One Month

When I returned from Europe a month ago, I decided to start this blog both as a hobby, and as a way to keep those who love new music informed about the events happening around Toronto.

After a month, I can proudly say that my blog has achieved over 1000 hits. That’s an amazing number and it’s more than I thought I was going to get in many months, so thank you all. Thank you for reading my blog, and thank you for keeping me motivated to do this work.

While I was in Europe, I had the opportunity to sample the new music scenes of a few different cities, and what I found is that Toronto has far and away the richest and most active music and new music scene I’ve yet to encounter. We in Toronto have over ten different organizations dedicated to new music. We have an orchestra that holds a 3-concert new music festival every year and an orchestra dedicated to new music. We have a number of opera companies dedicated to both old and new music. We have organizations that have been around for over 40 years, and those that have been around for five. We’ve got seasoned professionals and newcomers advocating for new music and we have new music concerts that are sold out. Our community is active, energetic, and friendly, and I look forward to attending many more concerts in this and future seasons.

Thank you again.

– Paolo Griffin

Preview: October 30th – November 4th

There’s quite a few things going on this week and weekend in Toronto. I will be away this coming, so I won’t be able to make it to some of these concerts, but you’ll all be here, and you should go see these.

Wednesday, October 30th:

The second night of Opera 5’s spooky, Edgar Allen Poe themed concert. The Cask of Amontillado (2001) by American composer Daniel Pinkham, La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) (1917) by Claude Debussy, and The Masque of the Red Death (2013), a new work by Toronto composer Cecilia Livingston are all on the bill. Get out and see this. Bring your kids too. They’d love it.

Thursday, October 31st:

The third and final night of Opera 5’s concert happens once again at the Toronto Arts & Letter’s Club. Go see it. I won’t tell you again.

Friday, November 1st:

New Music Concerts puts on a concert featuring live instruments and electronics. David Eagle present a new work for voice, ensemble, and electronics, and the concert contains strong offerings from Hans Tutschku, Anna Pidgorna, Anthony Tan, and Jimmie Leblanc. 8 PM at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.

If electronics aren’t your thing, Gallery 345 plays host to mezzo-soprano Michele Bogdanowiz, tenor Ernesto Ramirez, and pianist Rachel Andrist, as they tackle Poulenc’s Polish Songs, and a brand new piece by Toronto-based composer Norbert Palej.

Sunday, November 3rd :

Also at Gallery 345, Sunday at 3 PM, the Ton Beau String Quartet, a group  of fantastically talented players, will be performing Toronto composer Riho Maimets’ Sanctus (2012) as well as Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet (1891).


– Paolo Griffin

Review – Opera 5 Delivers a Spooky Show

Opera 5 made a wise move when they asked Cecilia Livingston to write an opera for them. Not only because she is a talented composer, but because the product of their collaboration – a short opera based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same name: The Masque of the Red Death (2013) was the definite highlight of Sunday’s show. That’s not to say Opera 5’s other productions weren’t thoroughly entertaining in their own right. The Cask of Amontillado (2001) by Daniel Pinkham, an American composer, was an interesting ride through a story of a man bent on the downfall of his best friend as revenge for wronging him, and La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) (1917) is an unfinished opera by Claude Debussy (and really, who doesn’t love some Debussy), were both enjoyable journeys through the Poe stories, also of the same name. However, the star really shone for Livingston and her opera.

Sleek, sexy, and spooky, this opera was exactly what this time of year called for. The story, in which a prince (played by the very impressive David Tinervia) battles the spread of the plague ‘the Red Death’ by gathering a thousand people from knights and royalty in his palace and sealing them off from the outside world, and, at the same time, throwing a party. The party is interrupted by a new guest who reveals himself to be the Red Death, and kills everyone at the party.

Cecilia Livingston has quite a talent when it comes to writing vocal music (her compositions include multiple commissions for choirs, and many songs), and her abilities certainly showed here. While the other two pieces contained more serious music, The Masque… began with a fantastic jazz-like number that definitely seized the attention of every person in the theatre. The rest of the piece alternated between this more upbeat style, and a more bleak representation of the seriousness of the situation. My highlight of the piece, and the moment I knew that I had really enjoyed this piece more than the other two, was in the closing minutes, when the Red Death has killed everyone in the hall, and the percussion enters to great effect, adding to the mood of the scene. It’s a very haunting scene, and one that took a great deal of skill to pull off effectively, but Livingston did just that.

Credit also has to go to Opera 5’s cast and crew, who’s work on the costumes and the staging made the three works really come to life. I’ve never been a big zombie person, and I usually think dressing in zombie-esque attire can be a bit kitsch, however this was a situation where the zombie style of makeup really enhanced the scenes. The set too, with its many (and I mean many) alcohol bottles placed around to make it seem as if the world’s greatest party had come and gone, worked as an all purpose set. In The Casque, it was an appropriate abandoned cellar. In La Chute… it worked as a rundown house, and in The Masque… it worked fantastically has a place where a party was currently going on.

This was Opera 5’s first full main stage production since their inception almost two years ago, and I can’t wait for their next show.

There are two more showings of this performance: Wednesday, October 30th, and Thursday, October 31st. If you aren’t too busy, I highly suggest you go to see one of these performances.


– Paolo Griffin

Interview: Opera 5 and In Pace Requiescat

Opera 5 is a relatively new non-profit opera organization that’s all about having fun. Their sets, music direction, and staging are all meant capture the audience’s attention and pull them in. What better way to do that than with a Halloween themed performance? This Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Opera 5 will be performing three short operas all based on Edgar Allen Poe stories. The Cask of Amontiallado by American composer Daniel Pinkham, La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) by Claude Debussy (an unfinished opera), and a world premier, written by Toronto composer Cecilia Livingston: The Masque of the Red Death.

I interviewed Opera 5’s Stage Director, Aria Umezawa, General Director, Rachel Krehm, and composer Cecilia Livingston earlier this week, and we discussed their reasons behind this production, as well as some of the challenges and perks of producing horror opera. Here are some snippets from that interview:

P: You’ve obviously got a spooky theme going on for this concert set. Why did you choose opera based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe?

R: Actually yes. We had a fundraising event of March 17th and it was at the Arts and Letters Club, and we were sitting, while the show was going on, at the bar, and Aria and I were like: “This would be the best haunted house!”, and then we came up with the idea of: “Well, there’s got to be Poe opera out there. Let’s look around.” and Mai Nash, our music director, knew about the Debussy, and he said it was really cool music, so we thought we could build something around that. And then Aria got really excited about it, and then I came into the conversation, so we found a couple of opera that we were interested in, and then we decided that one of them was really awful, so we thought ‘well, what about hiring a composer for a new piece?’, and  that’s where Cecilia came in. So with two months, or two and a half months until rehearsals started, my Mai e-mailed Cecilia, frantically asking if she wouldn’t mind composing a thirty minute opera in less than two months. It was two and half months before rehearsal started, but to get it done….Cecilia basically wrote the opera in a little over a month.

C: I took a couple of weeks off for the Tapestry Opera LibLab, but yes. It was very intense.

R: And you worked really well under pressure, which was amazing.

C: I do work really well under pressure.

P: I myself am a big Poe fan, so I know his stories are very well written, and very atmospheric, and I know that they give you this sense of creeping horror that many stories and movies don’t give you today. So because of that, I think that the horror set you have created is going to be very effective.

A: It was something different. Different from your typical spooky opera. For instance, you think about Don Giovanni, or Turn of the Screw, or you think of any of the typical horror operas, and we just thought we could think outside the box and find something that would be intensely intriguing and equally horrifying as the classic horror operas.

P: Obviously the commissioning thing is something a lot of composers would like to do, but they often get hired through knowing other musicians. How do you know Cecilia, or, how did you first get introduced to her?

R: Mai, our music director, played in one of Cecilia’s recitals.

C: Yes, he actually played in my Doctoral recital last spring.

R: he really enjoyed the music. So when we were going around the idea of ‘what do we do about the third piece?’, because we really didn’t like what we had, and we needed something, Mai said he knew this really great composer whose work he’s been involved with before and he really liked her music, so we thought we’d see if she was interested. And we were very lucky she was interested.

P: So then, in this case, because you had so little time, who chose the story The Masque of the Red Death? Was it Cecilia? Or was it you guys?

A: We had some discussion, but we pretty much left it up to Cecilia which opera she wanted to compose, because we were giving her such  a short  time frame that we just needed the inspiration to come. SO I think I had thrown in Ligeia as a suggestion.

C: Yes, you suggested Ligeia and The Telltale Heart. And you said obviously not to do the other ones you were already planning on doing.

A: Masque was on the table from the beginning as well, but I was envisioning an onstage costume chance for Ligeia which was really the only reason I thought that might be fun too, but I’m so thrilled with Masque. It’s definitely the right choice for this.

R: The way that we managed to do the story with Masque works so well, I can’t imagine anything else with it now.

C: It seems very organic now. Having seen all three pieces together now, as a show, it really flows. And the other thing I liked about Masque is that it hadn’t been treated operatically as much as the other stories so I felt I could stake out a little bit of new territory that way.

R: Were you able to find any Masque works?

C: I wasn’t able to find any in a relatively cursory search on my part, but I did find other works for Telltale Heart, and Ligeia.

P: Was there a period where you looking at other short stories? The Pit and the Pendulum is one of those classics.

C: That period lasted really only about 24 hours.

A: We did say that we didn’t want the Raven.

C: Yes, you did, I could do anything, but not the Raven. But I had to make a decision very quickly, so as Aria says, I was looking for the one that kind of fit me.

P: So Cecilia,  you wrote opera in, really, under six weeks. Were there any other factors that you were thinking of adding to, and maybe writing something involving dance, because this is a story that takes place at a party.

C: Yes, I liked the party idea right away. I think there’s something very sinister about having a party going on and having Death stalk from room to room. But I wanted to leave open opportunities for onstage excitement, but I knew Aria would have all the best ideas for that. I didn’t want to shove anything in the piece that she might feel differently about.

A: We ended up with a zombie dance party.

C: Which is not what I envisioned but it totally works! It was great.

P: Cecilia, I’ve heard your previous vocal work, and it’s quite beautiful, and very organic. Was writing a horror/mystery a departure? was it difficult?

C: No, not at all. I wrote the main theme of it, and then I wondered what I would do for the party itself…to achieve that party atmosphere. Then as soon as I hit on this burlesque…kind of Gilbert and Sullivan, show tune..thing, I thought, well at least I have some music, so I went from there. And it’s not a departure, stylistically, for me. I’ve done a lot of creepy music earlier. It was a nice chance to do some fun stuff again, and vocally, I think it’s actually very lyrical.

R: What I appreciate about the piece, and the production too is that they [the pieces] are in very different styles, but it feels like one piece. I’ve done a couple of modern operas like this as well, and sometimes everyone does something different, and it becomes very choppy, but Cecilia managed to pack in a bunch of different things, and keeping it lyrical throughout the whole thing, which is great. It does feel like one piece, which is what you want as an opera.

P: Aria, you did the work on the set, and the costumes, and all those things, so did you decide to make the costumes faithful to the Poe era?  Or did you go modern?

A: It’s sort of…outside of time. It was very important to me that all three stories live in the same world, so we don’t get this feeling of starting and stopping. They are three operas, but together. So talking to Matthew Vale, our production designer, this was one of the things I came to the table with: These three operas are in the same world, so we need to work backwards from Cecilia’s piece. So Cecilia’s piece was driving the drama for the other pieces. We started discussing the elements of the show. Elements of budget, elements of what we wanted to see on stage. So we decided to go outside of time and have a sort of punk rock theme to feel very gritty, very dirty, very spooky, but have elements of peoples costumes that would relate back to Poe’s era. So people would be wearing neckerchiefs or Poe-style jackets, over top of printed band t-shirts. Our soprano is wearing a huge cage skirt which she is wearing over a very modern slip, and she’s sporting a very punk Goth outfit. So there are elements of the era woven into it, but it’s very much outside the time.


Opera 5’s new show: In Pace Requiescat begins tonight. 7:30 PM at the Toronto Arts & Letter’s Club (14 Elm Street Toronto, ON M5G 1G7). Arrive early and check out their haunted house and Halloween themed treats. Tickets are $30 and $25 for students.


– Paolo Griffin

Review: Esprit Celebrates the Beginning of a New Year

Last night’s Esprit Orchestra season launch was a success, and it was also a concert of the kind of music you’d expect from Esprit. Eccentric and entertaining. The launch concert featured four pieces. No Longer Than 10 Minutes (1970) by Canadian R. Murray Schafer, Zipangu (1980) by Claude Vivier, and the tremendous orchestra studies of Samy Moussa titled Gegenschein and Zodiakallicht (2009). Headlining the concert was principal viola of the TSO Teng Li, playing the solo part of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s tremendous Viola Concerto (1985).

It was a good move on the part of Alex Pauk to programme the Schafer to begin the concert. It seems to be especially important in new music concerts to grab the attention of the listener from the outset, and No Longer… was just the piece to do that. An amusing romp through Schafer’s typical territory of temporal and acoustic subjects, this piece was based largely on sound graphs Schafer had taken of downtown Vancouver. The musicians were instructed to enter, begin tuning, and proceed straight to the performance. Alex Pauk wandered on some time later, and, as if in an episode of Mr. Bean, decided that the best course of action would be to conduct the orchestra. Schafer’s orchestration is always enjoyable to observe, and his use of percussion instruments is really quite astonishing. I hear something different every time I listen to a piece of his.

Esprit Founder & Conductor Alex Pauk

Esprit Founder & Conductor Alex Pauk

The Schafer transitioned straight away into Zipangu. When I say straight away, I mean it. There was no customary pause between piece. The musicians of the orchestra who weren’t needed left the stage while the ones who were stayed on and played. Pauk came back out and they launched right into it. The only problem I had with this was that I had to pause for a very short second to figure out when we had started one piece and finished the other (a reaction that was shared by others).

Zipangu  was the name given to Japan at the time of Marco Polo, and, in Vivier’s words: “Within the frame of a single melody I explore in this work different aspects of color. I tried to “blur” my harmonic structure through different bowing techniques.” Indeed this exploration of different aspects of a string instrument was the main theme of the piece. Extremely lyrical, this work combined the Vivier’s typical style of string writing, with an overall goal of exploring texture. I’ve never been a huge Vivier fan, with only a few of his pieces ever impressing me enough to give them repeat listening,  and this piece was no different. I simply feel that it dragged on a bit too long, perhaps sagging a little in the middle. However, i by no means disliked it. It was an entertaining piece, and very much complimented the rest of the programme.

Canadian born, German based Samy Moussa’s two orchestral studies were possibly two of the most impressive examples of orchestra I’ve heard in a while. Very short (the run time for both the pieces combined was under ten minutes); these works explored the orchestra’s ability to produce new and exciting sounds. A focus on playing with timbre was clear, and I felt as if Moussa had simply taken a large paintbrush to a surface, and instead of painting shapes, had quickly brushed out one long stroke. Moussa studied for a time with Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, a favourite of mine, and you can hear the influence here. Lindberg’s impressive orchestration skills have clearly been passed on in some form.

I won’t spend too much time on Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, since it is a piece that has been so ingrained in the repertoire of 20th century music that reviewing it would be fairly pointless. I can only say that the orchestra played splendidly, and Teng Li showed once again why she is constantly appearing as a soloist in addition to her duties as principal viola of the TSO. Her performance was captivating, particularly the last movement, which was a slow, desolate journey through a bleak landscape.

Soloist & TSO Principal Viola Teng Li

Teng Li: Soloist & TSO Principal Viola

In the years that I have attended Esprit concerts, there are occasionally oddly programmed concerts, or concerts where the orchestra failed to shine, however this was not one of those nights. The orchestra was in top form, as was Teng Li, and the programme was well thought out. Here’s to a new season.

– Paolo Griffin

Preview: Weekend of Oct. 25th – 27th

The fast approaching weekend has another slew of events happening. Here’s what’s on in Toronto!

Friday, October 25th: Thin Edge New Music Collective presents ‘6 Degrees of Separation‘.

The Thin Edge New Music Collective gives  their first concert of their 2013/2014 season. This unique and talented group of musicians will put on a concert that attempts to establish the sonic link between composer, ensemble and audience through their performance. Pieces by composers  John Zorn, Allison Cameron, Peter Hatch, Louis Andriessen will be performed as well as a new commission by Toronto-based composer and saxophonist Kyle Brenders. It’s all going down at Gallery 345 at 8 PM, so get over there and see some music.

Saturday, October 26th: The Art of the Piano: Katarzyna Musial.

Polish-Canadian pianist Katarzyna Musial puts on a solo piano concert featuring music by great composers of the 20th century (and Chopin). Music by Messiaen, Lutoslawski, and Gorecki, just to name a few, will be played with the impressive virtuosity that Musial is known for.

This concert is also held at Gallery 345 at 8 PM. If you’re interested in music that pushes sonic borders, this show is for you.

Sunday, October 27th: Two events happening in Toronto on Sunday.

4 PM: Expressions Concert: The Dim Sum Ensemble is a Chinese/Canadian music project that is dedicated to commissioning and performing new works for Chinese instruments. Founded by composer Tony K.T. Leung, this groups concerts promise interesting and enlightening views of traditional Chinese instruments. If you have any interest in Chinese art music, or if you’re a composer looking for inspiration, I urge you to see this concert.

7:30 PM: In Pace Requiescat: Opera 5, the Toronto-based opera troupe begins their season with a spooky offering. Three nights, three short operas based on the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Operas by Debussy, American composer Daniel Pinkham, and a new work by Toronto composer Cecilia Livingston (and based on one of my favourite Poe stories) will be performed at the Toronto Arts & Letters Club. Here’s hoping for a terrifyingly entertaining night.

– Paolo Griffin

Guest Review – We Will Be the Ones…

Sometimes It’s a Good Thing to Be a Fish Out of Water.

After a harrowing streetcar trip on a gridlocked Queen Street, I power-walked my way up to the Array Space for *We will be the ones*. The concert was organized largely by Sammy Bayefsky, a current member of the University of Toronto’s composition program who also played piano for the night, and friends: Bryanna Petrie on vocals, Kintaro Akiyama on bass, Rosy Zhang on cello, and Erick Oliver Wawrzkiewicz on violin.

The premise of the concert was a bouquet of popular songs arranged for this ensemble as sung by Petrie, interspersed with some original compositions by Bayefsky and Akiyama. They professed to draw inspiration from The Art of Time Ensemble, who also do effective infusions of the art music world and the popular music world, and much like that Ensemble the two aesthetics were well-balanced.

The concert opened with a short, invocative original composition by Bayefsky, aptly named The Invocation, for four hands piano with the third and fourth hands skillfully played by Zhang. It was a great opener, meditative and expressive. It also was a fantastic lead in to the next piece, also composed by Bayefsky, and the concert’s namesake, *We will be the ones*. It began with a soothing ostinato in a curious little instrument called the mbira, which , while known by many names, I knew by kalimba, and you may be most familiar with the term thumb piano. It’s a little wooden box with stiff wooden bars suspended over a little soundbox, and in this case, thankfully amplified. I suppose it makes a sound that is hard to describe, but it’s a cool sound. I suggest you look for the instrument on YouTube.

This was also our first listen to Petrie’s voice; again, this is showing some of the aforementioned popular music ignorance, but Petrie’s voice is through-and-through possessed of that sort of folk/indie nostalgic twang that lends her performances a lot of character. I’m sure it is very reminiscent of an artist you, dear reader, are familiar with. It remained effective and idiomatic throughout the evening.

The piece after this was, incredibly, an arrangement of a song I actually know! Unprecedented, it was Harvest Moon by Neil Young, and a pretty nice arrangement by Akiyama too, who also played a great improvised solo in the middle of the tune, showing off his McGill Jazz graduate chops. After this was Succexy by Metric arr. Bayefsky, and closing with an original composition by Akiyama. This piece had some great colour and showed his jazz chops off yet again, but I feel as if Petrie’s voice could have been handled a little more effectively here. Maybe she was getting tired by the end of the first half, but she seemed to have a bit of a hard time with notes that seemed a bit too low or high, although as she displayed later in the concert her range gets pretty far up and sounded great in Case of You, a Joni Mithcell song arranged by guest arranger Britta Johnson. Hard to say what happened, but regardless, it did not seem to be a permanent problem.

I won’t go into heavy detail for the also solid second half. It opened again with another original composition for violin, cello, and piano by Bayefsky, followed by an arrangement by Bayefsky of, apparently, Petrie’s favourite Hey Rosetta! song, Bandages. Petrie also played some guitar for this one, and there were some great colours as a result of this uncommon pairing on instruments. Another original composition after this by Bayefsky entitled Say Nothing, with lyrics by Petrie. Then came the aforementioned Joni Mitchell arrangement by Johnson. The quality of the arrangement, which was a more upbeat take on the melancholic original, came as no surprise considering she’s had her music played at festivals like Stratford, Blyth, and Shaw.

The highlight of the program was the closer, In The Bachseat (more on that in a second). This arrangement of the Arcade Fire song In The Backseat was the most effective use of this weird infusion of popular and art music, new and old, arrangement and composition as it where, as it more effectively displayed a higher involvement in the craft of these infusions and a greater balance between all these different elements. The piece opens with what seemingly is Prelude in C Major from Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier by Bach. It’s a direct transcription, but slowly, some new notes pop up. You might almost think Bayefsky played the wrong note. Different harmonies creep in, different melodies. Before you know it, you’re listening to an Arcade Fire song, with that great way-less-static-than-it-looks-on-paper figuration from the Bach prelude as it’s groundwork. And, as quickly or as slowly as it came in, the song sinks back into the background where it came from, and you’re hearing the end of the prelude. I even got a little uncomfortable when he didn’t play the fugue right after it. At any rate, there is something to the interaction between idioms and aesthetics done in this way that is very compelling. Mixing classical music and popular music has long been like mixing water and oil, and it is tricky to find a way to represent both simultaneously. While I’d hesitate to say this was the key to a long locked-up new idiom, considering I don’t know the Arcade Fire song (obviously) and was looking at the arrangement/composition from the perspective granted me from the Bach prelude, it was clear to me this was the entry in the program that most revealed a greater purpose in the program. Keep going with this idea, Sammy!

In closing, some more janitorial remarks. The ensemble played confidently and cleanly, they were all solid players, especially for current students and recent graduates, and although I’ll pretentiously claim the character of Petrie’s voice isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, it’s obvious she does the style well. The Array Space is a nice, live little room that fits about 50 quite comfortably with lots of Array’s toys in it to play with, including what I assume was their microphones and amplifiers. A place to consider hosting your next chamber music event at, most certainly.

Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking surprise for me, was the alarming quality of the brownies offered during intermission, which were almost unbelievably gluten free. Now, I have no need for gluten free baking, and nor do I have the desire to conform to a gluten free diet, but this recipe must acquire greater publicity. The moistness and flavour easily rivaled those of gluten abound brownies that I have consumed. I was completely taken aback. I have friends with gluten intolerances ranging from grossly inconvenient to debilitatingly severe who would clamour for this recipe. Bryanna Petrie, and so for this fact it must be mentioned she is also a friendly and patient individual, said that she would send it to me, and I intend to hold her to that.

If you liked this review and thought this concert sounded cool, and it is still before 7pm on Thursday October 24th, well you’re in luck; the collective will be repeating this concert tonight again at the Array Space, so get over there!

– Jay Caron