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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Interview: Toronto Summer Music founder Agnes Grossmann finds heartfelt singing in Taiwan

By John Terauds on November 20, 2012

Agnes Grossmann leads the Taiwan National Choir at Koerner Hall on Friday night (Allen McInnis photo).

Although Agnes Grossmann is coming through Toronto on Friday with her Taiwan National Choir and a programme of 19th century Germanic choral gems, it doesn’t take long for her to start talking about opera.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Grossmann accepted the artistic directorship of the Taibei-based professional choir in 2006 with the mandate of developing a world-class ensemble capable of performing Western repertoire from all eras. Since then, she has spent about four months of every year with the group, working three to four projects.

The artistic director and choir also now have a 10-year contract with Montreal’s Analekta and have several big recordings ready to go, even though the label has only just released the first, a snappy interpretation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, featuring countertenor Daniel Taylor as the roasting swan.

Her recording engineer is Canadian Ed Marshall. “We bring him out every year,” says Grossmann. For her, the current highlight among the unreleased recordings is Anton Bruckner’s E minor Mass.

Although widely known for his sprawling symphonies, Bruckner was a remarkable composer of pithy unaccompanied sacred choral music of almost supernatural beauty. The Taiwanese are bringing a clutch of Bruckner’s best-known motets as well as the E-minor Mass to their Koerner Hall début on Friday. The second half of the evening is secular, featuring three songs by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms’ Op. 103 Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) and a selection of folksongs from Taiwan.

Grossmann describes the rich 19th century repertoire the choir now proudly sings, as well her intentions to explore the music of the Renaissance with them. Then she reveals how the group last season presented Mozart’s Magic Flute, with the help of European soloists and old operatic production collaborators of Grossmann’s.

Opera was one of Grossmann’s great dreams for the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Despite presenting solid opera productions during its first two seasons, the enterprise proved too costly and Toronto Summer Music has since focussed on much cheaper chamber music and art song, first under Grossmann, now under her successor, Douglas McNabney.

But there isn’t necessarily more money for opera in Taiwan these days. “It is always a financial question,” says the ever-wishful conductor. The Taiwanese choir is funded by the island nation’s ministry of education. The way they were able to get funding from Taibei was to also produce a pocket version of the opera which could then be presented in school tours.

Grossmann says that choral music is a big deal in Taiwan, with choir competitions held every hear between schools across the country. “There is an ongoing development of classical music in an amazing way,” she explains. “Our concerts are full, and there is a real passion for Western classical music.”

This appears to be an ideal fit for the conductor, who was raised in the grand old traditions of Central European music and musicianship. She has also invited Europe’s most venerable choral conductors — people such as Frieder Bernius and Eric Ericson — to share their knowledge and wisdom with the Taiwanese.

All of the European conductors have made a point of fostering new music for choral singing. Grossmann says she also has hopes to do the same in Taiwan — as soon as there is more money available.

In the meantime, Grossmann is proud of her accomplishments over the past six-plus years in Taiwan. It’s not an issue of technique or repertoire. Rather it is achieving an ensemble that sings with what Grossmann in German calls Innigkeit: “They are dedicated to musikmaking with their heart.”

There are no national or cultural boundaries to that.

For all the details on Friday’s concert, click here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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