125 Fjóla Evans, composer

February 23, 2023 | 1.30 pm | Walter Hall

Aizuri Quartet: Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa, violins; Ayane Kozasa, viola; Karen Ouzounian, cello
VC2 Cello Duo: Amahl Arulanandam and Bryan Holt,
Krista Kais-Prial, vocalist
Talisa Blackman, piano

REVIEW by Operaramblings

Simon Fryer and Fjóla Evans

Tuning Your Mind | 12.15 | Walter Hall, U of T

Music historian Robin Elliott
Fjóla Evans’s new work and the WMCT’s most recent 25 years

WMCT at 125: Historical Perspectives

For this special season, Artistic Director Simon Fryer has created an imaginative series that constitutes a reflection upon the past 125 years of the WMCT, of the city of Toronto, and of international music history. To accomplish all of this within just five concerts, he has divided that 125-year span into five 25-year blocks. As 25 years is the length of a generation, Simon had the additional creative idea of including, in each concert, musicians who are in a mentor/mentee relationship, thus reflecting the past, present and future of the invited guest artists, as well as of the WMCT itself. For each concert, an anchor work is drawn from one of the five 25-year blocks of time, which provides an opportunity to reflect upon that period in WMCT and world history. Here is some historical background on the most recent period.

5. 1999 to 2023          

Concert 3: Composer Fjóla Evans, 23 February 2023

Anchor work: newly commissioned work by Fjóla Evans

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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