever, while watching for evidence that the cure is worse than the disease: such as tummy troubles brought on by the pain meds.

I’m hyper-sensitive to such questions, having argued with a doctor about my own illnesses & meds. I have the sound of a doctor engraved in my memory saying “who’s the doctor here”. But never mind, I’m lucky at how things have played out over the decades. My point is, we keep the essence of the Hippocratic Oath in mind.

Above all do no harm.”

While Sam is the smartest dog I’ve ever seen, able to understand a great deal of what we’re saying, we still can’t pretend that we always know what she’s feeling. I wonder whether dogs conceal their pain or somehow let us know. There are behaviours dogs will exhibit that may be signs of suffering, such as hiding, sleeping more, being less interested in play, less able to run.


In fact there’s a whole category of study for people wondering about their aging pet and whether it’s time to say goodbye. The HHHHHMM Quality of Life (QoL) Scale was invented by Alice Villalobos, employing seven categories (five beginning with an H, two with an M) of happiness and comfort, to assess your animal’s quality of life, namely
Hurt (evidence of pain),
Hunger (does the creature have an appetite),
Mobility and
“More good days than bad”.

I’ve seen it done as a calculation, where each of the seven is rated out of ten, with a total that is somewhere between zero and 70. I’m not sure about trying to reduce a life to a number, but it’s a good wakeup call to the owner to recognize whether the animal is suffering silently.

I hope its clear why I put the headline “playing God” on this discussion. We use a QoL scale to look at the lives of the dogs or cats we own, whose lives are entirely under our control.

That word “life” is one we throw around a great deal, considering how rarely we seem to consider its meaning, let alone to consider the quality of our own lives. Perhaps I should speak for myself, but I’m going by what I see from friends and colleagues via social media.

If the pandemic has been good for one thing, it’s in the mirror it holds up to each of us, provoking questions we didn’t ask the same way before 2020. Last year I was working as a manager at the University of Toronto, while also juggling other responsibilities. Two or three times per week I’d zip to my mom’s to give her lunch. I found myself rethinking everything, as so many others are right now. I retired from my university job not just because I was over 65 but also because the risks I was taking at work were not just to my own health but to the health of my mom as well.

There’s currently an employee shortage in some workplaces. Employers are finding it harder to fill certain jobs. You’ll hear people speak of being underpaid, and perhaps that’s true. I believe that what we’re seeing in workplaces begins with the kind of questions a pandemic raises. No I’m not saying they’ve looked at a Quality of Life scale: although maybe we should all be thinking about such things. When you’re hearing about the virus and vaccines and statistics about death on a daily basis, it’s inevitable to also ask: is the job worth it? Does my job allow me to do enough of the things that make life meaningful? Or is it more a matter of safety and risk in the workplace that is at work right now? And there’s also the whole problem of childcare, so problematic when schools were closed or locked down.

I hope life is resuming. I miss concerts and operas, seeing friends across the table at restaurants. Perhaps, missing such beautiful and lovely things, we shall appreciate them rather than taking them for granted.

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Odin Quartet’s Journey Through Night CD launch Nov 6th

Does music tell stories?

I’ve been listening to the CD “Journey Through Night” by Odin Quartet.

Here’s how they describe themselves on one of the sites I found extolling their virtues:

Passionate about chamber music, the Toronto-based Odin Quartet represents the diversity and the promise of youth in Canada. Named after the one-eyed Norse god, seeker of knowledge and holder of the wisdom of the world, the Odin Quartet explores the role of classical music in modern-day storytelling. Since 2015, the ensemble is also dedicated to making classical music accessible to new generations of listeners, by promoting modern Canadian compositions, including those of cellist Samuel Bisson, alongside classical music literature.

Throughout the recording I found myself thinking about the ways music can signify, sometimes functioning as pure music while often aiming to do more. That phrase “modern-day storytelling” seems apt, especially in the ambitious creations I encountered today from seven Canadian composers.

Both of Ronald Royer’s contributions are studies in contrast. His Danzon Overture is in two parts like a French Overture (think for instance of the way Handel begins Messiah), although Royer’s second part is infused with Cuban dance rhythms. His String Quartet No 1 has two contrasting movements, where the first is contemplative and the second action oriented.

Bruno Degazio’s Suite from The Pearl is in two parts, based on the great Hymn of the Pearl, from the Gnostic scripture the Acts of Thomas the Apostle. The complexities of the story are outlined in the comprehensive program notes. Although I’m not yet able to say I really get what Degazio is undertaking, if nothing else it’s totally fascinating music. And I admire its ambition.

Samuel Bisson, the cellist in the quartet and their resident composer, is represented in For Mor, a piece that was his wedding processional and recessional. Its ceremonial function doesn’t get in the way of it as music.

That sure doesn’t sound like a wedding march.

Alex Eddington’s gibbons vs GIBBONS is such a cool idea for a piece, that I listened, bracing myself for the possibility that the concept is too brilliant for the piece. I’ve seen this before with music and visual art as well, tremendous ideas on paper that simply don’t fly in the execution. But Eddington’s idea is truly brilliant. Imagine a few apes of the species “gibbon”. Now imagine their encounter with the music of the composer “GIBBONS”. And of course, knowing that we’re talking about apes and music, it devolves into a kind of debate or battle. The quartet enacts an encounter between two simian gibbons with (the composer) Gibbons’ music, and the wacky collision we might imagine. It’s an electrifying 3 minutes and 24 seconds.

Daniel Mehdizadeh’s Dialectics is true to its name, a kind of musical exploration of discourse itself. While the program notes are among the briefest, that might be due to the purity of this composition that does exactly as its title would suggest, employing dissonance near the beginning and (spoiler alert) moving to a resolution.

I have listened to Victims of Eagles by Elizabeth Raum a couple of times, fascinated by its emotional contours, needing to listen to it some more. Commissioned by the Odin Quartet for Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the piece is based on Raum’s earlier song setting words of poet John Hicks. In its quartet incarnation she incorporates the “dot-dot-dot-dash” we know from Beethoven’s Fifth, the Morse code for the letter V of “Victory” as well as “victim”.

Chris Meyer’s three movement “Journey Through Night”, that gives its name to the CD, would aim for a kind of programmatic depiction of the moods associated with the transition from dusk to midnight to dawn. I’m reminded of Richard Strauss, the most extreme practitioner of pictorial realism that I can think of, as for instance in the overpowering sunrise we hear early in his Alpine Symphony. Can a composer of romantic music nowadays dare to be representational? Impressions and emotions are another matter I suppose. Meyer has us mostly inside the feeling, but the outside is still there as well, a welcome visit to terrain serious composers rarely seem to visit nowadays.

Does that sound like a lot of stories? I’m barely scraping the surface in what I said here. This CD at a little over an hour long, is a genuine Journey. I shall listen some more. If I weren’t already committed elsewhere, I would be attending their CD release concert Saturday November 6th at Metropolitan Community Church, 115 Simpson Avenue, an event which alas I can’t attend. Click the link if you want to know more, especially if you’re interested in tickets to the concert. I’m sure it will be a lot of fun.

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