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PRIMER | Mervon Mehta Takes Us Inside The 7th 21C Festival Line-up

By Anya Wassenberg on December 17, 2019

From American icon Laurie Anderson to global jazz experiments with Danilo Pérez and Zakir Hussain, intriguing vocal staged works and more, 21C aims to dazzle Toronto audiences with a diverse line-up of international talent.

Top, l-r: Danilo Pérez, Laurie Anderson, Alice Ping Lee Ho. Bottom, l-r: Against the Grain, Ayre, Philip Sly & Chimera
Top, l-r: Danilo Pérez (image John Abbott); Laurie Anderson (image Ebru Yildiz); Alice Ping Lee Ho (image Bo Huang). Bottom, l-r:
Against the Grain, Ayre; Philip Sly & Chimera (images courtesy of the artists)

“It’s people doing interesting, important, vital pieces.” Mervon Mehta, Executive Director, Performing Arts for The Royal Conservatory, is talking about the upcoming seventh iteration of the 21C Music Festival.

21C Music Festival brightens the post-holiday landscape with three weeks of contemporary music, presenting eight concerts over three weekends from Saturday, January 11 to Saturday, January 25, 2020.

The Festival lives up to its billing of presenting “newly minted music” with a program that includes five world premieres, along with one North American and four Canadian premieres. Of the five world premieres, four involve Canadian composers (Allison Au, Barbara Croall, Ryan Davis, and Bekah Simms) and one American (John Patitucci).

Within the idea of presenting new music, Mehta leaves the door open to multiple styles and genres. “From the beginning, we never wanted to pigeonhole this,” he explains. “Most of it is classical in form.” He points out the inclusion of a tabla concerto and jazz in the program. “It’s part of the mix.”

It’s Toronto audiences that drive the adventurous programming. “I think people are catholic in their tastes,” he says. “We love mixing it up.”

Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson (Image : Ebru Yildiz)

Among the offerings this year, the biggest name is that of American arts icon Laurie Anderson. According to Mehta, she’s been on his radar for as long as there has been a 21C Festival. “I’ve been an admirer and fan of hers forever,” says Mehta. There were a few attempts in the past where schedules didn’t line up before they meshed for 2020. “The good news is that she’ll be here for several days,” he says.

“She’s one of those wonderfully lovely artists,” he says. Mehta describes how he got a message through her agent to call her directly to talk about programming. “Everything was wide open,” he says. “That’s not normal.” Over several phone calls, they hammered out the program.

While the January 18 Canadian premiere of Anderson’s solo works and collaborations with long time music partner, cellist Rubin Kodheli — titled The Art of Falling — has been sold out for some time, there are other opportunities to see Anderson and experience her work.

For those lucky enough to already have a ticket, Anderson describes The Art of Falling program in her own words:

The Art of Falling is an extended improvisation for viola, cello, and electronics. Hypnotic stories, politics, and dreams weave in and out of the music. My ambition with The Art of Falling is to make a piece that is one long sentence.”

Along with her own performance, Anderson will be working with musicians from The Glenn Gould School. For 21C Cinq à Sept, an early concert (5 p.m.) on January 18, they will perform the Canadian premiere of her composition Shutter Island. Also on the bill are the Canadian premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Laconisme de l’aile, the world premiere of Ryan Davis’s latest work for viola, voice, and live electronics, and Christos Hatzis’s “The Mega4 Meta4” from Earthrise.

The Royal Ontario Museum will host Laurie Anderson: To The Moon from January 11 to 25. The 15-minute installation, developed with Taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huang, takes viewers on a virtual reality trip to the surface of the moon set to Anderson’s music.

On January 19, the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema will screen Anderson’s 2015 film Heart of a Dog. The movie focuses on the death of her dog Lolabelle in 2011, and takes viewers on a journey through love and loss set to her music. Anderson will be on hand for a post-screening talk hosted by Mehta.

Fans of new classical music will get a broad menu of concerts. “There is certainly a base of contemporary classical,” Mehta says.

Joel Ivany’s Against the Grain Theatre kicks off 21C on January 11 with Ayre and other works by Osvaldo Golijov. Golijov is a noted Argentinian composer with two Grammys for composition under his belt, among many other accolades. AtG mines his catalog of work, known for interweaving Middle Eastern and Mediterranean folk melodies into a unique sound. Along with the JUNO-nominated Ayre, the program also includes other Golijov works such as Mariel, K’vakarat, and Tenebrae. Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil stars. Live music is performed by a who’s who of jazz and classical musicians, including Jamey Haddad (percussion), Barry Shiffman (violin and viola), Michael Ward-Bergman (accordion), Juan Gabriel Olivares (clarinet) Beverley Johnston (percussion), Jeremy Flower (laptop and electronics), Roberto Occhipinti (bass), and Cantor Alex Stein.

Violinist Véronique Mathieu follows with a late evening concert at Temerty Theatre the same day (January 11). “Véronique is an artist we really like working with,” Mehta says. After appearing in the Festival as a performer on multiple occasions, she was given the opportunity to put together her own concert. The evening format opens up different options. “You can be a little more adventurous,” Mehta explains.

For 21C Afterhours, Mathieu and pianist Stephanie Chua perform a program they’ve entitled True North. Work by Derek Johnson and Canadian composer Adam Scime will be on the bill, along with the Canadian premiere of 4 Seasons by Alice Ping Yee Ho. The concert will also include the world premiere of a piece by Odawa First Nations composer Barbara Croall, co-commissioned by The Royal Conservatory

JUNO Award-nominated composer — and rising star in the classical music world — Bekah Simms is one of the Canadians premiering work at the Festival. “Bekah is someone who is getting quite well known,” Mehta notes. On January 19, the Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble performs For Michael Colgrass, a concert in honour of the late Toronto-based composer and music educator. His Hammer and Bow will be on the bill, along with the world premiere of Simms’ Bestiary I & II for soprano, ensemble, and electronics, Gabriel Dharmoo’s the fog in our poise, and the North American premiere of Aguas Marinhas by Portuguese composer Miguel Azguime.

Zakir Hussain
Zakir Hussain (Image : Jim McGuire)

Panamanian jazz pianist, composer and pioneer Danilo Pérez is featured in two back-to-back concerts on January 24 and 25. “He’s one of the greatest jazz pianists around,” says Mehta. Pérez is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Panama Jazz Festival, as well as Founder and Artistic Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in Boston’s Berklee College of Music, among other things.

On the 25th, he’s bringing his Global Messengers project, including musicians from Palestine, Greece, Jordan, and Panama for the Canadian premiere of his piece Fronteras (Borders) and other selections. Juno Award-winning saxophonist Allison Au and her quartet open the concert with the world premiere of her composition Migrations. Vocalist Laila Biali is a special guest performer.

The night before, on January 24, Pérez takes part in a unique concert that brings two traditions together — classical Indian music and contemporary jazz. Zakir Hussain is one of the world’s most renowned tabla virtuosi, a composer, producer, and film actor. His father was legendary tabla player Ustad Allah Rakha. “He’s a curious, intrepid musician,” Mehta says. “The public adores him.” The concert begins with an improv sessions involving Hussain, Pérez, bassist, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade on drums. “No one’s ever going to see that except at Koerner Hall,” Mehta notes.

Next, Hussain will perform the Canadian premiere of Peshkar, his tabla concerto, with Zane Dalal, Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of India, conducting the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. Pérez, Patitucci, and Blade return to premiere Patitucci’s Hypocrisy for orchestra and jazz trio for the second half of the concert.

Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly is bringing his Chimera Project to the Festival for a performance of Winterreise 2020. “I think he’s a terrific young singer,” Mehta says. Concert and theatrical performance mesh in a 21st century take on Schubert’s masterpiece for voice. The song cycle consists of 24 songs based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, and is fully staged in an arrangement for violin, clarinet, trombone, and accordion. The musicians and performers move around the stage as the performance unfolds. The performance takes place January 17 at Koerner Hall with a post-concert talk.

“It’ll be a shock to purists,” Mehta says.

The 21C Festival runs on weekends from January 11 to 25, 2020. Details.

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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