One great gift of living in Toronto is the rich array of live classical music on every scale of performance. Orchestras, both local and touring, play in the huge concert halls and can knock our socks off with the power of a large ensemble and symphonic repertoire. Koerner Hall is acoustically exciting for any size performance; sitting in its elegant sculptural wood interior feels like being inside a cello. And in the many small venues tucked into this city we can hear solo and ensemble performances by musicians at every level of professional accomplishment playing stimulating new, unconventional, or seldom heard compositions. These, to me, are the most thrilling. The performers in these intimate spaces are a few feet from the audience, their every gesture and expression visible. The vibrations of acoustic instruments and unamplified voices wash over us with their pure, true, glorious sound. The musicians’ comments during the concerts and in conversation at casual encounters afterward are insightful and often personal. And, speaking of a gift, tickets are usually inexpensive, often free.
Here’s a taste of three recent stirring and exciting music experiences.
CMC (Canadian Music Centre) Presents violinists Andréa Tyniec and Aaron Schwebel, 2015 Canada Council Instrument Bank Winners
The Canadian Music Centre is a turreted old brick mansion on a rise overlooking St. Joseph St. which houses an archive and library of Canadian compositions as well as a performance venue. We arrived half an hour early to be sure we got a ticket ($15!), and joked as we climbed the stairs to the front door that we might be walking in on the tail end of rehearsal. And sure enough we could see through the glass wall into the performance space one nervous violinist in last minute practice, and as we enjoyed a pre-concert glass of wine in an anteroom, we could see the other musician practicing in a room down the hall.
The performance space is the size of a large livingroom with about 40 chairs arranged in rows in a semicircle before the fireplace where performers stood to play. These two young violinists with their coveted heritage instruments explained how they came to be awarded the violins (for five years only) through a competition and how they tried them out and chose the one that suited their own sound and repertoire. Ms. Tyniec, holding her Stradivarius (1689), expressed her gratitude to the Canada Council, “…it’s a joy to offer this very special thing that we are in the presence of.”
The program was a thoughtful and appropriate celebration of both the players and their instruments. Each chose pieces by one Canadian composer contemporary to themselves and one classical composer contemporary to their instrument. In introducing his choices, Mr. Schwebel pointed out resonances between G.P. Telemann and Serge Arcuri, composers separated by hundreds of years. And because he pointed them out to us, we heard them too.
Music new (to me) along with the more familiar and beloved, interpreted verbally and then passionately played by accomplished soloists on the world’s best instruments — it is exhilarating to be the audience for that. We could hear and feel their joy.
Echo/Sap’a, Marion Newman, mezzo-soprano
Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre
You are conscious of the city every moment in this spectacular glass amphitheatre, the vestibule of the Four Seasons Centre, as the 501 streetcar glides along Queen St. behind the performers. Free concerts are scheduled here several times a week, and the vocal series allows Canadian Opera Company (COC) members to explore repertoire and ensembles beyond the traditional operas performed inside in the main concert hall.
Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman put together this program on the theme of reconciliation. It was an opportunity, as she explained, to bring together important strands of her own existence – her First Nations heritage and her classical music career. All the music was composed by contemporary Canadian composers, most of whom were present, including herself and pianist Adam Sherkin. His evocative solo piano composition, Postludes from Adlivun, was inspired by Inuit culture. One of Ms. Newman’s songs was an exquisite lullaby she composed when she was seven years old for her baby sister who wouldn’t sleep. “My mother heard me and quietly stood around the corner and recorded it. I’ve reworked it a bit since then, of course.”
We are used to hearing operatic music sung in foreign languages we often do not understand, so I can’t explain why it was so moving to hear her sing Dustin Peter’s hauntingly lovely song cycle Echo/Sap’a in Kwak’wala, the language of the Kwakwa’kawakw People of the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps, in addition to the beauty of the music itself, it had to do with how meaningful it was to her to perform in that language, which she does not speak. To be, as she said, “…singing in what would have been my native language, were it not almost extinct. My father spoke it until he went to residential school and lost it. And now I get to be an opera singer and sing in my own language.”
Opera Pub – Against the Grain Theatre
Opera Pub is a casual evening, free admission and cheap beer, where opera singers perform a song or two with piano accompaniment in front of their peers and opera fans. It takes place on the first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club on the Esplanade. It starts at 9 p.m., but we got there at 7:45 and just managed get seats. Capacity is often reached quickly and there were many faces stranded outside peering in through the window. Not kidding about a pub, either – the night we were there the two huge flat screen TVs were showing the World Junior Hockey Championship game, though only one guy was watching. Even he stopped paying attention and focused on the singers long before the game ended in that disappointing shoot-out. Though it feels like a loose, let-your-hair-down party, this is a rapt audience of avid listeners and the performances are worth that attention.
Introduced by Joel Ivany and/or Topher Mokrzewski, Against the Grain’s founders, each singer before commencing provides a short, often irreverent synopsis to set the context of the song. The performers might be light-hearted, overly-dramatic, funny or tragic, in solo or duet, yet all sing with musical seriousness and proficiency.
Soloists ranged from young U of T students to members of the COC such as Ambur Braid, who is in rehearsal to play the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Iain MacNeil sang an aria from Ariadne auf Naxos, and as he came to the end of it two sopranos in the audience added sotto voce harmonies from somewhere near the bar.
As we were leaving we passed a performer, bass Michael Uloth, and were glad to have the chance to tell him we loved his turn. He responded exuberantly, “Thanks – this was great! I never sang in a pub before!”
We are rich with amazing talent and variety all over town. A comprehensive list of the city’s concert opportunities is published by The Whole Note.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin and Miria Ioannou
Enjoyed the story. I would like to go to the Opera Pub. Thanks.
Alex Moyle, Toronto
Loved this piece! Makes me want to come to Toronto just to see the glass amphitheatre and hear the music at the “opera pub”. Thanks for sharing.
Cheryl Krysaniwsky, Port Elgin, ON