Editor's Corner - April 2014

01 editor 01 brandenburg freiburgQuite a few years ago, frankly almost half a century if I care to do the math, I built my classical record collection by scouring the bargain bins on Yonge St. at Sam the Record Man and A&A Records. At the time it was possible to find some superb recordings for 99 cents to $1.99, including as I recall, my first exposure to Schubert lieder as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Boulez conducting the Domaine Musical Ensemble in works of Gilbert Amy and Anton Webern, Honegger symphonies performed by Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Bartok Quartets with the Fine Arts Quartet (well, that 3-LP set may have been $3.99) to name just a few highlights. What takes me back to those memories is a new recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos featuring the Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902176.77). My first recording of these iconic works came from those same bargain bins and inadvertently introduced me to the world of period performance practice in, as far as I know, one of its earliest incarnations. Featuring the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis on two Heliodor LPs this was an ear-opening, if not quite life-changing, event for me. I’d never heard anything like it before and I was hooked, although it would be a good many years before I figured out what it was that made it so special. Of course period performance is almost de rigueur these days, thanks in large part to the influence of the Schola which Paul Sacher founded in Basel in 1933, but back in the 70s it was quite a new idea to most of the musical world. Since that time as I say, historically informed performances abound and Toronto’s own Tafelmusik has played a major role in establishing this as the norm. Their own 1995 Juno award-winning recording of the Brandenburgs, recently re-released on their own Tafelmusik Media label (TMK1004CD2), is itself a benchmark against which others are to be measured. I’m glad to have the luxury of not having to choose between an embarrassment of riches and am simply able to enjoy them all. I’m happy to have had an excuse to revisit my favourite recordings – including the thrilling modern-instrument performance featuring the CBC Vancouver Orchestra under Mario Bernardi with soloists including Robert Aitken – thanks to this new release from Freiburg, which incidentally is just across the border from Basel. I particularly enjoyed the crisp attacks and well-balanced recording throughout the two discs, the wonderful (and wondrously in tune!) natural horns in the First Concerto and of special note, the harpsichord cadenza by Sebastian Wienand in the Fifth. This is a welcome addition to my collection.

01 editor 02 morlock cobaltThe Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label is busier than ever it seems, and this month has three new releases featured in these pages. The one I have chosen for myself, Cobalt (CMCCD 20014), is an eclectic offering featuring mostly large-scale music by the chameleon-like Jocelyn Morlock performed by five different orchestras. The exception is a dark and brooding piano trio written for Duo Concertante (Nancy Dahn, violin and Timothy Steeves, piano) with guest cellist Vernon Regehr, Asylum, a tribute to and meditation on Schumann’s life and music. The opening track, Music of the Romantic Era, written for and performed by the Windsor Symphony, is a pastiche whose inspiration was the concern that classical music is disappearing from our lives. It would be fun to hold a contest to see how many sources of the familiar and almost-familiar phrases found therein can be identified. The title track is a sort of concerto grosso for two violins and orchestra, a lyrical reflection on the luminous cobalt blue of the night sky, the properties of cobalt the element (poisonous, magnetic and radioactive), and kobold, the mischievous goblin that inspired its name. Jonathan Crow and Karl Stobbe are the soloists with the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Alain Trudel. Disquiet is a short homage to Shostakovich which explores “a sense of oppression and urgency, such that I imagine would have been the perpetual emotional state of Shostakovich and his contemporaries.” The haunting work is performed by the CBC Symphony Orchestra, again under Trudel’s direction. Bramwell Tovey leads the Vancouver Symphony in the nature-inspired Oiseaux bleus et sauvages, a nod to Messiaen with some moments reminiscent of John Adams.

Perhaps the most curious work on the disc is Golden, written in memory of Morlock’s teacher Nikolai Korndorf and performed by the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and oboist Philippe Magnan. The piece starts with quiet percussive sounds and disjointed whispered phrases and gradually grows into dirge-like, quasi-medieval textures in the strings and solo oboe. The final piece Solace also found it’s inspiration in early music, Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé. The orchestra, the strings of the Vancouver Symphony, is divided into subgroups: an “early music” ensemble playing music based on Josquin’s mass; a group of “ethereal” violins playing long harmonies over top the tutti; and a concertante violin and cello. It is the soloists that are most prominent and while the background is based in medieval music, the soaring melody of the violin, echoed effectively by the cello, is to my ear quite reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in its quiet grandeur. All in all this is a wonderfully lyrical disc and a great reminder that we do have an important body of orchestral work in this country. Now, if we could just get our orchestras to play it more often… (I know I always say that, but that doesn’t make it any less true!)

01 editor 03 petits nouveauxAnother disc that took me back to the early days of building my record collection, specifically the discovery of Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, is a delightful eponymous disc by Les Petits Nouveaux (lespetitsnouveaux.bandcamp.com). There’s not much information included with the self-produced CD but surfing the web I have gleaned that this gypsy jazz group was formed in 2009 when Swedish guitarist Mikko Hildén was studying the manouche stylings of Django Reinhardt under the tutelage of Drew Jurecka at Humber College. Les Petits Nouveaux is currently a trio with another original member, Montreal violinist Aline Homzy and, since 2011, Toronto guitarist Andy Mac. The disc is mix of gypsy jazz standards (including Reinhardt’s gently swinging Douce Ambiance on which the group is joined by mentor Jurecka on bass clarinet) and original compositions, one from each member: Hildén’s El Cafecito, Homzy’s Siva Macka and Mac’s particularly idiomatic Ville Belle. At just a half an hour in length this disc falls somewhere between EP and full-length offering (and is priced online accordingly at just $7), but it serves as a satisfying introduction to the group, and to the idiom if you’re not familiar with it. A very effective treatment of Gene de Paul’s classic I’ll Remember April brings this little gem to a close.

01 editor 04 song of grassesThe final disc that has been in rotation on my system this month is a meditative project which is based in the song of Chassidic niggunim and Sephardic Jewish traditions. Song of the Grasses features Siach HaSadeh, a clarinet and double bass duo (Yoni Kaston and Joel Kerr) complemented with violin (Daniel Fuchs), cello (Gaël Huard), harmonica (Jason Rosenblatt) and oud (Ishmail Fencioglu) as the repertoire requires. The quiet flowing clarinet over the subtle supportive bass lines is a constant delight throughout the 15 tracks, but for my ears it is the percussive melodies plucked on the oudand the extremely lyrical harmonica playing (it’s hard to imagine this as the same instrument known as the “blues harp” in Rosenblatt’s hands – the iconic Toots Thielemans comes to mind) that really makes this music special. In the program notes (only available on the website siachhasadeh.com), it states that “the songs […] were created as vehicles to reach the depths of spiritual space. Many of them have passed through fire and water to reach us, and are not known outside of the communities where they are still sung. While they are distinctly Jewish, they express something deeply universal, something that can only be expressed in wordless melody, and that could be obscured by text. Here, they become platforms for improvisation and musical conversations.” The spirituality is achieved without any New Age trappings and the resulting contemplative journey is one well worth undertaking. It has given me a much appreciated sense of calm and some quiet stimulation over that past few weeks.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
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Editor's Corner - March 2014 - Twin Passions

If there’s one thing I like as much as sitting in my easy chair with my feet up listening to music, it’s sitting in that chair reading a great book. There was a time when my very favourite thing was doing both at once but I must confess that as my 60th birthday rapidly approaches it’s getting harder and harder to multi-task in that way. So what is now a special treat is settling into the Lazy Boy and curling up with a book that takes me on a musical adventure.

Books: I first encountered the novels of Richard Powers in 1991 when my successor at CKLN-FM, local choral director and Georgian vocal specialist Alan Gasser, gifted me with The Gold Bug Variations, a spectacular tour-de-force interweaving themes of Bach’s counterpoint and Poe’s fiction with strands of molecular biology. It is a multi-layered masterpiece that juxtaposes two love stories, one set in the present and one in 1950s academe where the search for the DNA genome was in full swing. The eminence grise, always present but never mentioned by name, is a certain Canadian pianist whose youthful 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations stood the music world on its ear. If you haven’t read it I urge you to do yourself a favour and pick up a copy at your earliest convenience.

Since that time I have read and re-read all ten of Powers’ outstanding novels which, beginning in 1985 with Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, have appeared every two or three years to much critical acclaim (and to my delight). Some years ago in this column I raved about Powers’ The Time of Our Singing (2003) in which, among other things, the development of the historically informed performance practices of the period-instrument movement was juxtaposed with just about every significant political happening of the 20th century through the eyes of a very special family whose members always seemed to be present, at least on the periphery, at these events. Again I would urge you to check it out.

01 editor 01 richard powers orfeoPowers’ subject matter is extreme in its diversity, from medical research and psychological disorders, to nuclear physics, environmental concerns, advanced technology, forced confinement and terrorism. Music is present in one way or another in most of his books, but for me it is those in which music is central to the plot that are the most satisfying. It was therefore a real pleasure to find that, after a publishing hiatus of nearly five years, his 11th book – Orfeo (HarperCollins ISBN 978-1-44342-290-1) – returns to the double theme of musical composition and genetic engineering. The main character is a composer, Peter Els, who comes of age in the 1950s and 60s, a tumultuous time when the post-war generation took Western art music to the very brink. I won’t go into much detail of the plot, but will say that we follow Els on a protracted journey from his adolescent vision of composition as divine inspiration, through academic struggles with serial constraints and avant-garde freedoms, to minimalist structures and neo-Romantic regression, with many stops and side trips along the way. Ultimately Els is at a loss as to how to take music itself any further and he eventually returns to the scientific interests of his youth. In the decades that have passed genetic engineering has blossomed and the internet has made it possible for anyone with access to a computer to build a sophisticated home laboratory. In the end the aging composer decides that writing genetic code is the future of composition and sets about writing a work for the ages using DNA itself. Through a comedy of errors this leads to his being taken for a bio-terrorist and the chase (and fun) begins.

Powers is a master at describing and giving context to the examples of great music he chooses to include, and his insights are enlightening. Time and again I found myself rushing to my library to dig out a favourite recording and it was refreshing to re-visit the works in question and to hear them with “new ears” as it were. Els’ own epiphany was a recording of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony from his father’s collection. I chose to go back to the recording I had grown up with, an LP of Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (now available on CD from EMI Classics). (Realizing that using full-sized 20th century orchestral forces in 18th-century repertoire is no longer politically correct, I asked Bruce Surtees for a recommendation and he suggested Jos van Immerseel conducting the Anima Eterna Orchestra of Bruges on the Zig-Zag label.) As a burgeoning clarinetist Els is introduced to Zemlinsky’s Trio in D Minor, Op.3 by the young cellist who becomes his first love. I was glad to be reminded that I had Amici’s version of this rarely recorded work in my collection and happy to have an excuse to revisit it (Summit Records). For Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder I found that I was not overly satisfied with the recordings in my collection and once again went to an expert for advice. Daniel Foley says: “Among the women, Janet Baker’s 1967 recording with the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli (EMI) is unquestionably the most moving interpretation of the dozens I know... My hero Fischer-Dieskau’s recording with Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic was recorded in 1963 and remastered in 2011 (Deutsche Grammophon).”

For Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps I have many, more than a dozen, recordings to choose from, but once again I chose our local Amici ensemble. The complication was which of their recordings to select. Ultimately I decided to go with their original 1995 performance with violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi (Summit Records) rather than the 1999 recording with Scott St. John (Naxos). It was a tough choice that did not come down to the violinists, but rather cellist David Hetherington’s performance of the fifth movement, marked infiniment lent, extatique, which is fully 15 percent slower (i.e. more infinitely lent) on the earlier disc. Both his performances however are totally convincing as are those of clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and pianist Patricia Parr.

For the Shostakovich Symphony No.5 I turned to a reissue of the set of complete symphonies recorded by West German Radio during the 1990s featuring Rudolf Barshai at the helm of the WDR Sinfonieorchester (Brilliant Classics). When it came to the extended descriptions of the John Cage “Happenings” Musicircus and HPSCHD I was left thinking, despite having an old Nonesuch vinyl record of the latter piece, that you probably had to have been there to really get it. I did turn back to my LP collection however for Harry Partch’s classic Barstow (Columbia Music of Our Time). As far as I can tell this is not available on CD, but you should check it out on YouTube.

I have quite an extensive collection of Steve Reich recordings on vinyl and CD, but I missed Proverb – an extended riff on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sentence “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” for three sopranos, two tenors, two vibraphones and two electric organs – when it came out in 1996. The disc seems to be out of print at the moment but is available as a digital download from Nonesuch, and again, is available for streaming on YouTube (accompanied by the following comment from Roger Brunyate: “Do read (preferably while simultaneously listening) Richard Powers’ sublime description of this piece on pages 245–254 of his new novel Orfeo.”

There are many other pieces mentioned in more or less detail during the book, including Berg’s Violin Concerto, Strauss’ Four Last Songs, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.3 and, although not by name, Copland’s Appalachian Spring. One of the most moving moments is the description of Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, written for his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and premiered just a few months before her death, making the lyric “My love, if I die and you don’t” even more poignant. I found that track on YouTube, but the whole cycle of five songs is featured on a Nonesuch recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine’s direction. It was the soprano’s final recording.

Perhaps the most intriguing description in Orfeo is of Els’ own opera based on the Anabaptist uprising of 1534 in Münster. We are presented with a very detailed précis of this imaginary opus and its premiere which coincided with the strikingly similar events that took place in Waco, Texas in 1993. As always, Powers’ blending of fact and fiction keeps us on the edge of our seats. Orfeo the novel, and by extension its complex musical worlds – real and imagined – provided one of the most satisfying literary adventures I’ve had in a long time. I highly recommend it.

01 editor 02b james ehnes bach01 editor 02a the apartmentAnother book I enjoyed over the recent holidays also led me to my music library. The Apartment (Twelve ISBN978-1-4555-7478-0) by the American author Greg Baxter who now makes his home in Germany, takes place over the period of one day in an unnamed European city. It is a book in which nothing of note happens except in the form of memories of the time the narrator spent in Iraq and of the life he abandoned in the United States. Nevertheless it is a compelling read. The musical interest here is a recital by Japanese violin students where the featured work is the Ciaccona (Chaconne) from Bach’s Partita for Violin No.2. After the recital the narrator strikes up a conversation with Schmetterling, the German violin teacher, who launches into a lecture about how the Ciaccona encompasses “a profundity and intensity heretofore unknown in music. […and which] resulted in the ascension of the violin as the most venerated of all Western instruments.” There are five or six pages devoted to Schmetterling’s appreciation of the work and his claim that “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.” However, he goes on to say “a spiritual sympathy with the piece … [is] … virtually non-existent in violinists under the age of thirty… perhaps forty.” As taken as I was by the elegance and emotion of his speech, this last sounded like a challenge and off I headed to my CD shelves. What I came back with was a favourite of mine, a 2CD set of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas which James Ehnes recorded in 1999 at the tender age of 23 (Analekta FL 2 3147-8). I am quite prepared to accept that his understanding and depth of knowledge of the Ciaccona, and the repertoire in general for that matter, will only increase with time, but I must say that if this early testament is any indication, we can all look forward to a truly awe-inspiring interpretation from Ehnes in the years to come.

Music: Books aside, sometimes it’s enough just to focus on the music…

On the eve of Elliott Carter’s 102nd birthday back in December 2010 Toronto’s New Music Concerts presented an evening of his recent works under the banner “Elliott Carter at 102.” Were it not for last minute health and weather complications it would have been Mr. Carter’s seventh visit to Toronto at the invitation of New Music Concerts. As it was, the concert went on as planned – including the world premiere of the Concertino for bass clarinet and chamber orchestra and the Canadian premiere of the Flute Concerto – and the audience was treated to a taped telephone message from the iconic composer expressing his delight. Carter recovered his health and went on to compose most of a dozen more works in the following year and a half before the final illness that led to his death just a month before his 104th birthday. New Music Concerts continued its practice of celebrating the long and creative life of this gentle man with Toronto premieres of Trije glasbeniki in 2011 and the Double Trio in 2012.

01 editor 03 elliott carterThe New York premieres of these two works took place at the 92nd Street Y on December 8, 2011 as part of Elliott Carter’s 103rd Birthday Concert. That festive occasion included world premieres of four new works ranging from Mnemosyne for solo violin (Rolf Schulte) to A Sunbeam’s Architecture, a cycle of six songs on texts by E.E. Cummings for tenor (Nicholas Phan) and large chamber ensemble. The concert, organized by and under the artistic direction of cellist and long-time Carter associate Fred Sherry, has now been released on the British NMC label (NMC DVD193). Other than the solo harp piece Bariolage from 1992, the 12 works featured all date from Carter’s 11th decade. What a treat it is to see Carter fêted in such a creative way and to see the composer’s pleasure in the performances. Still uncompromising in its rhythmic and harmonic complexity, the music is perhaps a bit more approachable than earlier works because of its vigour and gestural exuberance – an amazing testament to Carter’s longevity and joie de vivre.

The concert concludes with a seemingly spontaneous performance of Happy Birthday and bows from the beaming centenarian. The film continues with moving tributes from leading British composers George Benjamin, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews. The booklet contains an extensive biography and program notes. This is a wonderful celebration of the artist as an old man for those familiar with the work of Elliott Carter. It would serve as a wonderful point of entry to those who are not.

01 editor 04 guitariasAs someone who has spent much of my adult life (folk) singing and accompanying myself on the guitar it strikes me as a bit strange that such a thing is quite rare in the world of Art Song. Of course not many lieder singers accompany themselves on the piano either and I am willing to accept that in the world of classical music it is a life’s work to master even one medium. So it was with pleasure that I received a new disc from Renaissance man Doug MacNaughton on which he accompanies his own distinctive baritone voice with panache on a beautiful-sounding classical guitar constructed by Edward Klein. Guitarias (DougMacNaughton.com) features original works written for MacNaughton by Canadian composers John Beckwith, Leslie Uyeda and William Beauvais (who it seems has also served as guitar teacher and mentor to the singer).

01 editor 05 joy kills sorrowThe most immediately appealing work on the album, Shadows, is a collection of songs by British composer John Rutter, best known for his lush choral settings. The appeal however turns out to be from familiarity; his settings of 16th-century poetry sound charmingly anachronistic in their mimicking of lute songs of that era. That being said they are lovely and provide a contrast to the more contemporary sounds of the preceding tracks. Which is not to imply that the other works are not lyrical. Beckwith’s settings of Samuel Beckett’s poetic texts are surprising to this auditor who is more familiar with the bleak prose writings of the Nobel laureate whose motto might well have been the final sentences from The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I”ll go on.” Uyeda’s Flower Arranger is a gently angular setting of a poignant poem from Joy Kogawa’s collection A Garden of Anchors. The most idiomatic writing for the guitar, not surprisingly, comes from Beauvais in his cycle of songs on texts by Native American poet Linda Hogan. There are occasional extended techniques involved in the guitar writing which MacNaughton handles with apparent ease and without becoming distracted from his lyrical delivery of the vocal lines. I bet he could even walk and chew gum at the same time! My only quibble is the amount of reverb on the recording which seems a bit excessive. All in all though, an impressive solo release from a multi-talented artist. We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. A quick update on “my favourite band” Joy Kills Sorrow. This exceptional “new grass” band with its roots in Boston’s Berklee School of Music and its Canadian Folk Music Award-winning singer Emma Beaton, returned to grace the stage of Hugh’s Room last month. I admit to some trepidation because a year or so ago one of the mainstays of the band, bass player and award-winning songwriter Brigitte Kearney, left to pursue other interests and I wondered if I would be disappointed. I’m pleased to report that my fears were unfounded. Replacement bass player, Toronto native Zoe Guigueno, proved herself well up to the task and has melded seamlessly with the other members. And to my relief, it seems that Kearney has continued to write with/for the band. In their hour-long set opening for local headliners New Country Rehab there was only one tune from their first two CDs and the new material was uniformly strong and exhilarating.

A rarity among string bands, Joy Kills Sorrow does not include a fiddle, but the high-octane picking of guitarist Matthew Arcara, banjo player Wes Corbett and, especially, mandolinist Jacob Jolliff hardly give you time to notice. I also noted that the harmony singing by the back benchers has become stronger and more prominent in the past year or two. The new CD Wide Awake (signaturesounds.com) lives up to its name!

Post Script: As we go to print I have just found out that Joy Kills Sorrow’s performance at Hugh’s Room was part of a farewell tour after which the band has decided - amicably it seems - to go their separate ways. I for one will sorely miss them. Who will kill my sorrow now?

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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Editor's Corner - December 2013

2013 was a milestone year in many ways, one being the 100th anniversary of the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Further on in these pages you will find reviews of three new recordings which take very different approaches to this seminal work. But the year also marked the centenaries of a number of important composers, from Canadian pioneers John Weinzweig, Violet Archer and Henry Brant to iconic international figures including Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski. I wish I could tell you that there were new recordings of works by the Canadians, but I am not aware of any. Both Britten and Lutosławski however have been very well served over the past year.

On the local scene this year Britten has been a recurring presence on TSO programs, the COC recently completed a successful run of Peter Grimes and as you will know from WholeNote reviews there has been a wealth of recordings of his concertante works and operas.

01 editor 01 britten quartetsWith a vast output in larger forms — more than a dozen operas and a plethora of orchestral, vocal and choral works — it is all too easy to overlook Britten as a composer of chamber music. There is however a substantial body of work encompassing innumerable combinations of solo instruments. Of particular note are the works for solo cello (three suites and a sonata with piano) written for Rostropovich and the nine for two violins, viola and cello including three numbered String Quartets. Hyperion has just released a new recording (CDA68004) of the latter featuring the celebrated Takács Quartet. String Quartet No.1 was written on commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge while Britten was living in the United States in the early years of World War Two. It is less conventional and somewhat harsher than his earlier works, showing the influence of Stravinsky and Copland. String Quartet No.2 was composed after his return to England and premiered just months after the triumphal staging of Peter Grimes at Saddler’s Wells, the work that brought Britten international stardom. Most notable in this quartet is the extended third movement, a “Chacony” in homage to Henry Purcell whose work he would further celebrate the following year in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Britten did not return to the string quartet form until 30 years later, in 1975, just one year before his death. String Quartet No.3 is related to his final opera Death in Venice, and was in fact partially composed in the Italian city. Following a spiky “Burleske” reminiscent of Shostakovich (who had died that year) the final movement’s “Recitative” incorporates a barcarole reminding us of the gondolas of Venice and its concluding “Passacaglia” is set in the key of E major so closely associated with Gustav von Auschenbach, the protagonist of the opera.

Bookending Britten’s early mature offerings and his final output, these quartets, insightfully and exquisitely played by the Takács, offer quiet commentary on the larger-than-life works through which we have come to best know this composer.

Concert note: Associates of the Toronto Symphony will perform Britten’s String Quartet No.2 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre on January 20.

01 editor 02 lutoslawskiWitold Lutosławski has also been honoured through recordings this past year, though more in the form of re-issues than new releases. The Polish national label Polskie Nagrania released Witold Lutosławski – Centenary Edition an 8-CD set earlier this year (reviewed in the online version of Editor’s Corner in June) which featured historic recordings, many of which were conducted by Lutosławski himself. Now Naxos has collected its existing recordings and issued a 10-CD box Lutosławski – Symphonies; Concertos; Choral and Vocal Works (8.501066) featuring the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (and others) under the direction of Antoni Wit. Containing virtually all of the larger works it is a comprehensive set of thrilling performances in glorious sound. Originally issued as individual discs the collection gives the opportunity to listen to the complete oeuvre in any number of ways. As I write this I am enjoying exploring the symphonic works in chronological order: Symphony No.1 (1941–47); Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54); Symphony No.2 (1965–67); Symphony No.3 (1981–83); Symphony No.4 (1988–92), works which span the entirety of Lutosławski’s creative output. It is most interesting to hear not only the stylistic but also the formal developments from the mostly traditional first symphony (in four movements) through the Bartókian concerto (three movements) to the second symphony (two movements) and the final mature works both in a single movement. Another highlight is the Cello Concerto, written for Rostropovich but performed here by ARD- and Prague Spring Competition-winning Polish cellist Andrzej Bauer who, among other studies, worked with William Pleeth for two years in London on a scholarship funded by Lutosławski and who has obviously made this concerto a signature piece.

While the first nine discs are reissues of Wit’s definitive Naxos recordings, the final disc comprises the last concert that Lutosławski conducted in his lifetime. That took place at the Premiere Dance Theatre at Harbourfront in Toronto on October 24, 1993 and featured violinist Fujiko Imajishi, soprano Valdine Anderson and the New Music Concerts Ensemble. You can read NMC artistic director Robert Aitken’s reminiscences of the great Polish composer elsewhere in these pages.

Although Lutosławski wrote almost exclusively for large ensembles there is one very important transitional work that it is a shame not to have included here, the String Quartet from 1964 in which the composer takes his aleatoric approach to composition to new levels. The Polskie Nagrania set mentioned above includes a performance by the LaSalle Quartet who premiered the work, recorded at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1965. A 2013 Hyperion recording by the Royal Quartet (reviewed in this column last May) is also highly recommended.

01 editor 03 isabel bayrakdarianI’m often taken by the frequencies of coincidence in my life. One such occurrence relates to discs received in the past two months. Trobairitz, the feminine form of troubadour, was not a word in my vocabulary until the release of an ATMA CD by that name reviewed by Hans de Groot in last month’s WholeNote. De Groot mentioned that the only trobairitz song to have survived in both melody and words is A Chantar by the Contessa de Día and that it is not included in the recording by Shannon Mercer and La Nef. I have just received a new disc featuring Isabel Bayrakdarian entitled Troubadour & the Nightingale with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra under Anne Manson’s direction (MCO 013001 themco.ca). Lo and behold this recording of arrangements and original compositions by Serouj Kradjian includes the suite Trobairitz Ysabella in which the ancient song A Chantar is featured ...

In Kradjian’s illuminating introductory essay he explains the project originated in a discussion with conductor Manson about the book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal, which explores the golden age when the arts, literature and science flourished for 500 years in an atmosphere of tolerance. This eventually led him to the lives, poetry and music of the trobairitz of Occitania in the south of France bordering Spain, who were active for a brief 60 years in the 12th and 13th centuries during the Crusades. Evidently when the men returned from the wars social values once again regressed to the point where women were no longer allowed creative expression. Kradjian was inspired by his readings to compose the song cycle about Ysabella for his wife Bayrakdarian and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. For this attractive and evocative work the basic strings of the MCO are complemented by clarinet, oud, guitar and percussion.

In keeping with the theme, Kradjian arranged and orchestrated four songs by latter-day Armenian troubadour Sayat-Nova, born Haroutiun Sayatian in 1712, who served for a time at the court of Heracle II, King of Georgia, until his attraction for the king’s daughter led to expulsion. To complete the set Kradjian also arranged the beautiful Greek songs of Maurice Ravel and that composer’s setting of Kaddish, a Jewish prayer in Aramaic magnifying and glorifying God. Throughout the disc Bayrakdarian is in fine form and full voice, often sending shivers down the listener’s spine.

01 editor 04 ensemble made in canadaIn brief: Rachel Mercer is a cellist whose career I’ve been following since her university days when as a broadcaster at CJRT I had the opportunity to record the brilliant young Metro Quartet. Mercer went on to an international chamber career with Israel’s Aviv Quartet (2002-10) and since returning to Toronto has been a member of the Mayumi Seiler Trio (with pianist Angela Park), the Mercer-Park Duo and Ensemble Made In Canada. This latter is a piano quartet in which Mercer and Park are joined by other local young lionesses Elissa Lee (violin) and Sharon Wei (viola). The EMIC’s debut CD (ensemblemadeincanada.com) features the second piano quartet of Mozart and the third of Brahms in dramatic, nuanced and, where appropriate, playful performances. Produced by Scott St. John and EMIC and recorded at Glenn Gould Studio in August 2012, the sound is everything you would hope for (and expect). Incidentally, as the winner of the 2009 Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank Competition, Mercer was awarded the use of the 1696 Bonjour Stradivarius cello from 2009 to 2012 and it can be heard on this fine recording.

Concert note: Ensemble Made In Canada performs at the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society on December 3.

01 editor 05 adagioAnalekta recently released a disc which I must confess I was sceptical about when I first came across it. I was afraid that Adagio (AN 2 9848) featuring Ensemble Caprice under Matthias Maute would turn out to be another compilation of “the world’s most beautiful melodies” or some such saccharine fare. I’m glad that I gave it a chance though; it turned out to be a thoughtful collection with some surprising inclusions. Although overall a baroque offering — Zelenka, Albinoni, Carissimi, Allegri and Bach are all present — Maute explains the premise of the project in his program note as having been inspired by Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question and its subtitle A Consideration of a Serious Matter. He says “This wonderful title soon became the programmatic idea behind our recording of adagios throughout the centuries. [...] all meditations on the fundamental questions of life and death [expressing] something impossible to communicate through words.” It is an interesting concept and one which works very well for the most part with its balance of instrumental and choral works and Shannon Mercer’s wonderful rendering of Bach’s Ich habe genug. Maute has contributed an original prelude, used as a bridge to his arrangement of Satie’s lovely Gymnopédie No.1 and also an arrangement of Chopin’s Prélude Op.28, No.4. I only have two reservations about the disc: I would rather have heard the string version of Barber’s famous Adagio rather than the later choral setting of Agnus Dei using the same melody; I found the inclusion of Allegri’s Miserere, lovely as it is, to be too much in the context — too long in relation to the other selections, and simply too liturgical.

01 editor 06a brian katz
Two excellent and quite different acoustic guitar discs came my way this month. The first is by local stalwart of the jazz and independent music scenes, Brian Katz and the second features Newfoundland Django-style jazz guitarist Duane Andrews joined by country picker Craig Young. Leaves Will Speak (briankatz.com) is theresult of two years in the studio although more accurately it has been more than three decades in the making since that day in 1980 when Brian Katz decided that the nylon-string guitar would be his instrument of choice. Listening to this disc I was not surprised to find that Katz studied with Ralph Towner whose recordings with Oregon and the Paul Winter Consort were an integral part of the soundtrack to my formative years. But his influences and inspirations extend to many forms including jazz standards, free improvisation, klezmer, world, classical and new music. The 18 solo tracks on the album showcase the full range of Katz’ diverse musical world. With only one exception, an arrangement of an anonymous Italian Renaissance Danza, the tracks are original, most through-composed but some improvised in the recording studio. The sound is crisp and warm with a minimum of finger noise and the booklet is comprehensive with an informative essay about Katz’ background and approaches, and descriptive notes for each piece.

01 editor 06b charlies boogieCharlie’s Boogie (charliesboogie.com) brings together a number of styles of steel-string guitar picking, with Duane Andrews and Craig Young each bringing their own distinctive influences to the mix. From traditional North American country music and fiddle tunes, rags and reels through the blues (via Bill Monroe) and of course “Hot Club of France” style jazz, there’s even one singer-songwriter type offering, Jerry Faires’ homage to his guitar, “The D-18 Song.” Andrews has created a unique blend of Newfoundland traditional music and jazz guitar (he graduated with honours from jazz studies at St. Francis-Xavier University in Nova Scotia and went on to composition studies in Paris and Marseilles). Young, also a native of Newfoundland, left home for Alberta in 1993 and later relocated to Nashville, Tennessee as a member of the Terri Clark band, playing at the Grand Ole Opry and the like. Some four Canadian Country Music Awards later he’s back home in Newfoundland teaching and pickin’ up a storm with Andrews. Although both are composers in their own right, the album features only one track by each with the rest devoted to cover versions of the stuff they enjoy most. Man, these guys are hot!

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, Centre for Social Innovation, 503–720 Bathurst St., Toronto ON, M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers, record labels and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

—David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
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Editor's Corner - February 2014


01 editor 01 berlioz palejSince coming across bass-baritone José Van Dam’s recording of Les nuits d’été by Hector Berlioz while working at CJRT-FM some years ago, this has been one of my favourite song cycles. The setting of six songs on texts of Théophile Gautier, originally written for tenor or mezzo-soprano with piano accompaniment, was one that Berlioz returned to time and again over more than a dozen years, eventually providing versions for baritone, contralto and soprano and in 1856 completing an orchestral accompaniment. It is in this arrangement that we most often hear it and that is the case with a recent Centaur recording (CRC 3239) featuring soprano Shannon Mercer and Toronto’s group of twenty-seven (groupof27.com) led by Eric Paetkau. Gautier’s poems are selected from La Comédie de la mort and deal with death, love and longing. The well-crafted songs work wonderfully in every vocal range and Mercer is in superb voice, catching every nuance in this live recording from Grace Church on-the-Hill from April 1, 2011. Berlioz’ cycle is complemented by a set of five songs by Polish composer Norbert Palej who has been assistant professor of composition at the University of Toronto since completing his doctorate at Cornell in 2008. He is the director of the University’s gamUT contemporary music ensemble and of the annual New Music Festival that takes place at the Faculty of Music January 25 through February 2 this year. Palej uses his own English translations of poems by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, a leading member of Poland’s so-called Generation of Columbuses who was shot and killed at the age of 23 while fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The poetic fragments – From here…, Sparrows, Dark Lullaby, Hangmen’s Ballad and White Magic – are powerfully moving and effectively set, perhaps most so the final lyric which portrays the poet’s wife (who, pregnant with his child, was killed in an explosion a few days after Baczyński’s death). Once again, Mercer is in fine form. The disc concludes with Palej’s work for string orchestra, Rorate Coeli, inspired by a poem of the same name by Baczyński. After a tempestuous opening the tension relaxes into luscious and haunting melodic textures that eventually die away, reflecting the poem’s final lines “At night – may it grow like a column of grass, At night – let it be night eternal.”

01 editor 02 canadian concertosThe group of twenty-seven, founded several years ago by Eric Paetkau who previously served as resident conductor with Les Violons du Roy in Québec, is a Toronto-based chamber ensemble which draws on some of this city’s finest musicians, including members of the Toronto Symphony and Canadian Opera Company orchestras, and soloists from across the country. g27’s latest release – Canadian Concerto Project Volume One (MSR Classics MS 1480 msrcd.com) – features bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson and trumpeter Guy Few in solo roles performing new works by Mathieu Lussier, Michael Occhipinti and Glenn Buhr. Lussier, himself an accomplished bassoonist, contributes two concertante works for that instrument which Mackie Jackson performs with flare and grace, as well as Impressions de l’Alameda for trumpet and strings. It is this three-movement Spanish-flavoured work which opens the disc, setting the stage for the lush and lyrical music which pervades the CD. Guy Few is impeccable here and in Occhipinti’s two contributions and Buhr’s and man will only grieve if he believes the sun stands still for corno, bassoon and strings. Buhr’s piece has enjoyed a number of settings, originally written as an aria for the opera Anna’s Dream Play and now existing in a variety of vocal and instrumental settings. The current version comprises the second movement of a concerto written at Mackie Jackson’s request and I only wonder why we are not treated to the other movements on this disc. Although Occhipinti’s Thirteen Seconds is billed as being for trumpet, bassoon, guitar and string orchestra it is the wind instruments which dominate while the guitar simply adds texture to the strings. Like most of the works on this disc the music is flowing and melodic and the same is true of his Sicilian Proverbs, which with its lilting geographically inspired rhythms brings the disc full circle. I look forward to Volume Two.

Concert notes: On February 7, group of twenty-seven presents “I’m Austrian-Canadian” with works by Aaron Gervais, Maya Badian, Jocelyn Morlock, Haydn and Mozart featuring soloists Gregory Oh, piano, Ed Reifel, timpani and Mike Fedyshyn, trumpet at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. On February 16 Nadina Mackie Jackson and Guy Few will premiere Fort Coligny-L’épopé de la France Antartique, Mathieu Lussier’s double concerto for bassoon, trumpet and orchestra with Orchestra Toronto in a matinée performance at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. On February 17 another side of group of twenty-seven is revealed when the g2-7 recital series presents Bethany Bergman, violin, Amy Laing, cello, and Monique de Margerie, piano, in music by Ravel and Beethoven at Heliconian Hall.

01 editor 03 rob powerSpeaking of lush recordings, there is a new disc from Newfoundland that I am quite enjoying. Rob Power’s Touch: Music for Percussion (robpower.ca) includes seven tracks of mostly warm and resonant music featuring mallet instruments. Power is joined by a number of accomplished musicians, several of whom have been active on the Toronto scene including John D.S. Adams (who contributes electronic treatments and co-produced the disc with Power) and Bill Brennan (who returned to his native Newfoundland a few years ago after being a member of the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan for nearly 20 years). All of the tracks were composed by Power since 2000 with the exception of Shards which is a collaborative composition with Adams, Brennan, Kevin Coady and Erin Donovan featuring glass triangles, shakers, a djembe and electronic pitch modulation. This pointillistic piece is an exception to the overall lushness of the disc, although there are percussive bursts and moments of stillness interspersed throughout, especially in the final solo track which features Power on congas, bongos, gongs, temple bowls, triangles and the like in a piece written for New Brunswick percussionist D’Arcy Gray (who was recently in Toronto performing with Motion Ensemble at the Music Gallery). While the overall sensibility of the music presented here might be classified Minimalist with its use of ostinato and “friendly” harmonic writing, there is actually a wide spectrum of musical thought on offer, including extensive exploration of unpitched sounds as well. A number of the works received their premiere performances at the biennial Sound Symposium in St. John’s and two are dedicated to the memory of iconic figures associated with that festival, John Wyre and Don Wherry. The disc was recorded at the Memorial University School of Music, where Power is associate professor of percussion and directs the Scruncheons Percussion Ensemble.

01 editor 04 messiaen - croppedI was pleased and intrigued to receive The Edge of Light (harmonia mundi HMU 907578) featuring pianist Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet. The disc juxtaposes the early piano Préludes of Olivier Messiaen (1929) and his final work, Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes (1991) with two works for solo piano, Prélude (2006) and Ballade (2005), and the piano trio Je sens un deuxième coeur (2003) by Kaija Saariaho.

Messiaen wrote a wealth of solo piano music, much of it based on his extensive and exacting transcriptions of bird songs, most notably the seven-volume Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1956-58) – indeed Wikipedia identifies him as a French composer, organist and ornithologist – so it is of interest that the first of the preludes, his first acknowledged works, is entitled Le Colombe (The Dove). The set is more reminiscent of the placid and exotic world of Debussy than of the exuberant ecstasy of the Messiaen we would come to know in later years but there are certainly moments that foreshadow things to come. Of greater interest to me however is the piano quintet movement written for the 90th birthday of his publisher Alfred Schlee at Universal Edition. Although only three and half minutes in length, this quintet is particularly significant not only as Messiaen’s last work, but as his only work for a chamber ensemble written after the iconic Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which he wrote for the resources available to him (violin, clarinet, piano and a cello with only three strings) while interned at a German prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia (1940-41). Pièce is divided into 14 very brief contrasting sections mostly alternating between angular un peu vif unisons in the strings with bien modéré piano phrases. The exception is a longish passage in the middle where strings and piano join forces in a chattery depiction of a fauvette des jardins (Garden Warbler), thus confirming that Messiaen maintained his passion for birds right up to the very end.

Saariaho’s solo piano pieces are darker and more sombre than Messiaen’s but, to my way of thinking, do fall into the French tradition, at least if we consider Chopin and his influence to be an integral part of that history. Cheng gives us the first recordings of these two works. On the other hand, the trio for viola, cello and piano – a darker variant of the traditional piano trio – has appeared on at least two previous recordings, including one featuring Toronto violist Steven Dann, cellist Annsi Karttunen and pianist Tuija Hakkila reviewed in this column in November 2012. At that time I mentioned that Je sens un deuxième coeur was based on themes from Saariaho’s second opera Adriana Mater but noted that it is “an effective chamber work not dependent on the programmatic inspiration for appreciation.” In the notes to the current recording famed opera director Peter Sellars paints a different picture: “We are in a country that is on the verge of war. […] a young woman dares to step out onto her small balcony dreaming of freedom, of liberation, and of pleasure, to sing “I unveil my skin.” The gesture of unveiling is provocative but innocent […] This intensely personal song is the opening of the opera, and forms the content of the first movement.” He goes on to describe the “impetuous music of rising danger” depicting an abusive boyfriend at the door in the second movement. In the third her sister dreams that war breaks out and “imagines the surreal atrocity that transforms a city at war.” In the anguished fourth movement war actually does break out and the drunken boyfriend batters down the door and rapes her. The final movement, “I feel a second heart beating next to mine,” provides the musical image of the double heartbeat of a woman carrying a child which Sellars calls “one of the most poignant and satisfying moments in the history of music.” Perhaps the programmatic nature of the work does benefit from the telling… All in all this is an important release on a number of counts, not the least of which is its excellent sound quality and high performance standards.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
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Editor's Corner - November 2013

discoveries - editors cornerThis month brevity will have to be the soul of wit as I try to do justice to some of the many interesting CDs to land on my desk in recent weeks. To begin, a marvellous discovery from northern Ontario. I have long known and enjoyed the music of Sudbury-based Robert Lemay but I had not previously heard his music for string quartet nor for that matter did I know there even was a string quartet in that city. L’errance …, another in the wealth of recent releases on the Centrediscs label (CMCCD 19513) has opened my ears on both accounts. The Silver Birch String Quartet is an excellent ensemble of young players currently in residence at Laurentian University with a string of accomplishments, including a previous recording with Montreal jazz pianist John Roney that garnered a JUNO nomination in 2010 and two Felix Awards, which makes me wonder why they weren’t already on my radar. This disc spans two decades of the Lemay’s output, beginning with L’errance ... hommage à Wim Wenders composed over a two-year period in Montreal, Quebec City and Buffalo, completed in 1990. It takes its inspiration from Wenders’ film Wings of Desire and is the first of a series of works paying tribute to different film directors. Although written long before the group’s formation, Silver Birch have toured this work extensively and feel it to be a signature piece in their repertoire. Opening with an extended cello solo and ending with solo violin, in this it is reminiscent of the third quartet of Canadian icon R. Murray Schafer, although Lemay’s language is quite distinct. The other works are more recent and reflect the mature voice of this composer. Structure/paysage ... hommage à Eli Bornstein (2008) is one of a series of works honouring abstract painters, in this case the leader of the Canadian structuralist abstract school. For the final and most developed work on the CD, Territoires intérieurs (hommage à Bernard Émond) (2010), the quartet is joined by pianist Yoko Hirota. This captivating piece was commissioned by the quartet and developed over the period of a residency at the Banff Centre which they say “was among the most artistically fulfilling projects for us as a quartet.” Certainly that camaraderie is conveyed in this performance which was captured in all its intimate glory in this Glenn Gould Studio recording by engineer Dennis Patterson and producer David Jaeger. This is one of the most satisfying chamber discs to come my way in a long time.

A close second is the latest from the ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory), a Chandos recording featuring Chamber Works by Paul Ben-Haim (CHAN 10769). Ben-Haim, born Paul Frankenburger in 1897, was a German Jew who immigrated to Palestine shortly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The bulk of this disc is devoted to works written in the decade after arrival in Palestine, including works for viola and piano and violin and piano from 1939 and a piano piece from 1944. It is obvious from the use of Middle Eastern themes and references to the local landscape that Ben-Haim was quick to embrace his new land. The most substantial of these is a clarinet quintet from 1941 about which the composer says “I was very satisfied because I felt that I had at last succeeded in consolidating a new style.” This lush and lyrical work is beautifully performed by Joachim Valdepeñas and a string quartet comprised of Marie Bérard, Erika Raum, Steven Dann (also featured in the haunting viola pieces) and Bryan Epperson. It was revised in 1965 and I wish the liner notes mentioned what sort of revisions the composer made more than two decades after writing the work. The disc opens with an early venture, the Piano Quartet Op.4 from 1920-21 (violinist Benjamin Bowman and pianist David Louie join Dann and Epperson) which shows the influence of Germanic forebears Brahms and Strauss but also French nuances of Fauré and to my ear, Debussy. Evidently the composer suppressed his pre-immigration works and until unearthed in the Ben-Haim archives and performed by the ARC Ensemble in 2012 this quartet had not been heard since a radio broadcast in 1932 before the composer left Germany. As with their three previous releases (on RCA Red Seal) of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Julius Röntgen, Walter Braunfels and Adolf Busch the ARC Ensemble continues to bring to light some repertoire unjustly neglected due to political suppression or shifts in musical fashion, in stunning performances through its Music in Exile series under the artistic direction of Simon Wynberg.

I Am in Need of Music is the title of another new Centrediscs release featuring songs on poems of Nova Scotian Elizabeth Bishop (CMCCD 19413) composed by Alasdair MacLean (NS), John Plant (QC), Emily Doolittle (NB) and Christos Hatzis (ON). Best known for her extensive work in the field of early music, soprano Suzie LeBlanc brings her signature vocal purity to this project which she conceived and developed between 2007 and 2011, Bishop’s centenary year, in conjunction with poet and Bishop scholar Sandra Barry. Together they decided to commission settings of Bishop’s poems in honour of the anniversary and it was Barry who told LeBlanc about a walking trip that Bishop had undertaken in 1932 in rural Newfoundland. LeBlanc, a walker in her own right, decided to recreate this journey as well as could be done some 75 years of development later, and invited filmmaker Linda Dornan to join her. The results were two-fold, both documented in this combined CD and DVD release from the Canadian Music Centre: more than an hour’s worth of music wonderfully performed by LeBlanc accompanied by the Blue Engine String Quartet (MacLean) and the Elizabeth Bishop Players under the direction of Dinuk Wijeratne (Plant, Doolittle and Hatzis); and a half-hour video of LeBlanc and Dornan’s adventure in the outports of Newfoundland. The music, although consistently lyrical and tonally based, is quite eclectic in the different musical languages of these composers. Most surprising to me was to hear yet another side of chameleon-like composer Hatzis whose charming settings show him to be as at home in the idiom of musical theatre as in the diverse and multi-ethnic worlds of his previous compositions. Congratulations to Suzie LeBlanc on the success of her vision and to all concerned in this endeavour.

Concert note: Suzie LeBlanc is featured with tenor Charles Daniels in Tafelmusik’s “Purcell and Carissimi: Music from London and Rome” at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre November 6 through 10. She also joins Les Voix Humaines Consort of Viols for a Women’s Musical Club of Toronto recital November 21 at Walter Hall.

discoveries - editors corner 2In brief: Analekta has released a CD/DVD combination featuring one of the celebrated historical voices of Canadian opera, bass Joseph Rouleau. Now 84, Rouleau is a Companion of the Order of Canada and Grand Officer of the Order of Quebec. I was first introduced to the splendour of his voice in a CBC recording of the extended orchestral song cycle he commissioned from Jacques Hétu in 1984, Les Abîmes du rêve based on the poetry of Émile, and I was hooked. Although particularly associated with French and Italian repertoire, Russian Operas Russes (AN 2 9223-4) makes it clear that Rouleau was also at home in the role of basso profundo as displayed in selected arias from the operas of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The recording, dating from the height of his career, originated in 1972 from the concert Soirée de musique russe avec Joseph Rouleau produced for Les Beaux Dimanches at Radio Canada. The bonus DVD features Rouleau in the title role of Boris Godunov’s Death Scene (Act Four, Scene Two of Mussorgsky’s opera) filmed in 1983. This is a welcome testament to one of the great voices of our country and although the sound is not as pristine as might be hoped, it is still sufficient to send chills down the spine.

The next disc made me laugh out loud on first hearing. I really didn’t know what to expect from Nutcracker Nouveau – The Russian Expedition from the wacky eclectic local Ensemble Polaris (ensemblepolaris.com). I had been told by core member Alison Melville that this was the closest they would ever come to a Christmas disc, so we’re perhaps rushing the season a bit (as I write this Halloween is still a couple of weeks away) but as they will be launching the disc on November 29 at the Edward Day Gallery at 952 Queen St. W. and as I’m told the disc will be in stores by the time this issue of WholeNote hits the streets (and because as you will see shortly there are other connections afoot) I thought I’d slip it in now. The opening track, Kirk Elliott’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Trepak” from The Nutcracker, begins with what sounds like Duelling Banjos followed by the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies before settling into the familiar melody from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. This sets the stage for a hilarious homage to the Russian master. The instrumentation ranges from guitars, mandolins and banjos through violin, accordion, bagpipes, bazouki, flutes, recorders and clarinets to a host of multi-cultural percussion instruments. Particularly effective is the guzheng and the violin convincingly impersonating an erhu in Melville and Elliott’s arrangement/medley of the traditional Chinese melody Picking Tea and Tchaikovsky’s “Danse Chinoise” which also features descant recorder and musical saw among other oddities. The suite is a clever and entertaining blend of new takes on the familiar ballet themes intertwined with other Slavic favourites. Perhaps due to my personal preference for the instrument I must mention the gorgeous sound of Margaret Gay’s cello which was captured in all its glory by Jeremy Darby at Canterbury Sound.

The Polaris ensemble is of course not the first to make original arrangements of this most “Christmas” of all ballets. Another instance arrived recently from Harmonia Mundi featuring Tchaikovsky’s original Nutcracker Suite, Op.71a in a straight ahead and wonderfully lush performance by the Harmonie Ensemble New York under Steven Richman paired with a 1960 arrangement by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (HMU 907493). For this iconic jazz rendition the Harmonie is joined by Lew Tabackin tenor sax, Lew Soloff trumpet, Bill Easley clarinet, Victor Lewis drums and George Cables piano. If you are not already familiar with this wonderful example of “third stream” music you owe it to yourself to check it out. Rarely has there been such a successful fusion of traditional classical music and big band jazz.

discoveries - editors corner 3Classical/jazz fusion continues to inspire artists and a recent local example is (primarily) jazz pianist Ron Davis who makes a strong case for it in the liner notes to his new CD SymphRonica with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and John Morris Russell (rondavismusic.com). The disc includes six Davis compositions arranged by Timothy Berens and Jason Nett along with two traditional tunes and a variation on J.S. Bach’s Mache Dich Mein Herze Rein. Davis is joined by bassist Mike Downes and drummer Ted Warren for the jazz treatments with orchestral soloists Sasha Boychouk clarinet and Lillian Scheirich violin. While SymphRonica is certainly not in the same league as the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker arrangements it is obvious that it is a labour of love and that a good time was had by all, classical and jazz participants alike.

Concert note: Ron Davis launches SymphRonica with events at the Lula Lounge on November 3 and 10.

Another disc that expands the scope of the classical orchestra is Symphony!, the latest offering from Toronto’s many-influenced Sultans of String (sultansofstring.com).Violinist Chris McKhool and his colleagues, guitarists Kevin Laliberte and Eddie Paton, bass player Drew Birston and percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” Leòn, are joined by some very special guests including Bassam Bishara on oud, James Hill ukulele, Larry Larson trumpet and Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains on pennywhistle and pipes. Add to this 55 of Toronto’s top orchestral players under the direction of Jamie Hopkings and some very effective orchestrations by Rebecca Pellett and we are presented with a wonderfully playful disc of mostly original material penned by McKhool and Laliberte ranging from gypsy style and flamenco to Middle Eastern influences. Of course there is a good measure of swing in the mix, along with some lush soundtrack-like pieces and the pop song proposal Will You Marry Me with backing vocals by Dala.

Concert note: You can catch a live version of this “roots-worldbeat-symphony mash-up” at Koerner Hall on December 1 when the Sultans of String will be joined by the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, Centre for Social Innovation, 503–720 Bathurst St., Toronto ON, M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers, record labels and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

—David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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