Category Archives: Contemporary Music

Seiji Ozawa in Toronto

The Japan Foundation of Toronto recently held a celebratory event honouring the 50th anniversary of Seiji Ozawa’s arrival in Toronto as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toshi Aoyagi, the Foundation’s director of Japanese projects, displayed a large and interesting variety of photos from those early years, including a photograph of Seiji looking astonishingly young, and a giant black and white photo showing all the players, easily identifiable, on the stage of Massey Hall, its performance venue until 1982. Toshi also prepared sushi, sashimi and California rolls for 50 guests. In attendance were members of Toronto’s arts community including  the Symphony’s long time manager Walter Homberger who had played an important role in bringing Ozawa to Toronto. Also included among the guests were current and former members of the T.S.O.

åSome of the veteran players who were asked to speak briefly about their early experiences with Seiji were principal flutist Robert Aittken; principal harpist Judy Loman; myself, principal percussion; cellist Richard Armin and double bassist Ruth Budd. We had not known beforehand we’d be called upon so our comments were a bit skittish, even disjointed, but it was clear to all that Seiji  had been a respected and in some cases, a beloved maestro.

in the earliest days of Seiji’s tenure, he had some difficulty with the English language. Though we became rather close, as close as a conductor and player could or should be, he was never able to pronounce my first name Robin, because of the R. So he always called me Engelman. Of course given the Japanese order of names, correctly Ozawa Seiji, he was perfectly correct to call me Engelman, particularly when we were in Japan. Judy Loman told a wonderful story from those days. Seiji introduced her as  Mary Loman, harpist and when the orchestra laughed, Seiji turned to someone and said, “She plays harp doesn’t she?”.

I was always impressed by the acuity of Seiji’s ears and told two stories. We were rehearsing one of the Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites down on the lake under an open tent. There were thousands of seagulls squawking and swooping and dropping bombs, young children laughing, screaming and running around, airplanes taking off and landing at the small nearby airport, tour boats blaring music for parties and the ferryboats back and forth between the mainland and the islands. An impossible acoustic situation with the Ravel beginning so quietly. I couldn’t hear the contra basses to the left of me and the orchestra pianist Patricia Krueger, playing celeste, was only about 20 feet to my right. After less than two bars Seiji stopped and said, “Patty, put the pedal down”.

After Toronto, Seiji conducted in San Francisco and then the Boston Symphony. Karel Ancerl succeeded him in Toronto and when Ancerll died in mid season, Seiji came back to conduct a concert or two to fill in while the Toronto Symphony management scramble to fill their seasons concerts with conductors. Seiji programmed music from his first concert in Toronto in 1965. One of the works was Sergei Prokoffiev’s Fifth Symphony, at times densly orchestrated. Seiji was back among friends and obviously wanted to show us how he had progressed. He leaped onto the podium and after a friendly hello began conducting. After the break Seiji came back to the podium and waved to Johnny Cowell the second trumpet, “Johnny, 3 bars before H, don’t breathe after fourth beat. Take breath after second beat next measure”.

One of the things I always liked about Seiji was the fact that he rarely talked in rehearsal. Some players didn’t like this. They wanted to be told how to play, but Seiji said, “I conduct, you play”. Seiji believed questions of ensemble and string bowings were the provenance if principal players. Another collegial aspect was his willingness to share the act of re-creating music with the players.

After he programmed Ives’ 4th Symphony, Seiji asked me, “How shall we do last movement?”  The percussion section must play a quiet, nine bar ostinato, holding a steady tempo during the entire movement while the rest of the orchestra winds its way through a number of tempo changes and dynamics. As the orchestra finishes, the percussion section plays one cycle in diminuendo, ending the movement. Seiji wanted to know if the percussion section wanted him to  conduct them or ignore them. No decision had been made by the time Seiji walked on stage. As the audience applauded, he stopped by my side and said, “Well?”.  I said. “Conduct the orchestra.” “Okay” Seiji replied.  As we had earlier discussed, the percussion section, by Ives’ calculations, would ideally have 9 measures remaining after the orchestra finished. Otherwise, if we concentrated and kept track, the farthest afield we’d drift would probably be in the range of 10 or 12 measures. We were just about dead on.

Seiji conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty nine years. He wanted to break Serge Koussevitzkyi’s record of twenty five years. Vic Firth, Seiji’s close friend and timpanist of the B.S.O. told me when Seiji heard he was going to retire, Seiji called and said, “Vic, don’t retire now, stay until you make 50 years!”. Vic made it.

Toronto was Seiji’s first job as conductor and music director.  Since then he has become a national treasure in Japan. I’ve always thought that Seiji did his best work with contemporary music. I heard, but cannot confirm that his management dissuaded him from conducting contemporary music. However, a composer friend told me he’d overheard a conversation wherein Seiji was told by his manager not to conduct my friend’s music anymore. And so he seemed to do.

My first year in the orchestra we played Charles Ives Symphony No. 4, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, Iannis Xenakis’ Pithoprakta, (conducted byJames Levine, no less) for 46 string instruments, two trombones, xylophone, and woodblock, about a half a dozen works by Takemitsu, a recording of Takemitsu’s music, Gunther Schuller’s 7 Studies on Themes of  Paul Klee and a number of other works I cannot now remember.  I missed playing Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony by one year. The excitement was palpable every time Seiji conducted. I was working with a conductor only two years older than myself – one who genuinely enjoyed new music and made audiences enjoy it as well.

During Seiji’s tenure, I looked forward to rehearsals and performances. He was a conductor I never had to watch. Simply by listening, I knew where the music was going. If a player extended a note a bit longer then usual, Seiji would accept that and the piece would change.

Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

Seiji Ozawa, 2011.

Seiji Ozawa, 2012.





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Christa Mercey – Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil, the main tent.

Cirque du Soleil, the main tent.

I’ve always loved free stuff and now that I’m living on pensions, I really love free stuff. My eyes have gone far enough south for grits, but they’ve provided me a free pass on public transit vehicles. This pass, my car’s handicap sticker and plans for two Liquor Control Board outlets within easy walking distance of my condo, are perks that make life more comfortable and stretch my dollars.

When Christa Mercey called with an offer of two free Cirque du Soleil tickets, my faith in the benefits of old age and former students continued to percolate. Of course I said yes and a few days later my wife and I slipped into a free parking space reserved for Cirque employees. This saved us a $20 parking fee. We dropped my handicap sticker on the dash board just in case. Christa, in make up, met us at the security gate  and ushered us into Cirque du Soleil’s main tent.

Cirque du Soleil is a Canadian company, founded in 1984 in Montreal. It is a version of contemporary Circus whose shows are built around stories or themes and relying upon costumes, lighting and acting more than live animal acts. My wife and I saw the first Cirque du Soleil show in Toronto and our eyes were opened to what else a circus could be. Cirque du Soleil now exceeds US$810 million, and its nouveau cirque shows have been seen by nearly 90 million spectators in over 200 cities on five continents.(Wikipedia)

Once Inside, a box of pop corn and a soft pretzel set us back 11 bucks, but so what. We were well ahead in the exchange game. The tent holds 2,700 people. Tickets for the Cirque begin at 60 bucks for a child 12 years or younger and surges to $160. Then they rise faster than an atheist at a Pentecostal baptism, to the VIP Experience which costs $265. For them shekels, you get a plastic bag containing an autographed photo and other things suitable for a plastic bag.

But we knew Christa Mercey! She got us isle seats in the VIP section 6 rows from the stage, dead centre. See photo below.

Cirque du Soleil, main stage just before the downbeat.

Cirque du Soleil main stage with curios just before the downbeat.

Christa is Cirque’s percussionist and Kit Chatham, a former drum soloist with the drum and bugle corps show Blast , is Cirque’s set drummer. Kit has been with Cirque for ten years and Kurios is his sixth show. Christa’ joined  Cirque for the first time last November in Montreal for the creation of Kurios. All the musicians open the show by parading through the audience in costume. There is a bass player/ band leader, a guitarist, accordionist/keyboardist, a violinist, a singer, and a cellist/keyboardist. And do they ever earn their keep.

Because of my eyes, I didn’t see much of the show.  However I did see a glamour of legs, upright and writhing seductively from a mound of bodies like tentacles on a sea anemone. The legs belonged to young women who uncoiled themselves and did things with their bodies, unimagined or only dreamt of by mere mortals. During intermission a net was raised across the stage about ten feet in the air. When the lights came on, a group of young men began trampolining to absurd heights, eventually hurling one team member to a platform at the top of the tent.

The show is called Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities and the stage was covered with curios. The main acts were contortionists, gymnasts, aerialists, balancing acts and clowns, historic staples of any circus,were exceptionally good. . Though I could not see what they were doing, the clowns made the audience laugh. The music was written for the show and contains Indian, mid-eastern and gypsy influences and never mimics the up tempo, off beat style of traditional circus music.

The show is fast paced and the musicians were terrific. Just about everyone of them had their moment on stage. Christa and Kit brought the house down with complex and flashy cross-sticking solos and duets on indefinable curios. During the rest of the show, Christa played her  xylophone, celeste, glockenspiel, timpani, bass drum and gong on the MalletKAT. Acoustic percussion included bongos, tom-toms, snare drum and accessories.

Just off stage, Christa's percussion set up with TV monitor.

Just off stage, Christa’s percussion set up with TV monitor.


As usual in a circus, the drummer provided ‘hits’ to accent climactic moments during on stage acts. The  accordionist and violinist each provided a virtuoso, tour de force solo equalling the acrobats who closed the show. When everyone came on stage for bows, they received a standing ovation.

Christa took us back stage. Some of the acrobats had already begun practicing in a large, tent covered space. As I looked around, I was impressed with the amount of gear and people needed to keep this show on the road. Christa told us how on closing night, the crew would have the rehearsal space and tent dismantled and packed away by the time the cast members had taken their last bow. From Christa we learned the musicians played with a click track. Personally, I dislike click tracks, but I suppose given the pace and complexity of Kurios and the fact there is no conductor, some controlling mechanism would be necessary. The click track did explain the occasional lack of coordination between the music, most obviously the drummer, and cliamatic moments in high flying acts. How could an aerialist always catch his partner precisely in time with a metronome?

Cirque du Soleil is an exciting experience. Christa’s role demands percussion virtuosity and charasmatic stage presence, both well within her wheel house. The weeks are long, the show is an endurance test, but Christa’s enjoying herself and her career continues to grow.

Cirque du Soleil packs its tent on 26 October and leaves for San Francisco.

Christa Mercey, percussionist Cirque du Soleil, out of costum, but still in make up with Eleanor after the show.

Christa Mercey, percussionist Cirque du Soleil, out of costum, but still in make up with Eleanor after the show.

Christa Mercey graduated from the University of Toronto Faculty of Music with a Bachelor of Music degree in percussion performance and played with Toronto based TorQ Percussion Quartet and Scrap Artas Music before accepting an offer from Cirque du Soleil to play percussion and the part of Bela Donna on their Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities Tour. The tour began in Montreal and after the Toronto run , it moves to San Francisco, Seattle and Calgary.




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Barbara Hannigan redux

Barbara Hannigan predicts that conducting will eventually take up half of her work schedule. 

In fact, barring the need for surgical removal of an appendix, the hands and arms can be an even bigger problem, since they are inescapably visible. Aspiring vocalists may take years to learn to use their hands expressively or, alternatively, to keep them out of mind, if not out of sight.

This sort of career realignment is rare among singers. Ms. Hannigan cites the parallel example of the French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, who conducts and often sings at the same time.

The tenor and baritone Plácido Domingo is the best-known example of a classical vocalist who conducts regularly, though typically in the opera pit, where he is not singing at the same time.

But why not do both on the concert stage? Ms. Hannigan sees no reason not to, arguing that singers actually have an advantage over instrumentalist-conductors who play along with an orchestra: precisely that availability of hands and arms, otherwise idle, to lead the band.

“You sing like a conductor,” colleagues used to tell Ms. Hannigan of her musical personality and stage manner, she said in an interview on Sunday. And you can see some of that when she conducts while singing.

In three splendidly delivered Mozart arias here, her beating of time and cues to players often seemed mere amplifications of expressive gestures she might have made anyway. Since much (most?) of a conductor’s job takes place in rehearsal, she was able to leave a lot of the last-minute coordination and balancing of parts to the concertmaster.

Colleagues have also told Ms. Hannigan that her arm movements are particularly expressive, she said, and this, too, was borne out in her conducting of purely instrumental works: Rossini’s “Scala di Seta” Overture, Ligeti’s “Concerto Romanesc” and Fauré’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Her arms seemed fluid, elbowless entities, shoulder to wrist, evoking curvilinear waves of sound, and she did not use a baton.

This is one reason that Ms. Hannigan, unlike many other female conductors, chooses not to shroud her arms, or her femininity as a whole, in, say, a dark suit. She wore one for her conducting debut, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2010, and that was the last time.

“I thought, ‘I never wear a suit to sing,’ ” she said. “ ‘Never, ever. That isn’t my uniform.’ ”

She decided that from then on, she would wear “something that suited the music, suited the program,” she said.

For her concert on Saturday, she wore a glittery knee-length sheath until the grand finale, Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre,” a series of high-flying arias drawn from the composer’s nonsensical opera “Le Grand Macabre.” Ms. Hannigan, a specialist in modern and contemporary music who recently won great acclaim in productions of Berg’s “Lulu” and George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin,” has made this work — which she has sung often — her calling card.

She says she now sings it only when conducted by the English maestro Simon Rattle, a frequent and favorite collaborator, or — more often — herself. She performs it in vampy black leather, high-heeled platform boots and a wig, and inevitably brings the house down, as she did on Saturday.

Mr. Rattle has mentored Ms. Hannigan and sent her to the wizardly Finnish maestro and pedagogue Jorma Panula, who, Mr. Rattle says, came out of retirement to guide her.

“We’ve only worked together for eight or nine years,” said Mr. Rattle, who is in town to work with students of the Lucerne Festival Academy, “but it quickly became apparent that she is one of the best musicians out there. When she brought up the notion of conducting, I was surprised but not staggered. It seemed a fairly normal thing to do.”

A latecomer to conducting, Ms. Hannigan now faces the challenge of building up an orchestral repertory while maintaining a busy singing career in Europe and expanding it in North America. But Ms. Hannigan, with musicality to burn, says she is in it for the long haul.

“Conducting is now 20 percent of my schedule,” she estimated. “Eventually it will be 50-50, and then I will only conduct.”

She looks to tackle bigger orchestral works, with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in the offing. (Ms. Hannigan will sing the soprano solo in the finale of that work in a performance here on Sept. 6, with Matthias Pintscher conducting the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra.)

She also looks to conduct opera, with Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” being a possible starting point.

For her and audiences alike, it promises to be quite a ride.


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Barbara Hannigan, Art and Virtuosity

Barbara Hannigan studied singing at the Music Faculty of the University of Toronto with Mary Morrison. She then moved to London, England for studies at the Guild Hall School. Her next big decision was to live in Amsterdam and her career took off.  A spectacular New Year’s Eve concert ended with Barbara resplendent in flowing white, standing high above thousands of revellers in Amsterdam’s city square, singing a melismatic accompaniment to a popular rock and roll song. Written especially for her extremely high tessatura, it was a tour de force that can be seen on YouTube.

Barbara has appeared more often with the Berliner Philharmoniker then any other soprano. Specializing in new music, she has premiered operas and chamber music throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Barbara has also toured with chamber ensembles and has become involved as an artistic director of festivals.

Her recent portrayal of Alban Berg’s Lulu caused a sensation in Europe. In the first act, Barbara, as Lulu, lay spread eagle in bright blue panties while a man, his cheek resting on a bare inner thigh, gazes at her crotch and strokes her clitoris. Later in scene 3, Barbara in a tutu dances on pointe while singing. Ballerinas are traditionally employed in this scene, but Barbara wanted to dance as Lulu, as a dancer in the opera would have done. Another tour de force.

As a student, Barbara began singing sentimental songs from the early 20th c. on Nexus concerts. I also had the pleasure of conducting her when she performed Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh in Toronto.

Encouraged by Simon Rattle, she  began conducting as well as singing her concerts. Below I have attached a partial review of the recent Lucerne Festival by James R. Oestreich, from 17 August New York Times.

A late-night concert on Saturday proved a tour de force for the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who is taking up a second career as a conductor. Singing maestros are a rarity. The tenor Plácido Domingo conducts some, as did the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau late in his career, both typically sticking to either conducting or singing.

But Ms. Hannigan is intent on combining the two, as she did here with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which forms the basis of the festival orchestra, in the KKL. She conducted orchestral works by Rossini, Fauré and Ligeti fluidly and more than capably. She sang three Mozart arias beautifully, facing the audience and using slightly exaggerated expressive gestures to cue the players, but she also knew when to leave well enough alone or to the concertmaster.

She inevitably made her biggest splash with her calling card, “Mysteries of the Macabre,” three arias from Ligeti’s zany opera “Le Grand Macabre,” sung in kinky black leather or a semblance thereof. (New Yorkers may recall Ms. Hannigan’s brilliant performance in the opera with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic in 2010.) Here, in character (the head of the secret police), Ms. Hannigan’s conductorial gestures became more assertive and aggressive.

Barbara Hannigan in costume backstage with conductor Reinbert de   Leeuw after a performance of Ligett's "Mysteries of the Macabre" in Lincoln Center, New York.

Barbara Hannigan in costume backstage with conductor Reinbert de Leeuw after a performance of Ligett’s “Mysteries of the Macabre” in Lincoln Center, New York.

The conductor Simon Rattle, in town for work with the academy and Ms. Hannigan, made a brief cameo appearance, stalking down the aisle to take the stage and interrupt the performance with the immortal spoken line “What the hell is going on here?” It was all in good fun, as was Ms. Hannigan’s performance, though no one tried to answer that question.

How far will — or can — Ms. Hannigan take this new venture as she maintains a busy singing career? To opera? To Mahler symphonies?

That remains to be seen. But to the extent that sheer musicality and personality can do the trick, she seems to have it all, and you probably wouldn’t be wise to bet against her.

The Lucerne Festival runs through Sept. 14;


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Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan

If one ignores the fact that over half their players are new to the group, one could say the Evergreen Club has been around for 30 years.  Blair Mackay  the Club’s director since 1993, acted as host for the 2nd of 2 concerts held at Array Space on 22 June, 2014.

For some reason Blair chose to program music written for the club in the early 1990s. This decision was not explained and I thought it a bit odd that none of the music written for them in the last decade or more had been programmed.  Only four of the10 performers could be considered Club old timers, Blair Mackay, Andrew Timar, Mark Duggan and Bill Parsons. Perhaps some of them had played these works 20 years ago. Perhaps that, or lack of rehearsal time could explain the vintage repertoire.

The two opening works were by Andrew Timar, the Club’s resident Suling (flute) player and one of its founding members. Then followed works by the late Nic Gotham, Henry Kucharzyk, the late John Wyre and finally the club founder in 1983, John Siddall.

All the works were engaging if sometimes too long. With the exception of  Andrew Timar’s The Quality of Mercy, all were well played.  The Quality of Mercy opens with a number of conducted single strokes, none of which were together.  I mentioned this to a friend of mine who told me the effect was intended. Sorry, I apologize.

There was some brilliant xylophone playing by Mark Duggan on what sounded to me like simple wooden slats. Michelle Colton played steel pan in John Wyre’s Island of Silence (1994). There were no program notes, an ommission I found inexcusable for older works and especially for an anniversary concert. I believe Island of Silence was written for Paul Ormandy and if memory serves, the premier was in the Glenn Gould theater. Michelle’s performance on steel pan was fluid and well-balanced. Her steel pan notes end with a “twang” and that was more than a bit disturbing. At any rate, to my ears the steel pan simply did not fit into the ensemble’s sound.

Henry Kucharzyk’s 1992 Toy Garage was for me the best work on the program with Palace (1993) by Jon Siddall a close 2nd.

It used to bother me that everything the Club played was in the same key. The thought again crossed my mind, but this evening it was not off putting. The club has good players and their control of complex rhythms and dynamics is remarkably good.

All the more reason to wonder how a group that commissioned composers such as Lou Harrison, John Cage, Gilles Tremblay, Jim Tenney and more, has survived 30 years in Toronto and today, is unable to attract an audience larger than about 25 people. I was told attendance at the first concert of these two was similar. That is pitiable. Was the lack of attendance due to World Cup soccer, lack of promotion, or a lack of interest?

The reasons for poor attendence are often difficult to determine, but one must wonder how the group’s development is being handled. Blair welcomed the new members to “the Evergreen family”, Ryan Scott, Dan Morphy, Michelle Colton, Rick Sacks, Etienne Levesque and Adam Campbell. They are some of Toronto’s best and busiest musicians.

Are they now members of the Club, or was Blair’s reference to family a bit disingenuous? If allowed input, they’d surely elevate audience size and much more. I’m very interested to find out if the new blood has some effect on the Club’s future.



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A Howard Hanson Opera in Carnegie Hall. 7 May, 2014.

We arrived in New York about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and had time to check into our hotel,  unpack and grab a bite to eat before going to Carnegie Hall. The concert we’d hear was being given by the Rochester Philharmonic and was devoted entirely to a concert presentation of Howard Hanson’s opera Merry Mount. Including the orchestra and chorus, more than 1000 people had come from Rochester to display their cultural mores in the Big Apple. Spring for Music  is the idea of Thomas Morris, its Artistic Director and CEO. Morris is a past manager of the Boston and Cleveland Orchestras and at present, director of the prestigious Ojai Festival held among the plush hills north of Los Angeles. Thomas and I are casual acquaintances. He began his life in music as a percussionist and on occasion has had opportunities to practice his early craft. In Cleveland he played cymbals with a professional band conducted by Fredrick Fennel. In Ojai, Nexus invited him to play triangle and cymbals in Les Noces. Both were captured on CDs, which prove him a superior player and musician when he’s not shepherding other people towards fulfilling their music endeavors.

The beauty of Spring for Music took some time for me to appreciate. Its mandate is to encourage creative, experimental programming free of financial or commercial considerations and not normally undertaken by the ensemble. Interesting submissions receive invitations to New York City and financial support from a bevy of foundations and wealthy individuals. Secondarily it provides a rallying point for community leaders and patrons of the arts and of course, an opportunity to play in iconic Carnegie Hall.

Some of the most recent participants have included the New York Philharmonic which gave the New York City premier of Chris Rouse’s Requiem, the Seattle Symphony which played the large work Become Ocean by John Luther Adams and the Winnipeg Symphony which programed contemporary Canadian works including Murray Schafer’s First Symphony. In an subsidiary category, the Buffalo Philharmonic is leading with the largest cohort of native supporters  attending the festival.

While waiting in the third floor Carnegie bar for a signal to take our seats, my wife and I joined a couple at their table. After an uncomfortable silence my wife asked if they were from Rochester and they said they were. They then asked us where we lived and we said Toronto. An awkward silence ensued until the woman asked incredulously, “Did you come to hear the orchestra?”

The subtext of her question was obvious. “Who would come from Toronto to hear the Rochester Philharmonic?”  She had exposed a provincials inferiority and became even more uncomfortable. I could have answered no and told her truthfully that we had booked the wrong week of concerts. We had planned to hear the Philadelphia and Atlanta orchestras last week, but after discovering our hotel and airline booking errors, we decided to embrace fate rather than trying to change arrangements that now included Rochester and the New York Philharmonic. But I didn’t. Instead, after a short silence I told them I had played in the Rochester Philharmonic 48 years ago. Now, incredulity was replaced by  perplexity. The couple were saved by the arrival of Rochester friends and we were forgotten. My wife and I slipped away.

Our box had the worse seats I’ve had in my entire concert going life. It held eight people and we sat at the very back on bar stools, our heads about a foot from the ceiling and it was hot. All we could see were the backs of the other occupants heads with no view at all of the stage. I complained to the captain of the concessioneres who said she’d do what she could, but I was not expecting any relief. Voila, just before the downbeat, our door opened and the captain urged us to quickly follow her.

She led us to an empty box directly in the center of the tier and said, “It’s all yours”. Indeed it was. The box to the right of us held an engineer and producer from radio station WQXR. During intermission I heard someone calling my name and was surprised to see David Smith in the box to our left. As a young boy David had begun his percussion studies with me in Rochester and went on to a lifetime career in the U.S. Army Band at West Point.

The Hanson work was suggested byTom Morris. Hanson’s orchestration was always turning corners to reveal new and interesting sonic vistas, never relinguishing its professionalism to boredom. This talent has kept his works alive. But the chorus stole the show. They were prepared and never fell below fabulous. They produced hair-raising fortissimos and delicate pianissimo passages, all beautifully in tune and with clarity of diction. Though occasionally submerging the Philharmonic strings and winds, the choristers were too good to fault. Together with the important snare drum rhythms, they never slowed the music’s forward momentum. I felt those rare quivers of joy which come when performers are peaking and can’t wait for the next note.

Rochester Philharmonic with towels and fans in Carnegie Hall, NYC, 7 May, 2014.

Rochester Philharmonic with towels and fans in Carnegie Hall, NYC, 7 May, 2014.

As a football fan I’m used to seeing 80,000 people waving magic towels at their home team, but I was bemused when the crowd from Rochester pulled out Philharmonic towels and started waving them at the stage. But it didn’t end there. After the third curtain call, orchestra and chorus members waved their own towels at the standing audience. Okay, whatever turns you on.

The first performance of Merry Mount ,Op. 31 took place on 10 February, 1934 and received 50 curtain calls. At least that’s what the program said.

After 4 years of what the New Yorker Magazine music critic Alex Ross called the best idea to hit New York in decades, Spring for Music, due to a lack of funding has given us its last year. Poor New York and poor US. Well Tom, you tried. See you at the next incarnation of whatever. It’ll be good no matter what it is.


Howard Hanson (b.1896, Wahoo, Nebraska. d. 1981)  was a distinguished composer and educator. At the request of George Eastman, Hanson became the director of the Eastman School of Music and guided its developement into one of the most prestigious music schools in North America.

One of the last concerts I played in Rochester was in Kilbourn Hall with Hanson conducting the Rochester Philharmonic core orchestra. Hanson used these year end concerts to present his Quiet Music Award to a student composer. This year Hansen faced the audience and told them there would be no winner. The student compositions had become too brash, dissonant and loud to deserve the honor. I believe this was the last concert he conducted at the Eastman School.


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Jörg Widmann. Deja vu all over again.

During the 1960s and 70s, the good ole days(?), I was playing a great deal of contemporary music. Perhaps it was the best of times and the worst of times. After all, a revolution was in progress.

Many of the contemporary composers and performers who came to Toronto were experimenting with new techniques for instruments and forms of composition. This sometimes required local musicians to learn 3 or 4 new systems of notation for each concert and find their way through a veritable maze of unfamiliar manuscripts. It was a communal experience organized by Bob Aitken’s New Music Concerts.

The notation didn’t affect percussionists very much – we only had to deal with an enormous amount of instruments, but it certainly did affect oboists, trombonists and flutist’s. That was because of Holliger, Globokar and Nicolet the French teacher and flute virtuoso. Those were the beginning days of the so-called extended techniques. Usually the sounding of 2, 3, or 4 notes at once and making sounds they’d never heard a day earlier. The player not only had to hear differently, or hear different things, but had also to learn the new notation for these things. Multi-phonics and other techniques had entered our lives.

I grew tired of hearing our local players squeak and squawk as they tried to play these extended techniques in rehearsals. In fact, I actually feared the possibility of hearing them trying over and over again. I worked on developing a feigned nonchalance. Put simply, their struggles were not worthy.

These memories were revived when I went to hear Jörg Widmann  play and conduct his music on 18 April, 2014 in the Betty Oliphant theater. The most lengthy work was titled Dubairische Tanze in nine movements. Each movement concentrated on the sounds, extended techniques I’d heard Heinze and Vinko play 30 or 40 years ago, but then, only in moderation.

Jörg Widmann took all of those sounds, and more, and put them together into a complete language for his compositions. It was exciting stuff and he used many techniques our jobbers – people who played contemporary music together only a few times a year, could play convincingly. If memory serves, Widmann had written one very brief violin passage that could pass muster as a traditional melody. The work was terrific and the orchestration was exquisite. Those things I’d heard long ago had developed new expressions and new players in my absence.  It was akin to greeting someone you’d not seen for 40 years and perhaps had mixed feelings about.

During the 1970s Heinz Holliger and Vinko Globokar appeared in Toronto 3 or 4 times, Heinz playing his oboe and Vinko his trombone. Both of these men were at the forefront of music exploration. They were finding new ways to play their instruments and producing new sounds. Our comprehension was of a level so low, they often had to teach us their compositions by rote, note by note. Globokar was particularly good at this.[1.]  The venue of choice at the time was Walter Hall in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.

I remember sitting in Walter Hall with Toru Takemitsu as Toronto harpist Erica Goodman played one of his solo works. During a short break Toru turned to me and said, “She’s a perfect harpist”. Toru had similalyy praised the playing of Heinz Holliger and Vinko Globokar.

After Widmann’s large work, he played one of his clarinet solos. He is after all a clarinetist of no mean reputation. The solo he chose to play on the 1st half was for B-flat clarinet and quite frankly I’ve not heard that kind of control and fluidity on any instrument in years. He began multi-phonics as smoothly as a common Bflat and slid from fortissimo to pianissimo as easy as pie. My goodness.

I’m sure if Toru had been sitting next to me in the Betty Oliphant Theatre a week ago he would’ve turned to me and said,” He’s a perfect clarinetist”.

[1.] In 1970, Lukas Foss (1920-2009) organised a concert involving all the performers and composers Toru Takemitsu had invited to the Space Theater at Expo 70 Osaka, Japan. Lukas paired us up and gave each of us  wrist bands with directions for an”improvisation” he had devised. I brought a large cow-bell, a mallet and a cello bow to this party and Vinko, his trombone. After a few minutes I had expended my repertoire of sounds and sat listening raptly to Vinko who was making sounds I had never associated with a trombone. He then begam dissassembling the trombone and playing even more facinating sounds. After all that, Vinko gestured  for me to give him my cello bow. He started bowing all the trombone parts ending with the bell, sometimes a most mellifluous sound, others screechingly dissonant. A few years later, Vinko came to Toronto with some of his chamber music compositions. He and I had stayed in touch during the interval and this time I was ready for him. Besides being a great trombonist, Vinko for some time was in charge of IRCAM in Paris.


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