WMCT at 125: Historical Perspectives

For this special season, Artistic Director Simon Fryer has created an imaginative series reflecting on the past 125 years of the WMCT, of the city of Toronto, and of international music history. For the concerts, based on an anchor work from the period, music historian Robin Elliott has prepared illustrated talks on the momentous events in each 25-year period of the annals of the WMCT.

1. 1899 to 1923          

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1899) and the WMCT’s first 25 years
Quatuor Despax, 17 November 2022

When plans were laid in 1898 for the founding of the WMCT, Queen Victoria, the only monarch Canadians had known since Confederation, had reigned for more than 60 years; in 1896 she had become the longest-reigning British monarch, surpassing her grandfather George III. Canada was a proud Dominion and a loyal member of the British Empire, on which “the sun never set,” so extensive were its constituent global possessions.

Exactly one month before the inaugural WMCT recital, Canada issued the world’s first Christmas stamp, on which the territories of the British Empire were shown in red. “We hold a vaster empire than has been,” boasted the text at the bottom of the stamp. The phrase is a quotation from “A Song of Empire,” a jingoist poem written by Sir Lewis Morris in 1887 for the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. “Nigh half the race of man is subject to our Queen,” the poem continues, “Nigh half the wide, wide world is ours in fee, and where her rule comes, all are free.” Or so it seemed to those safely ensconced at the heart of the empire.

The first WMCT recital was given in a music studio in the Yonge Street Arcade in Toronto on January 23, 1899. Two years later to the day, the front page of the Globe newspaper announced the death of Queen Victoria. News of this momentous event reached Canada almost immediately, thanks to the transatlantic telegraph cables that had been in operation since the 1860s. The worldwide reaction in September 2022 to the death of Queen Elizabeth II gives us some idea of how people experienced the death of her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, 121 years earlier. Much of public life in Canada ground to a halt for the two weeks between Queen Victoria’s death and her funeral on February 2nd, 1901, followed by her burial two days later. Public buildings were draped in black, businesses were closed, concerts and other public events were cancelled. The WMCT, though, was quick to resume activities after the official period of mourning was over: a recital of music by Liszt and Wagner was held on February 7th, 1901, just three days after the Queen’s interment.

The death of Queen Victoria was the signal event of the beginning of this 25-year period, but the First World War was the cataclysmic tragedy that left its permanent, indelible mark on this period of world history, shaking Western civilization to its very foundations. The modern technology of military weaponry, combined with the horrors of trench warfare, resulted in an unthinkable level of carnage on the European battlefields. To mark the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017, I read Pierre Berton’s Vimy (1986), a memorable and harrowing account that describes in unforgettable, haunting detail what it was like to be a foot soldier on the front lines.

Relying on the memoirs of Claude Williams, a 21-year-old medical student from Hamilton at the time of the Vimy battle, Berton writes: “The scenes of death on all sides were not heroic but sickening. Williams passed one man lying in a deep shell hole crying “Water! Water!” The top of his head had been blown off, exposing his brain. Fraser noted it too, and couldn’t help thinking that the brains looked rather like fish roe. That sort of thing was never shown in Victorian paintings of gallant officers expiring slowly in the arms of their comrades … Never again would war be referred to as ‘noble’.” By the end of the war, more than 65,000 Canadians would die in service, about ten percent of those who served; more than 172,000 were wounded. Timothy Findley captured the psychological and physical brutality of the conflict in his novel The Wars (1977), viewing the horrors of the “war to end all wars” through the eyes of Robert Ross, a fictional 19-year-old Canadian soldier. The novel was subsequently made into a movie in 1983, for which Glenn Gould provided the music.

While information on WMCT recitals is somewhat spotty during this period, especially for the initial years of the First World War, we do have a sufficient record of activities to know that the club managed to continue its recitals throughout the war. The club could point to its fund-raising activities, which included an $8,000 donation to the Red Cross, as proof of its relevance during the time of war. During this time, the WMCT was gradually transforming from a mainly private club that offered recitals by its members, to an organization presenting concerts by professional musicians (male and female) from Canada and abroad. The wartime fund-raising efforts benefitted from this new professionalization of the WMCT’s events.

The 15-storey Traders Bank tower at 67 Yonge Street (built 1905–06 and still standing).

Toronto experienced a striking period of growth and transformation during the first 25 years of the WMCT. In 1898, the city’s sidewalks were made of wood and illuminated at night by gas lamps. With the introduction of cheap electricity generated by Niagara Falls in 1911, the last gaslights were replaced by electric lighting. Over the next twenty years wooden sidewalks were replaced too, initially by asphalt and brick ones, and then by concrete beginning in the 1920s. Cheap electric power led not just to brighter and safer streetscapes, but also to economic growth. By 1911, manufacturing was the largest source of employment in Toronto, attracting workers from surrounding rural areas and contributing to the growth of the city’s population, which more than doubled in size during this period, from about a quarter of a million in 1898 to over half a million in 1921 (the growth partly resulted from the annexation of adjacent suburban areas). Despite the growth in population, however, the city remained predominantly white and Anglo; as late as 1931, over 80% of the inhabitants still self-identified as being of British origin. The TTC, formed in 1921, took over private rail lines and began to establish a robust public transportation network. Cars quickly became a prominent feature on city streets; by 1913 there were already 44 car dealers in the city … but there were also 50 carriage services and livery stables, so automobiles had to share the road with horses until at least the 1940s. A series of steel-frame skyscrapers in the downtown core transformed the cityscape dramatically, with each new project aspiring to the title of “Tallest Building in the British Empire.”

Music education in Toronto was dominated by the Toronto Conservatory of Music, incorporated in 1886 and located on the southwest corner of University Avenue and College Street from 1897 to 1963; it would acquire the rival Canadian Academy of Music in 1924. WMCT concerts were held in the concert hall of the TCM off and on from 1903 until 1929. The University of Toronto Faculty of Music was created in 1918 but did not move to its current home until the Edward Johnson Building opened in 1962 (the WMCT began holding its recitals in Walter Hall in the EJB in 1985). Other major cultural institutions founded during these years were the Royal Ontario Museum (1912), the Ontario College of Art (also 1912), and the Art Museum of Toronto (1900; renamed the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1919 and the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1966). Coverage of the city’s artistic life was provided by local newspapers and the weekly magazine Saturday Night (founded in 1887) as well as Maclean’s, founded in 1911 with ambitions to become the leading English language newsmagazine in Canada. The city’s first permanent movie theatre opened on Yonge Street in 1906; many cinemas employed substantial instrumental ensembles during the 1920s to provide the soundtrack for silent films, until the introduction of “talkies” in 1927. At the very end of this 25-year period, radio broadcasting became a significant part of Toronto’s soundscape. Radio station CFCA, owned by the Toronto Daily Star, went on the air in 1922. Musical performances were a mainstay of the station from the start; a performance by local musicians including the cellist Boris Hambourg and the pianist Alberto Guerrero on 28 March 1922 was one of the first live music broadcasts in Canada.

The last great representatives of late Romantic European music died just before or during the first half of this era: Anton Bruckner and Clara Schumann (both in 1896), Johannes Brahms (1897), Giuseppe Verdi (1901), Antonín Dvořák (1904), Edvard Grieg (1907), and Gustav Mahler (1911). In their wake, new styles and idioms of composition would soon arise, some of which audiences found perplexing and disturbing. The anchor work for this first 25-year period this season is the sumptuous Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), composed for string sextet in 1899 (the same year the WMCT began giving recitals) by Arnold Schoenberg. Written in a rich, late-Romantic idiom, Verklärte Nacht remained Schoenberg’s most popular work during his lifetime and beyond, both in its original string sextet scoring and in a later version (1917) for string orchestra. The work was premiered in 1902 in Vienna by the Rosé Quartet and friends. It was heard in a WMCT concert by the local de Kresz Little Symphony, led by the violinist Géza de Kresz, in 1934.

It was Schoenberg, though, who would lead the way towards daring new harmonic and expressive resources in European music with his first atonal works beginning in 1908, written in a highly dissonant idiom in which a tonal centre is not present and there are no consonant chords. He went on to systematize a method for writing music in which no tonal centre could be heard, by ordering the twelve chromatic pitches into repeating tone rows so that in theory each pitch would occur with equal frequency. The bewilderment with which the atonal music of Schoenberg and his pupils was received led him to create the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (‘Society for private musical performances’) in Vienna, in which new music could be carefully prepared and presented to sympathetic listeners (mostly other professional musicians who were members of the Society). Schoenberg’s Society presented 117 concerts from December 1918 to December 1921, when it was forced to shut down for financial reasons.

Ad for a concert in which Emmy Heim sang works by Schoenberg and Mahler in Vienna on 28 April 1915. Heim also sang works by Stravinsky for Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen in 1919. She first appeared in Toronto in 1934 and moved to the city in 1946, teaching here until her death in 1954.

The musical life of Toronto during these years was quite conservative on the whole, but there were some surprisingly innovative events, such as a performance of music by Schoenberg given by local musicians in 1915. The work heard on that occasion was the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7 (1905), played by the Academy String Quartet led by the Viennese-born violinist Luigi von Kunits, who in 1922 became the founding conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra, which was renamed the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1927. Schoenberg’s first quartet was heard again in Toronto 20 years later, when the Hart House String Quartet, led by Géza de Kresz, gave the work on 14 April 1935 (a year after de Kresz’s performance of Verklärte Nacht for the WMCT). “As the quartet played this work it was difficult to understand the polemical demonstration which is said to have greeted the first performance in 1907,” wrote Pearl McCarthy the next day in the Mail and Empire newspaper. “To understand its mathematics is undoubtedly a task beyond the average music lover, but to listen modestly and take what comes is an enriching experience.” I am confident that this season’s audience will also find listening to Schoenberg to be an “enriching experience” when the Quatuor Despax and guests perform Verklärte Nacht for us on 17 November 2022.

What tumultuous times the WMCT witnessed during its first 25 seasons. But somehow the club continued its operations throughout it all, dedicating its services to the war effort and emerging with renewed strength as the Roaring Twenties began. Little could anyone anticipate in 1923 that even worse troubles lay in store for the next 25 years.

2. 1924 to 1948          

Erwin Schulhoff’s “Five Pieces for String Quartet” (1925) and the WMCT’s second 25 years
Mark Fewer & Friends, 4 May, 2023

This second 25-year period in the life of the WMCT would bring the club to its knees at first, and then to temporary defeat, but in the end, it would rise again to fight another day. In world history this era was dominated by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the horrors of the Second World War, with its massive military campaigns in Europe and Asia, the shattering genocide of the Holocaust, and the fateful decision to drop on Japan two nuclear bombs whose destructive power would haunt the world’s collective imagination forever thereafter. As had been the case with the First World War, so too the Second World War redrew the political landscape and shifted the world into new, competing spheres of influence and value systems. The very end of this period witnessed the beginning of the Cold War, whose strategic and economic conflicts and challenges would endure for 40 years.

The Globe and Mail announces the end of the European campaign of the Second World War on 8 May 1945

These troubles could hardly have been anticipated by anyone during the remarkable economic and cultural recovery immediately after the First World War, which inaugurated a period known as the Roaring Twenties. There was a new sense of freedom and adventure in the air in the aftermath of the collapse of the old social and political orders as represented by the fall of the Russian (1917), Austro-Hungarian (1918), German (1918), and Ottoman (1922) empires. Jazz proliferated and circulated throughout the world, becoming so popular that this era is also known as the Jazz Age. Dance crazes such as the foxtrot, shimmy, Charleston, and Lindy Hop spread like wildfire and spawned countless dance clubs, studios, and competitions. Mass-market advertising created a new demand for consumer goods, and electronic and print media catered to the nascent celebrity culture centred on the off-screen activities of Hollywood movie stars. Radio and cinema brought the spirit of the times into people’s homes and lives with an impact that was more direct and powerful than had ever been experienced before. It was a time of exuberance, excess, and hedonism … and it could not last.

Charleston contest, Sunnyside Beach, July 20 1926

The wake-up call came with the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression. The optimism and carefree attitude of the 1920s came to an abrupt halt as the economy shrank dramatically and millions faced grim new economic realities. The WMCT was by no means immune from these troubles. Declining membership numbers and the increased cost of hiring professional musicians (as opposed to relying on club members to perform the recitals) meant that the WMCT was financially exposed by the late 1920s, with just $8.95 in the bank as the world stumbled towards an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. A motion was tabled to disband the WMCT at a meeting in September 1929; it did not pass, but it indicated the severity of the troubles the club was experiencing.

Marian Anderson photographed by Yousuf Karsh

With hard work, imaginative programming, and a certain amount of good luck, the WMCT persevered and actually enjoyed an impressive increase in membership numbers, from 284 in 1929 to 626 in 1930. Signal events of the 1930s included appearances by Uday Shankar and s Company of Hindu Dancers and Musicians from India in 1933 (Uday was Ravi Shankar’s older brother), the eminent Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia in 1936, and the legendary African American contralto Marian Anderson in 1936 with a return appearance in 1937.

By 1933 the unemployment rate in Toronto had hit 30%, and those who were employed saw their wages drop precipitously. Depression-era Toronto is vividly portrayed in the novels of Morley Callaghan and Hugh Garner. Garner’s Cabbagetown (1950) is a retrospective view of the Irish slum of that name in Toronto and remains the classic Canadian novel about the Depression era. (Cabbagetown itself was razed in the late 1940s to create Regent Park, which in turn was torn down beginning in 2005 as part of a decades-long redevelopment project that is still in progress). Despite the hard times, ambitious building projects continued to transform the local cityscape, notably the Art Deco-style 34-storey Canadian Bank of Commerce Building (now called Commerce Court North), which after its completion in 1930 remained for three decades the tallest building in the British Empire; it still stands at 35 King St. West. Another Art Deco building that opened in 1930 was Eaton’s College Street (now College Park), whose seventh floor housed Eaton Auditorium, which would serve as a venue for WMCT concerts for 45 years. The hall was mothballed in 1977 and remained closed for decades, but after extensive restoration it reopened as “The Carlu” in 2003.

The 1950 paperback first edition of Cabbagetown

Throughout this entire period, writers, artists, and musicians gathered at the cosmopolitan Hambourg Conservatory, located at the corner of Sherbourne and Wellesley streets. Founded by the Russian-born pianist Michael Hambourg in 1911, it operated after Michael’s death in 1916 under the direction of his son Boris until 1951. Boris’s brother Clement opened the House of Hambourg at 1184 Bay Street in 1946; it was one of the first after-hours jazz clubs in Toronto. Boris Hambourg was also the cellist of the famed Hart House String Quartet, formed in 1924 as Canada’s first fully professional chamber ensemble. The quartet appeared with the WMCT just once, in 1925, but also ran its own local recital series. It appeared on tour throughout Canada, the USA, and Europe, was heard on broadcasts for the CBC and BBC, and recorded for the RCA Victor label. A planned European tour to celebrate the ensemble’s fifteenth anniversary during the 1938–39 season had to be cancelled because of the worsening political situation there. The quartet gave its final concerts in April 1946.

The Hart House Quartet: Geza de Kresz, first violin; Milton Blackstone, viola; Boris Hambourg, cello; and Harry Adaskin, second violin. Linocut caricature by J. W. McLaren

The guiding light of music in Toronto during this era was Ernest MacMillan, who was knighted in 1935 for his services to music in Canada. MacMillan had his finger in a great many musical pies, serving as the Principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (1926–42), Dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music (1926–52), and conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1931–56) and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (1942–57). He also enjoyed close relations with the WMCT. He made his debut with the club in 1904 as a precocious ten-year-old organist, playing two solos and offering Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” as an encore. He went on to appear as a performer on half a dozen other occasions up to 1948, including a recital in 1930 at which his String Quartet and Two Sketches for Strings were performed.

Igor Stravinsky with Ernest MacMillan in 1937

The arts in Toronto were making a gradual transition during this period from a situation in which talented amateurs dominated the local scene to one in which professionals occupied the leading positions, both individually and as guiding spirits for the larger arts organizations. The city enjoyed visits by leading international musicians, including Maurice Ravel in 1928, George Gershwin in 1934, and Igor Stravinsky, in the first of his many visits to the city, to conduct the suites from his ballets Firebird and Petrushka with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1937. In his review for the Globe and Mail, Lawrence Mason noted that Stravinsky’s performance was greeted by “clamping and stamping and cheering and shouts of ‘Bravo!’,” as well as several curtain calls.

In an attempt to repeat the strategy that had enabled it to survive the First World War, the WMCT mounted a series of fund-raising concerts in aid of the Red Cross from 1939 to 1941 that raised over $5,000; not as much as had been raised during the previous war, but a respectable amount, nonetheless. For the first few wartime seasons, the WMCT was able to continue its other concert giving activities more or less as usual. By the end of the club’s 44th season, however, the strain of mounting concerts in straitened wartime circumstances proved to be too much, and in September 1942 the WMCT voted to discontinue activities for the duration of the war.

Cover of a Naxos CD of music by Erwin Schulhoff, released in October 2022, with a portrait of the composer made in 1924 by the German artist Conrad Felixmüller.

The life story of Erwin Schulhoff, the composer of Five Pieces for String Quartet,the anchor work for this 25-year period, encapsulates the tragic nature of this era in world history. Born in Prague in 1894, he was a musical prodigy whose studies were encouraged by the likes of Antonín Dvořák and Claude Debussy. He was thoroughly trained in composition, having studied in Prague, Vienna, Leipzig, and Cologne. Conscripted into the Austrian army in 1914, he served in the military for the entire duration of the war, initially in Russia and later in Italy; he ended his wartime service with a stint in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, he resumed his musical career in Germany, then returned to Prague in 1923, joining the faculty of the Prague Conservatory in 1929. His enthusiasms ranged widely, from twelve-tone music and dada to jazz, neoclassicism, and Czech folksong; he added each new idiom to his palette to increase the range of expressive possibilities. For example his only opera, Plameny (“Flames,” 1929), is based on the Don Juan story and incorporates influences ranging from Gregorian chant through Mozart and Wagner to jazz.

With the rise of fascism in Germany and the increasing persecution of Jews, Schulhoff, who was of German-Jewish descent, became such a committed follower of communism that he set the Communist Manifesto to music as an oratorio in 1932. After a visit to the Soviet Union in 1933, he became a convert to Stalinist socialist realism in music and even dedicated his Sixth Symphony (1940–41) to the Red Army. But Schulhoff was living on borrowed time after the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in 1939. He became a Soviet citizen in May 1941 and was planning to emigrate to the Soviet Union; however, with the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Schulhoff was arrested in Prague and then imprisoned in the Wülzburg fortress, 60 km south of Nuremberg. He died there of tuberculosis a year later. Though forgotten for decades after the Second World War, the recent revival of interest in the music of composers suppressed by the Nazi regime has led to a renewal of interest in his music. A bust of Schulhoff was installed on the grounds of Wülzburg fortress in 2004. The May 2023 concert will mark the first time that Schulhoff’s music has been heard in a WMCT recital.

After the end of the Second World War, the WMCT executive elected to resume concert giving activities and hold its concerts in Eaton Auditorium, which seated 1,264 people. It was an ambitious, perhaps even foolhardy choice, as the club membership numbered about one-third of the available seats in that venue, but the decision eventually paid off thanks to a gradual but steady increase in membership numbers. The WMCT celebrated its 50th anniversary modestly, with tea and cake provided by Eaton’s for the opening recital of the season in October 1947, given by the Hungarian tenor Miklos Gafni. Gafni’s dramatic life story also illustrates the tragic nature of these times, but with a happier conclusion than Schulhoff’s.

The arrest of Miklos Gafni (third from left) by the Nazis, as recreated for the biopic A Voice is Born (1947).

Gafni’s experiences during the war are related in a Columbia short film titled A Voice is Born that was released in the same year as his WMCT appearance. Gafni was freed from a concentration camp in Hungary when it was liberated by the Soviet army, but he was soon recaptured by the Germans and sent to the Mauthausen slave labour camp. According to a contemporary newspaper account, Gafni weighed just 90 pounds when he was liberated from Mauthausen and spent six weeks in a US military hospital recovering. He then returned to Budapest and began his singing career; in 1947 he made his New York debut, which led to international tours and widespread fame.

Looking back at the conclusion of the 50th anniversary season in 1948, the WMCT could be thankful that it had been brought back to life after the war-imposed hiatus. Although it would have been hard to predict it at the time, given the still-precarious financial situation and modest membership numbers, great things lay in store for the WMCT during the next 25-year period.

3: 1949-1973

“Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat” from Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser (1950)
and the WMCT’s third 25 years
Marion Newman & Friends, 6 April, 2023

There is a tendency to paint the 1950s retrospectively as a grim time of repression and conformity, and the 1960s as an idyllic era of new ideas and big dreams, whether induced by pharmaceuticals or natural means. McCarthyism with polyester suits and ties on the one side, the Great Society with tie-dye T-shirts and love beads on the other. The reality was more nuanced and complicated. The 1950s also brought us rock and roll, economic prosperity, television, and the baby boom. The 1960s saw civil disobedience, race riots, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. There was plenty of good and bad to fill up each decade. Both were defined by a proxy war between Communism and the West fought in Asia: the Korean War in the early 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s; the former was much shorter, but millions died in each conflict. It is no coincidence that these points of reference mainly concern the USA; the country reached the apex of its cultural and geopolitical power during this period. “America at this moment stands at the summit of the world,” as Winston Churchill said in 1945. The country’s technological progress and adventurous spirit was on display for the entire world to see on the occasion of the moon landing in July 1969, a moment witnessed by over 500 million around the world when it was broadcast live on television.

Here in Canada, post-war recovery during the 1950s and 1960s saw significant growth in the population and the economy. In Toronto, a long, unbroken string of mayors supplied by the Orange Order was finally broken in 1955 by Nathan Phillips, a Jewish lawyer and politician who pointedly was styled “the mayor of all the people.” It is perhaps not overstating the case to say that the election of Phillips marked the beginning of Toronto’s transition from a bigger, duller version of Belfast to a smaller, friendlier version of New York City. The population of the city reached a million and a half by the time of the 1961 census; Canada reached 20 million in 1966. “One little, two little, three Canadians … now we are 20 million,” as Bobby Gimby’s Centennial song “Ca-na-da” put it.

Opening of the New City Hall in Toronto, 1965. From the City of Toronto Archives (So futuristic for the times that it was pictured in an episode of the original Star Trek television series)

A new sense of civic pride in Toronto was captured in concrete terms by the new City Hall building, completed in 1965. The Centennial year 1967 saw a wealth of building projects and cultural activity from coast to coast, with new concert halls (in Banff, Brandon, Corner Brook, Kelowna, London, Ottawa, St. John’s, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg), festivals, compositions, parades, and so on, not to mention the incredible cultural smorgasbord that was Expo 67 in Montreal. It may not have been, as Pierre Berton put it, The Last Good Year, but it was certainly a great time for music and the arts in Canada. (Come to think of it, 1967 was actually the last good year for Toronto Maple Leafs fans, but perhaps not for the rest of us.)

            The 1960s were an exciting time for music in Toronto as well. The decade got off to an auspicious start: the O’Keefe Centre (now called Meridian Hall) opened on 1 October 1960 with the world premiere of the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet. The cavernous 3200-seat theatre became home to both the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and has seen visits from a host of international star entertainers and touring productions.

[Maclean’s magazine reported on the premiere of Camelot at the O’Keefe Centre. The show ran for four and a half hours on opening night; “Parsifal without the jokes” was Noël Coward’s caustic observation.]

Memorable COC productions during these years included the premiere of the Harry Somers / Mavor Moore opera Louis Riel in 1967 and three-quarters of a Wagner Ring cycle in the early 1970s (Das Rheingold was not done). The Toronto Symphony flourished under the leadership of the charismatic young Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, whose presence in Toronto later inspired two novels (Almost Japanese by Sarah Sheard and A Certain Mr. Takahashi by Ann Ireland). The Edward Johnson Building (EJB) officially opened in March 1964, with the 815-seat MacMillan Theatre and the 490-seat Walter Hall (home to WMCT concerts starting in 1985). The unofficial opening of the EJB had occurred two years earlier, with the inaugural concert of Ten Centuries Concerts, whose adventurous and wide-ranging musical activities from 1962 to 1967 were recalled in an article by John Beckwith for the WMCT News & Notes in 2006 (republished in Beckwith’s recent book Music Annals). Meanwhile the Yorkville coffee house scene in the 1960s would help to spawn a generation of Canadian singer-songwriters, including Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and Neil Young.

The WMCT flourished during these years, offering a glittering series of concerts in Eaton Auditorium that were consistently well attended and presented both established stars (the Beaux Arts Trio, Glenn Gould, the Juilliard and Guarneri quartets, Jean Pierre Rampal) and up-and-coming artists making their local debut (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Maureen Forrester, Christa Ludwig, Leontyne Price). The club marked its 75th season with a gala concert in October 1972 and the publication of the first history of the club, Look Back in Pride (1972) by former WMCT president Helen Goudge.

An epochal change occurred in 1958 when the WMCT decided to allow men to become members for the first time in the club’s history. Numbers subsequently grew to the highest levels ever (1,000 members in 1964), and the WMCT concert series became one of the hottest tickets in the increasingly crowded Toronto concert scene. WMCT finances were in sufficiently sound shape that annual scholarships to talented music students, introduced in 1950, increased from one to three a year beginning with the 1966–67 season. Another major change in 1969 saw the WMCT become a registered charity, which allowed it to raise funds through charitable donations rather than relying solely on membership fees. And on a practical note, in 1970 the concert time was moved back from 2:00 pm to 1:30 pm to avoid the afternoon rush hour; it has remained at that time ever since.

The anchor work for this 25-year period is the hit song “Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat” from the musical comedy Guys and Dolls, with words and music by Frank Loesser, based on the short stories of Damon Runyon. The show opened on Broadway in November 1950, was hailed as an artistic triumph, and went on to win the Tony Award for best musical that year, winning out over the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit The King and I. A film version starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra was released in 1955; a long-delayed remake of the film is said to be currently under consideration. The Broadway comic actor Stubby Kaye in the role of the gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson sang “Sit down” in both the Broadway and Hollywood film productions of the show. This anchor piece reflects the unstoppable rise of pop culture during this period. The pandemonium which accompanied the local appearances of Elvis Presley at Maple Leaf Gardens in April 1957 and of The Beatles at the same venue in 1964, 1965, and 1966 attests to the extraordinary power that popular music of the day had on the lives and imaginations of the young. Pop repertoire has understandably been largely absent from WMCT programs over the years; the April 2023 performance by Marion Newman will mark the first hearing of music by Frank Loesser at a WMCT recital.

4. 1974 to 1998

Challenges and changes: Et exspecto (1986) by Sofia Gubaidulina, a composer in the last days of the Soviet Union
Michael Bridge and friends, 6 October 2022

I remember 1974 well; it was the year that I began my studies in the BMus degree program at Queen’s University, the start of an educational path that would lead me to my present position as a faculty member at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. It was also the year in which Richard Nixon resigned as the President of the United States of America in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. That happened in early August, a month before I began my university music studies. At the end of that academic year, the Vietnam War concluded with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. That historic event was memorably captured by a photo of evacuees scrambling up a ladder to board a waiting helicopter perched on the rooftop of a building in Saigon. (The scene is recreated as a coup de théâtre in the musical Miss Saigon [1989].) It was a desperate last chance to escape before the North Vietnamese forces completed their capture of what was soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The New York Times announces the resignation of Richard Nixon on 9 August 1974

The most important geopolitical event of this 25-year period, however, was likely the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This resulted in a reshaping of the world order, the effects of which continue to reverberate to this day. The first rift in the Iron Curtain had been the dismantling of the electric barbed-wire fence between Hungary and Austria in May 1989. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, followed by the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990.

The final step was the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991, overseen by the late Mikhail Gorbachev, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War. Towards the end of his life, Gorbachev was a vocal critic of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who pointedly did not attend Gorbachev’s funeral on 3 September 2022.

Developments in technology throughout the 1980s and 1990s would also change life as we know it in myriad ways. The Internet was widely available in Canada by 1996; the process of how I wrote the centennial history of the WMCT, Counterpoint to a City, may serve as an example of the kinds of changes this ushered in. Much of the research for the book was conducted in 1995 by scrolling through old newspapers and magazines on microfilm readers in Robarts Library. There was no “search” function, I had to scroll through entire issues to find what I was looking for. During the process of writing the book on my personal computer, I acquired my first email account, which enabled swift communication with the publisher of the book, ECW Press. In the fall of 1996 I moved to Ireland to take up a faculty position at University College Dublin, with page proofs for the book in hand. I compiled the index in a Word file and sent it across the Atlantic to ECW Press as an email attachment; they prepared the page proofs for the index and sent them back to me, also via email. I corrected the proofs and sent them back to the press.

This entire process, if it had been done by sending paper copies back and forth by mail, would have taken a couple of months; thanks to the Internet, it was all completed in a few days. For another good example of how computer technology has assisted research on the WMCT, read the article “History Meets Website” about how Hanna and Fred Feuerriegel created their monumental History of Concerts and Performers of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto and have updated and expanded it ever since the document was first issued in September 1997. Incidentally, the WMCT was an early adopter of Internet technology; the domain name https://wmct.on.ca was registered on 1 November 2000.

For the 80th anniversary season, the main challenge for the WMCT was to find a new home. Eaton Auditorium, which had been used for occasional WMCT recitals since 1931 and became the club’s regular venue in 1946, was shuttered in 1977. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church was the first venue used by the club after Eaton Auditorium, but when construction on Roy Thomson Hall began across the street in 1978, the WMCT was forced to relocate due to the noise and disruptions. Christ Church, Deer Park was the venue for club recitals during the next six seasons, up to 1985. Unfortunately the exile from Eaton Auditorium resulted in a precipitous decline in membership numbers, from a high of 1,000 in 1964 to about 400 in the mid-1980s. President Hanna Feuerriegel decided to adopt Walter Hall as the WMCT’s new regular concert venue in 1985. The 492-seat hall was just the right size for the membership numbers; with its easy accessibility by public transportation, excellent sightlines and acoustics, and spacious foyer for receptions, it has proved to be a good all-round fit for the Music in the Afternoon concert series.

Eric Friesen, Stephen Ralls, James Ehnes, Jeanie Chung, Angela Hewitt, Catherine Robbins, Michael Schade, Russell Braun

The big event of this 25-year period for the WMCT was the Centennial Celebration Concert on 24 May 1998, which took place in the 1,000-seat George Weston Recital Hall in North York, with Eric Friesen of the CBC as the host. The proceedings got underway with a commissioned Fanfare for a Festive Anniversary by the Canadian composer Donald Coakley (who died earlier this year on March 2, 2022). The recital contained a mix of vocal and instrumental numbers performed by seven outstanding young Canadian musicians; included on the program was the “Berceuse” from the opera Jocelyn by Benjamin Godard with violin obbligato, which had been featured on the very first WMCT recital on 23 January 1899.

The George Weston Recital Hall had opened in 1993 as part of the North York Performing Arts Centre (renamed Meridian Arts Centre in 2019). This centre was part of a remarkable building boom during Mel Lastman’s term as the mayor of North York from 1973 to 1997 that included the North York Civic Centre (1979), North York Central Library (1987), Mel Lastman Square (1989), and Empress Walk (1997), among others. Meanwhile, the CN Tower was completed in 1975 after over two years of construction, becoming a symbol of Toronto in the process and holding the record as the world’s tallest free-standing structure until 2007.

Iron worker Larry Porter perched on a beam at dizzying heights in June 1974 while working on what will become the restaurant in the CN Tower

Other major building projects in downtown Toronto during this period included First Canadian Place (1975; still the tallest office building in Canada as of 2022, though soon to be overtaken by several buildings currently under construction); the Eaton Centre (1977), Scotia Plaza (1988), TD Canada Trust Tower (1990), and Metro Hall (1992). This 25-year period in the life of Toronto ended with a huge expansion of the city limits when the old city of Toronto was amalgamated with its five surrounding boroughs by an act of the provincial government on 1 January 1998 to create what is colloquially known as the megacity (or more recently as “The Six”). With this development, Toronto became the fifth-largest city by population in North America.

It was a lively period for the arts in Toronto as well. The Toronto International Film Festival was founded in 1976 and has since become one of the premiere events of its kind in the world. The COC in 1983 became the first opera company to use surtitles, a feature that has since been adopted by opera houses around the world. Two new professional orchestras were formed, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in 1979 and Esprit Orchestra, specialising in new music, in 1983. The Toronto Symphony moved into its new home in Roy Thomson Hall in 1982, and Opera Atelier began offering period productions of Baroque operas in 1985. The period saw a string of music festivals, many of them organized by Nicholas Goldschmidt.

The most spectacular was the Toronto International Festival, a month-long celebration of the city’s sesquicentennial (and the province’s bicentennial) in June 1984 that brought an extravaganza of music and dance to the city, including the Metropolitan Opera (with rare local performances by the star Canadian tenor Jon Vickers in Peter Grimes and Die Walküre), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and a host of others: 3,000 performers from 17 countries were featured in more than 250 events that month.

The shifting tides of this 25-year period in world history are neatly encapsulated by the life story of Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), whose Et exspecto (1986) is the anchor work for the concert by the accordionist Michael Bridge. Gubaidulina was born in the Tatar Republic of the USSR to a Muslim Tatar father and a Russian Orthodox mother. “I am the place where East meets West,” she has said of herself, referring to both her life and her music. After studying both piano and composition in Kazan, she moved to Moscow for graduate studies in composition at the Moscow Conservatory. She received encouragement and support from Dmitri Shostakovich, who offered her some cryptic and ironic advice: “continue on your ‘mistaken’ path.” Indeed, during her career in the Soviet Union, Gubaidulina was part of a small coterie of avant-garde composers (including her friend Alfred Schnittke) whose “mistaken path” was barely tolerated by the all-powerful cultural apparatchiks of the Soviet state.

Gubaidulina started to become known in the West when the violinist Gidon Kremer toured in the 1980s with her violin concerto Offertorium, which uses the theme by Frederick the Great that is the basis of the Musical Offering by Bach, who is Gubaidulina’s favorite composer. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gubaidulina moved permanently to Germany in 1992, where she has lived in a modest bungalow in Appen, a small village near Hamburg, for the past 30 years. (Her friend and colleague Victor Suslin, another Soviet avant-garde composer, had moved to Appen in 1981, and her friend Schnittke had settled in Hamburg in 1990). Comparing her own career to that of Shostakovich in an interview with the musicologist Vera Lukomsky in 1998, Gubaidulina stated that “Shostakovich and his generation lived in a terrible time. In comparison with him, we are a happy generation. Of course, we had our share of suffering; nonetheless, our time was easier.” Gubaidulina’s father was persecuted for his religion during his entire life and the family “lived in permanent stress, expecting his arrest every night,” as Gubaidulina noted in the interview with Lukomsky. Easier is clearly a relative term.

5. 1999 to 2023          

Fjóla Evans’s new work and the WMCT’s most recent 25 years
Fjóla Evans, 23 February 2023

The past 25 years have seen some deeply unsettling events: 9/11, the global financial meltdown of October 2008; painful testimonials before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 2008 and 2015, followed by a series of revelations about unmarked residential school graves beginning in 2021; the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022; and an ongoing sense of impending disaster due to the accelerating climate crisis. Small wonder that doomscrolling has become a pervasive habit; even media sources recommend that we limit the time spent reading the news due to the negative impact that it can have on our mental and physical health. But the spiritual nourishment and renewal provided by listening to live music making can provide a healthful antidote to an overdose of bad news. With the return to in-person concerts for the 125th anniversary season, Music in the Afternoon offers not just the joy of hearing live music but also a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future. This has never been more needed than right now.

The world has changed so much in the past 25 years that it is difficult to recall what life was actually like back in 1999. Was our main worry then really the Y2K computer bug, which was supposedly going to make planes fall from the sky, cause banks and the stock market to collapse, and bring about a computer-induced apocalypse? A lot of people certainly seemed to think so; when the computer clocks ticked over to 01 01 2000 and disaster did not ensue, people heaved a collective sigh of relief and offered up a prayer of thanks to the computer programmers who had saved civilization … or made light of the situation, as the cartoonist Miel did for the Singapore newspaper The Straights Times.

 The events of September 11, 2001 were of a different order of magnitude in terms of their impact; few people made light of 9/11, as the consequences would have been extremely severe. For example, when the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen called 9/11 “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos” a few days after the attacks, he quickly found his career put on hold, and his legacy of a lifetime of creativity called into question. The effects of 9/11 reached into the lives of everyone in North America and beyond as a result of the intensified security measures and pervasive surveillance society which resulted; even German chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was bugged by the US National Security Agency. The rise of racial profiling and rampant Islamophobia was one of the many unfortunate consequences of 9/11. My colleague James Kippen did his part to address this issue by introducing a course on “The Music of Islam” at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music immediately after 9/11. It was a simple but humane act at a time of pervasive political and emotional panic; a time when so many people could only respond to the new world realities by demanding an eye for an eye … a mantra that if followed to its logical conclusion would end up blinding the entire world.

Have we escaped the bitter legacies of 9/11? Most people would say no. And yet time and history do move on. For a long time I taught a class on the musical responses to 9/11 in my “Music in North America” course at the University of Toronto. Over the years I witnessed the event slowly fade from one that students had personally experienced and lived through to one that is something they now learn about in history books; the vast majority of my students in that course last year were born after 01/9/11. Some editorials and commentators marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 last year noted, with a combination of irony, sorrow, and regret, that at least the USA was united back then by its response to the attacks. Many contrasted that unity with the deep divisions that have arisen in the years since; some cited the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 as an example of a new threat from within the country. Meanwhile the former president Donald Trump marked the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 by criticizing President Joe Biden for the chaotic departure of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. This growing polarization of opinion is evident not just in the USA, but to varying degrees in many places around the world; many blame social media for this development.

Technology has reshaped not just our political views but also many aspects of music and music making over the past 25 years. Many musicians perform from scores on digital screens now rather than from paper sheet music. Listeners have easy and instant access online to the music of all times and places, something that was unimaginable before the launch of Napster in 1999. A musician can be unknown one year, and internationally celebrated the next, thanks to the hyper-mediated environment in which music now circulates and is consumed.

Pop artists are not the only ones breaking through to mainstream success online; the pianist Valentina Lisitsa came to widespread notice via social media channels, and the delightful comedy duo TwoSet Violin (the Australian violinists Brett Yang and Eddy Chen) have amassed over 1.2 billion views on their YouTube channel while introducing a large new audience to classical music. Recording artists regularly turn to online crowdsourcing platforms to fund their projects, and livestream concerts such as Daniel Hope’s “Hope@Home” series reached an audience of millions from his home in Berlin during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the past three years, the world in general, and the world of music in particular, has been reshaped by the Covid-19 pandemic. My colleague Laura Risk published an op-ed in The Globe and Mail on the impact of Covid-19 on music within days of the shutdown of public life, and went on to co-edit a 450-page issue with contributions from over 60 musicians about the impact of Covid-19 on their livelihood for the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation. The journal for this series of reflections on Covid-19 and music was well chosen; in the face of the pandemic, we have all been forced to learn how to improvise, including the WMCT. The Music in the Afternoon series had to cancel the final two concerts of the 2019–20 season and pivot from delivering sold out recitals in Walter Hall to offering shorter online concerts without any “live” audience at all, other than those watching in real time at home on a computer screen. No doubt I speak for many when I offer a note of thanks and appreciation to the WMCT for doing its part to keep music making alive during the pandemic years in the midst of unprecedented challenges. The online concerts were a treasured oasis of musical pleasure and offered a sense of community during a time that was otherwise marked by fear and isolation for most of us. As the home page of the WMCT website reminds us, the club endured the flu pandemic of 1918–1919, two World Wars, depressions and recessions, all of which in retrospect prepared it to survive everything that Covid-19 threw at it these past three years.

No doubt I speak for many when I offer a note of thanks and appreciation to Music in the Afternoon for doing its part to keep music making alive during the pandemic years in the midst of unprecedented challenges. The online concerts were a treasured oasis of musical pleasure and offered a sense of community during a time that was otherwise marked by fear and isolation for most of us. As the home page of the WMCT website reminds us, the club endured the flu pandemic of 1918–1919, two World Wars, depressions and recessions, all of which in retrospect prepared it to survive everything that Covid-19 threw at it these past three years.

 Despite these challenging times, Toronto has nevertheless experienced a period of quite remarkable growth. Hundreds of new high-rise condo projects during the past 15 years, many of them clustered along the waterfront, have resulted in what has been called the Manhattanization of Toronto. Housing prices soared, leading to a real estate boom that peaked early in 2022, when rising interest rates finally led to a cooling off of the market. A thriving tech sector had helped to fuel much of this growth; as the New York Times reported in March 2022, Toronto has become the third-largest technology hub in North America, after New York City and Silicon Valley. This in turn attracted significant migration from all over the world to the city; by the time of the 2016 census, “visible minorities” (the Statistics Canada demographic term; BIPOC or IBPOC are now more common in general usage) had become the local “majority,” accounting for 52% of the Toronto population, making the city one of the most diverse in the world. Two notable “firsts” during this period had a large impact in Toronto; Ontario in 2003 became the first jurisdiction in North America to recognize same-sex marriage (the federal government would extend the right to all Canadians two years later), and Canada became the first country in North America, and the second in the world, to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in 2018. The number of legal cannabis outlets in the city grew exponentially from just 12 in 2020 to about 500 by late 2022. Every neighborhood in downtown Toronto now seems to have its corner cannabis store; there are a dozen within a 15-minute walk of my home in the Annex.

Michael Stark and Michael Leshner became the first same-sex couple to marry legally in Canada on June 10, 2003]

            The arts and culture have flourished in Toronto during this period as well. The Victorian-era Distillery District was completely transformed and reopened as a chic dining, culture, and shopping neighborhood in 2003. OCAD University acquired its funky “tabletop” addition in 2004, the Crystal landed on the Royal Ontario Museum in 2007, the Art Gallery of Ontario received its shiny new exterior in 2008, and the Aga Khan Museum opened in North York in 2014.

Aga Khan Museum

There were some significant music projects as well. The Toronto Music Garden on the waterfront south of Queen’s Quay West opened in 1999 and hosts a summer concert series. It was inspired by the landscape architect Julie Moir Messervy’s contribution to Yo-Yo Ma’s film about Bach’s Solo Cello Suite No. 1; the park’s six sections echo the six movements of the Bach suite. In 2006, the 2,070-seat Four Seasons Centre at the corner of University Avenue and Queen Street opened with a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle; it is the jewel in the crown of Toronto’s performing arts venues and hosts productions by both the Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet of Canada. The beautiful 1,135-seat Koerner Hall, attached to the Royal Conservatory of Music, opened in 2009 and hosts a wide variety of musical events each year. Most recently Massey Hall, which opened in 1894 and bills itself as “Canada’s most important venue for concerts and lectures,” underwent a $184 million revitalization project that began in 2013 and was completed in 2022 (it reopened for performances in November 2021). Beyond the world of Western art music, Heritage Toronto’s new website Sounds Like Toronto offers various perspectives on the city’s many other vibrant music scenes.

            Signal moments in the life of the WMCT during this period, beyond its annual concert series, include the formation of the WMCT Foundation in 2001, triennial Career Development Awards for outstanding young Canadian musicians, and gala concerts in Koerner Hall in 2010, with the soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, and 2013, with the baritone Russell Braun and the violinist James Ehnes; the 2013 recital was in celebration of the 115th anniversary of the WMCT. But perhaps the greatest achievement, as noted above, was in finding the strength, initiative, and imagination simply to keep going during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The anchor work for the Music in the Afternoon concert celebrating this 25-year period will be a newly commissioned string quintet by the Canadian/Icelandic composer and cellist Fjóla Evans. She is originally from Reykjavík, Iceland, and studied cello at McGill University with Matt Haimovitz. After that she did graduate studies in composition at New York University’s Steinhardt School and the Yale School of Music, and in 2019 began a doctoral degree in composition at Columbia University. Her personal website states that “Her work explores the visceral physicality of sound while drawing inspiration from patterns of natural phenomena.” As Simon Fryer explains in his video introduction to this season, Evans is one of his former cello students, as are two of the other cellists who will be heard on this concert: Bryan Holt of the cello duo VC2, and Karen Ouzounian of the Aizuri Quartet (which did a Music in the Afternoon recital back in 2017).

The varied program includes some Icelandic song selections, Grieg’s String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello, selections from Glass Houses by Ann Southam, an earlier work by Evans titled Ridge and Furrow that was commissioned by VC2 for their Beethoven’s Cellists project, and the specially commissioned work. The scoring of the new work, for string quartet with a second cello, was inspired by Schubert’s String Quintet, which according to Simon Fryer was the work that made Fjóla Evans decide to become a musician. The concert will be a wonderful opportunity to hear talented young performers and a promising new voice in composition. And I can promise you that for a couple of hours, it will take you away from the troubles of the world.

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