Summer Festival Spotlights Music By Canada’s Own

R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3 called for the St. Lawrence String Quartet to do some shouting, which seemed fitting.
This year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival is a shout-out to Canadian composers. (Photo by James Ireland)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — As music festivals go, Toronto Summer Music isn’t a “big deal.” The festival doesn’t stage outdoor orchestra concerts for audiences in the thousands. It doesn’t present an endless parade of concerts and recitals by the world’s most celebrated musicians. Yet throughout its twelve-year history, this “little festival that could” has presented about three dozen concerts and other events annually, in a three-week window in July and early August. Mostly, the concerts are chamber programs, small in scale but impressive in quality. And mostly, the festival has focused on the tried and true: canonic classical programming that is familiar and comforting rather than obscure or controversial.

Commissioned composer Carmen Braden
 (Photo by Dave Brosha)

Canadian musicians have always been well represented at Toronto Summer Music, which runs through Aug. 5. Canadian composers? Not so much. In fact, the festival’s two previous artistic directors – Agnes Grossmann and Douglas McNabney – seemed to be intent on avoiding music from Canada. For example, the 2015 festival, billed as a celebration of the music of the Americas, featured almost nothing composed by Canadians.

But this year’s festival is different. It marks Canada’s 150th anniversary, and the sesquicentennial celebrations that have swept the land have infiltrated Toronto Summer Music’s programming. So it was announced with pride, just before the opening concert at the Royal Conservatory of Music on July 13, that this year’s festival featured works by twenty Canadian composers, including three world premieres. One is from the Canadian sub-Arctic – Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars, written for the Toronto Symphony Chamber Soloists by Carmen Braden, from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Its premiere is Aug. 2.

Flashback: Composer Barrie Cabena with students in the ’80s or early ’90s.
(Courtesy Wilfrid Laurier University Archives)

The other world premieres are an unaccompanied sonatina for violin, In Homage to J.S. Bach, by the 83-year-old Australia-born Canadian composer Barrie Cabena, heard in a recital by James Ehnes on July 17; and Carmine Skies, a string octet by Juno-nominated composer Jordan Pal, an affiliate composer of the Toronto Symphony, on July 21.

The programmed Canadian composers run a wide-ranging gamut. Some, like Pal and New York-based Canadian composer-pianist Zosha di Castri, are young, rising stars on Canada’s new-music scene. (Her first string quartet was played by the Rolston String Quartet on July 24.) But also included are a few gone-but-not-forgotten conservative mid-20th-century composers, including Healey Willan and Oskar Morawetz. There’s even a string quartet by Glenn Gould. (Yes, he was a composer.)

Jonathan Crow, director, Toronto Summer Music

The festival also marks another first — the inaugural season for artistic director Jonathan Crow, who is also the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster and a violinist in the New Orford Quartet.

The opening concert featured the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which made a strong case for Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3. Schafer is perhaps best known for his site-specific music-theater works, but the 84-year-old composer (who was in attendance) has also penned thirteen string quartets. His Third, composed in 1981, is almost as theatrical as it is musical. Throughout the first movement, players gradually emerge from the wings and the aisles, until all four are on stage.

What follows is a second movement with as much shouting as playing – rhythmic judo-style battle cries over frenetic ostinato patterns. (You can watch a video of the St. Lawrence playing the movement, on another occasion, below.) Only the work’s finale provides a sense of repose, with a thinner, static texture and what sounds like some kind of hummed plainchant.

There’s nothing comfortable about Schafer’s music: He makes use of microtones and extended instrumental techniques, his rhythms can be complex and disjunct, and his harmonic language has a way of veering to the edge of tonality, only to pull back at the last moment.

Composer R. Murray Schafer, 84, took a bow. (Photo by James Ireland)

The St. Lawrence players took the score’s demands in stride, directly aiming at the dramatic content of the piece and hitting their mark. Drama was also in abundant supply in the two other quartets on the St. Lawrence program: Haydn’s Op. 20, No. 2., and Beethoven’s Op. 131.

The July 14 concert, at the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall, shone a spotlight on Canadian violinist Martin Beaver, who was first violin in the Tokyo Quartet from 2002 to the group’s dissolution in 2013. Since then he has played in the Montrose Trio. The Canadian piece on his program was the Quatrième Danse Canadienne by the late Hector Gratton, performed with pianist Angela Park. Inspired by folk music from Quebec, it was a frothy splash of energetic fun – and a reminder that not all Canadian music is gnarly stuff.

This year’s Toronto Summer Music festival runs until Aug. 5. Additional performances of Canadian repertoire include Toronto-based Gary Kulesha’s Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello on a “String Extravaganza” program July 28. (Kulesha is composer-adviser to the Toronto Symphony.) Of Braden’s sub-Arctic Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars, which debuts toward the festival’s end, the composer writes:

“In extreme northern and southern latitudes, summer nights are bright as the sun stays above the horizon or dips just below before rising in a glow of unending twilight. Darkness is gone for months, and so are the stars and aurora. Under the glow of these soft star-less nights, I wrote five short songs imagining where the stars go when we can’t see them anymore.”

So there we have it. This time around, Canadian music has been embraced, rather than ignored, at Toronto Summer Music. Is this a unique phenomenon, driven solely by this year’s sesquicentennial celebrations? Or does it mark a long-term shift in programming priorities? Only time will tell.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.