Category Archives: Contemporary Music

New Creations Festival, Toronto, 2015

During the eight days from 28 February to 7 March, 2015, more contemporary music in the good to great category was heard in Roy Thompson Hall than in any previous season. The benefactor behind this musical munificence was the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival (NCF), a yearly celebration of new music written for symphony orchestra.

The guest conductor and curator of this year’s festival was English composer and Cambridge University teacher, George Benjamin (b.1960). Benjamin selected the most substantive compositions and shared conducting duties with the Toronto Symphony’s resident conductor Peter Oundjian. Three of the festival’s five major compositions were chosen to accommodate the presence of soprano Barbara Hannigan. Ms. Hannigan has become an influential voice in new music. She has premiered more than 80 works, all written for her exceptional musicality, technique, her extremely high tessatura and her ability to memorize challenging scores. She has appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker on more occasions than any other soloist and had her first experience conducting when Sir Simon Rattle suggested she share the baton with him during performances of William Walton’s Facade in which Ms. Hannigan also sang.

Ms. Hannigan began her NCF labours of love with A Mind of Winter by George Benjamin. A Mind of Winter is no great test of Ms. Hannigan’s skills, but she sang from memory, as she did with all the works she performed. The work is a generally quiet, beautiful landscape allowing the soprano’s first note to appear through the orchestra’s haze like magic, beginning innaudibly and gradually swelling into an expressive blossom. She was in fine voice. It was also abundantly clear that Benjamin is a splendid composer and conductor.

The concert on 4 March opened with a premier of a Toronto Symphony Commission, Lieder und Arien by Chris Paul Harman (1970). I was not looking forward to this. Years ago, I can’t remember how many, I played a work by Chris during one of the early years of the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop, conducted by its founder Gary Kulesha. Chris’ antique cymbal part was a mess of notes. It looked to be a cadenza for an avant garde violin concerto. I explained to Chris the problems his writing posed for a percussionist, but wasn’t sure he was listening. The memory of that experience and subsequent hearings of Harman’s music, was greatly ameliorated by Lieder und Arien which contained some very fine moments of orchestration. Though Lieder und Arien is an arrangement of music by Bach, it sounded original at times and I was relieved to have my first experience with Harman’s music put behind me.

George Benjamin’s Duet for Piano and orchestra (2008) was next. It sounded to me very much as Benjamin described it, a challenging exercise for combining a piano with orchestra in some real duet form other than the typical concerto. This one left no impression on me.

However, the second half of the concert was given over to one work, Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you for Soprano and Orchestra (2012-13). Fortunately, Mr. Abrahamsen was not available for an interview. Considering the size of his  orchestra, Abrahamsen (b.1952) has created an intimate work, stunningly beautiful and complex. Written as a “dramatic monologue” with Barbara Hannigan “very much in mind”, let me tell you was commissioned and premiered by the Berliner Philharmoniker. The text for let me tell you is from Sir Paul Griffiths’ book of the same name and contains all the words spoken by Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But Abrahamsen’s Ophelia “uses those words in different ways and, certainly, to express herself differently”.

I heard Sir Simon Rattle conduct the premiere performance of this work via the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall which is beamed into my television set in real time from Germany. Then as now, Barbara sang from memory and unobtrusively floated above the accompanying cushion of sound. Mr. Griffiths’ wife and Ms Hannigan deserve our thanks for planting the seed that became let me tell you.  It is a moving work of art

The festival’s last concert was devoted entirely to George Benjamin’s opera, Written on Skin. I had heard its premier performance on YouTube, fully staged  and conducted by the composer with Ms. Hannigan singing the primary role of Agnes. But You Tube reproductions are excretions. The NCF concert brought the truth of this work home. The mistreatments of characters, physical and mental, and the brutal rape scene were left to one’s imagination. The singing was terrific, but baritone Christopher Purves must be singled out. He was first to sing the role of  Protector when Written on Skin was premiered at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. The libretto for Written on Skin was taken from a 13- century razo, literally reason or cause, prefacing a Troubadour’s poem.

Written on Skin never reverts to clichés, nor does it wander. Every twist and turn is new, maintaining one’s attention through the last note. It is, if you will, a perfectly compact work of genius. It reminded me of Dutilleux. Clusters of brilliant ever changing sounds, miniature compositions in their own right, weaving their way through the orchestra, each clear and precisely crafted. The orchestra players must have enjoyed themselves. The section players had material perfectly written for their instruments and they played them, especially the brass, winds and percussion, with sensitivity and assurance. The audience reception matched any I’ve heard in Roy Thompson Hall. I attended all the Concertgebouw Orchestra concerts and none of them received standing ovations as lengthy or filled with such palpable appreciation, as this one.

This year Toronto NCF audiences were blessed with music of rare quality and soloists of the first water.  I could not, nor would I, attempt to choose between them. Let’s hope T.S.O. management can entice curators and soloists of similar expertise and quality to grace Toronto for future New Creations Festivals.

The question arises, why are such dramatic experiences relegated to three concerts in mid-winter? And why, given Oundjian’s violin heritage, are the T.S.O strings in such dismal shape? One wag seated near me opined, “Most of the violinists appear to be women and they play like exhausted housewives”. I hope they are not, but somebody needs to get them excited about something and that’s the conductor’s job.

As I blissfully made my way towards the exit, someone nearby said, “They’re having an after concert talk”. Sure enough the cast and conductor had returned and were seated in a semi-circle mid stage. I sped up my retreat and had almost reached the exit when I heard Oundjian say to Benjamin, “That was fabulous. George, how did you do that?”. OMG.


Mr. Oundjian was born in Toronto of Armenian and English parents. He studied in England and before he began conducting full time, was for fourteen years principal violinist of the Tokyo string Quartet. He’s a good talker with a pleasing and uncondescending haut British accent still beloved of many Toronto art patrons.  Now, if he’d just learn to stop talking. A request rumoured to be heard among Toronto Symphony players.

Barbara Hannigan studied vocal singing with Mary Morrison as an undergraduate at the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto. During that period she performed with Nexus, singing ballads and sentimental songs from the early 20th-century. She studied in London, England and then moved to Amsterdam where she lives today. Though her “signature” piece is György Ligeti’s Mysterie of the Macabre, arranged by Elgar Howarth in 1979 from Ligeti’s Opera le Grand Macabre, written from 1974-97, she has always been devoted to contemporary music and has established herself in the forefront of 21st-century music performers.











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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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