Music News

Students from Hamilton, Ont.’s Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School are going for gold — again — at this year’s Heritage Music Festival May 1 to 5.

Student concert inspired by the Earth

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TORONTO - The Earth matters to students and staff at Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts — it matters enough to inspire prayer, song and art.

In the good and true is God, says fiddler MacMaster

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As a theologian, Natalie MacMaster favours the toe-tapping, hand-clapping, step-dancing-around-the-kitchen-table school of theological inquiry. The Juno-Award-winning fiddler now has an honorary doctor of divinity degree to back up her theology.

Lionheart brings back 14th-century hymns of praise

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TORONTO - The Renaissance has always been worth looking at — all those gorgeous paintings and striking sculptures — but it’s also worth a listen.

United in song, and blessed by the pontiff

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“He looked right at me.”

Those words, expressed with both reverence and excitement, came from the mouths of almost every member of the Our Lady of Sorrows Ecumenical Choir, just after having been blessed by Pope Benedict XVI at the Papal Mass for the Presentation of Our Lord at St. Peter’s Basilica — certainly, given his resignation announced Feb. 11, one of his last celebrations as our Holy Father.

Steve Bell gives a different Christmas perspective

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In Keening for the Dawn: Christmastide, Steve Bell combines the Christmas theme with his folksy sound and a soft country touch.

Handel’s Messiah stands the test of time

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TORONTO - Christmas celebrations are heralded by the senses, and none more so than sound, with music at the heart of almost all of our seasonal memories. Think Bing Crosby crooning “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or Judy Garland rending heart strings everywhere with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — it doesn’t get more quintessentially “Christmas-time” than that.

Catholic jazz pianist Dave Brubeck dies 

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WASHINIGTON - Dave Brubeck, the influential and prolific pianist whose composition "Take Five" became a standard in the annals of jazz, died Dec. 5 at age 91, one day before his 92nd birthday.

Choir school camaraderie continues with The Mistletones

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TORONTO - After years of singing together on a daily basis at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, a group of alumni came together to continue making music.

Called The Mistletones, their love of song and unique vocal blend have culminated in a sold-out Christmas concert on Dec. 13 at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio.

“The style of the group is a combination of choral and jazz,” said Gerry Litster, group member and choir school alumni, who is also joined in the group by his brother, Mike.

“We are definitely not barbershop as some have asked in the past, although for the most part our singing is a capella.”

The all-male voiced group, who sing in TTBB vocal formation, have been together since 1980 and have been friends since their days at the choir school — some even knowing one another for as many as 49 years.

“The group was formed to fill the musical void we experienced after graduation from the choir school,” said Douglas Tranquada.

The Mistletones currently consist of nine members: Pat Power and Rob Thomas (bass); Tranquada, Paul Townshend and Paul Kenny (baritone); the Litster brothers (second tenor); Dan Fantin and Leonard Tawaststjerna (first tenor).

Their rich blend and concise, complex harmonic aptitude form a unique and well-developed vocal style.

“We all had musical training during our years at the choir school,” said Townshend. “That included piano, organ, theory, harmony and music history.”

Their sold-out show will highlight the group’s dense vocal harmonics, all while showcasing favourite music of the Christmas season.

“The program is a mix of a few sacred songs along with some popular Christmas favourites, but not your typical Christmas carols,” says Tawaststsjerna.

The group has performed in some of the city’s most storied venues, places such as Roy Thomson Hall, Koerner Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre and Massey Hall.

This time around, The Mistletones are looking forward to bringing their sound to an audiences at a venue that has a unique atmosphere.

“The beauty of GGS (Glenn Gould Studio) is that it’s like singing in an intimate surrounding — not unlike being in someone’s living room,” said Kenny.

For more information on The Mistletones visit their facebook page at www.facebook.com/therealmistletones.

David Braid, a faithful performer

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TORONTO - Pianist David Braid originally got into jazz after developing a deep affinity for one of history’s greatest composers — Mozart. Indeed, it was once said of Braid, by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, “If Mozart played jazz, he’d be David Braid.”

Currently en route to Beijing to perform two concerts, Braid’s resumé boasts two Juno Award wins, Jazz Pianist of the Year in Canada and a SOCAN Composer of the Year award. He has composed more than 80 works for piano, ensembles and orchestras, and has released nine recordings. However, despite his lauded career and whirlwind of performance engagements, Braid cites a much more reflective inspiration for some of his work — one that comes from a Sunday evening student Mass at the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto.

“The students seemed particularly still in a moment of silent prayer while a particularly beautiful but irregular hymn with an atypical harmonic movement and meter was being performed. The feeling of that particular harmony, rhythm and meter at that particular moment impressed upon me a buoyancy and uplifting feeling which I liked very much,” said Braid.

“I wanted to capture that and recreate that feeling in a piece of my own to share with my audiences. Fifteen years later, my composition ‘Say a Silent Prayer’ is one of my most performed and popular pieces.”

This inspiration, drawn deeply from a lifelong involvement in the Catholic Church, presents itself in Braid’s prolific body of work — not always in an obvious sense, but subtly colouring his uniquely melodic compositions.

“In a general way, when I think about the largest quantity of music I was exposed to throughout my childhood, it must have been church music at Sunday Mass because music was not a big part of my culture at home outside of my piano studies,” said Braid. “In my opinion, the large body of hymns in The Catholic Book of Worship, which I hear every Sunday, never manifest in any of my writing, but I think there is a vocal or lyrical quality in my melodic writing which relates back to those songs.”

Born in Hamilton, Ont., Braid attended Regina Mundi Elementary School followed by St. Thomas More High School. After moving to Toronto, where he is a faculty member at the University of Toronto, Braid began attending St. Basil’s parish as well as St. Vincent de Paul, due to an increasing interest in the Tridentine Mass.

Despite his accomplishments in jazz, a field that boasts a select number of stars, Braid is quick to highlight the integral role that his faith has played in his overwhelming achievements.

“I can not honestly take any ownership of whatever success I might have had. This is because I feel I am just trying my best to live out a vocation with enough sincerity that I can continue to grow,” said Braid.

“On another level, I can say that experiencing the Catholic sacraments throughout the weeks and years of my life lead me to understand that my faith does not exist as ‘a role’ but rather intrinsically changes who or what I am fundamentally. In this way, I would say that at my best moments of creating music, I am certainly not the creator but a kind of instrument able to respond to a mysterious inspiration.”

Braid is certainly a prolific creator. He writes for solo piano, jazz ensembles, chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras — a well-rounded composition portfolio that certainly augments any pre-conceived notions of jazz composition.

“In my opinion, writing traditional jazz music is more like ‘song writing.’ A song becomes interesting when the performer is spontaneous with the melody, harmony and rhythm… good quality song writing, or good quality jazz writing inspires interesting improvisation,” said Braid.

“Contemporary jazz composition does essentially the same thing, however the composition’s elements such as melody, harmony, rhythm and form are typically more complex.”

Additionally, Braid has found some specific elements of his Catholic practice that work their way into his writing.

“Direct inspirations include my composition ‘El Castillo Interior,’ inspired by the book of the same title written by St. Teresa of Avila in 1577,” said Braid.

“Another popular piece of mine, ‘Reverence,’ was based on the first four chords of a folk hymn that I heard a lot growing up called ‘Though the Mountains May Fall.’ I am a bit ashamed to admit that I always felt a little embarrassed by a kind of sentimental feeling I felt from that song, but I later used the opening chords to launch a new piece of my own.”

Braid’s upcoming performances on Dec. 5 and 6 in Beijing, which he has been doing annually since 2006, will be a solo piano recital at the Forbidden City Concert Hall as well as a premiere of music he has written for string quartet and piano at the Beijing University Centennial Concert Hall with the Peking Sinfonietta String Quartet. Braid has also just released a double CD album of two live recordings for the CBC radio broadcast The Signal.

As a man with such a wealth of performance and musical moments under his belt, Braid finds it difficult to pinpoint one particular moment that he cherishes best.

“Without trying to be facetious, my favourite performance and moment is definitely the next one. I feel that my work is always on an incline where I am always looking up ahead at where I am going. Whenever I feel like I am looking behind at what I was involved with before, I have stopped growing.”

Organ enjoying a renaissance in Canada, in and out of the church

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TORONTO - The pipe organ has held an inimitable place in Western musical canon since the 16th century. However, the instrument that is the cornerstone of the Church’s sacred musical practice is in the midst of an undeniable renaissance, both in Canada and abroad, in and out of the Church.

An indicator is the appointment of several internationally revered organ masters to prominent appointments in Canadian institutions — most notably Hans-Ola Ericsson, Swedish organist, composer and technician who has been appointed to the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal. Ericsson will be reaching Toronto audiences on Nov. 23 when he performs at the Church of the Holy Trinity.

“I’m obviously looking forward, very much, to performing in Toronto since it’s one of the big centres of Canadian music, and a very respected school of music,” said Ericsson of his first engagement outside of Montreal since his appointment at McGill.

Ericsson will be performing works from Bach and Messaien amongst others at Holy Trinity. He is also hosting a master class for some of the University of Toronto’s organ students. He notes the pedigree of young organists in Canada is laudable.

“I have been very impressed, I must say. The undergraduates that I teach here at McGill, they are very fine and they know their way around (the instrument),” said Ericsson. “They’re very capable… They are very eager at the ages of 18 and 19 and have a great working capacity.”

The trend towards an emerging talent pool of organists is blossoming across the country and outside the spectrum of the universities as well.

“We have had several young pianists introduced to the organ over the past decade and they are all doing really well in their careers as professional organists,” said Gordon Mansell, founder of the ORGANIX organ festival and member of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.

This interest has thrown weight behind, and perhaps fostered, a number of new organ-related projects in the country.

“Here in Montreal… due to the fabulous work of my predecessor John Grew, we have the Montreal Summer Organ Academy… which is a great thing for reaching out to young people,” said Ericsson. “Also of course, the CIOC (Canadian International Organ Competition), which is happening next year for the third time in Montreal. I see a lot of initiatives happening.”

In addition to the organ’s prominence in Canadian academic study and performance, the instrument is moving up in the liturgical landscape as well.

“We had a vibrant organ culture through the mid- to late-1970s,” said Mansell. “However, as the demographics of Canada changed with many people coming from places where either Western art music or organ music are foreign to their practise of faith — such as the case of people arriving from hot climates — then the preferred instrumentation for church services is more likely to be guitars.”

Ericsson also stresses the organ’s vitality within the liturgical context. His own achievements and compositions with the instrument are also highly regarded in the church. He was an integral part of the Project Studio Acusticum in Pitea, Sweden.

“It’s everything as an instrument within the service, within the Mass,” said Ericsson.

“An instrument underlining the worship and the service, as such, that can give colour, but also be able to be an instrument that can stand on its own, this is so important.”

With local innovators like Mansell already established in Canada, the hope is that the injection of international credential will only further the already prolific field of organists.

“Their experience is different from ours. Perhaps a bit exotic,” said Mansell of his European contemporaries.

“They are confident, well balanced in their musical tastes and can deliver an exciting program. They are quite accustomed to large audiences and know how to reach out to them to make them feel welcomed and entertained.

“Likewise, when an institution settles on a talent that has a more international base of experience, that institution is saying that they are serious about the future of the organ and they are interested in developing an organ culture of high international status.”

Ericsson echoes this sentiment.

“I hope, and I think, that there will be a great future for organ music. There are many wonderful young players that reach out to an audience that perhaps is a new audience.”