The Ontario Pops Orchestra and music director/conductor Carlos Bastidas are celebrating the release of their debut album with a concert in Toronto on March 31. The release, Breaking Barriers, spotlights Black women in the role of featured soloists: violinists Tanya Charles Iveniuk and Yanet Campbell Secades, and bassoonist Marlene Ngalissamy.
Carlos Bastidas and Ontario Pops Orchestra
Maestro Carlos Bastidas came to Canada from Colombia to study music. “I’ve been taking music since I was 11 years at the National Conservatory in Colombia,” he says. He moved to Canada to pursue his studies at the University of Ottawa. “My main instrument at the time was the bassoon. Back in the 90s, there wasn’t a conducting program.”
He began with playing professionally as a bassoonist in various orchestras, while studying conducting as well. “After doing that for a couple of decades, [and] after seeing so many conductors, I thought, I can do that better,” he says. “Usually when people ask me, I say I play 65 different instruments.”
Founding the OPO has been a winding road from its inception in 2014. “It was a journey. We started out the orchestra, and I’m kind of a modern conductor in that I use a lot of social media.” What he started with was the idea of creating a community orchestra in Etobicoke. “You don’t start with a professional orchestra,” he says. He was amazed at the response. “I got 345 replies from people who wanted to play in the orchestra.”
After a series of auditions, the orchestra got started. “We are the only pops orchestra in the GTA.” With several other orchestras in the GTA alone, all performing essentially standard concert repertoire, it left a gap, he felt. “I don’t want to do the same thing.” That’s especially true if you’re reaching beyond the usual concert audience demographics. “Pops gives me a wider range of programming. I can do from a Broadway show to Dvorak Symphony No. 9. For classical, I try to program pieces that people are familiar with.”
While it was well received and growing, the Ontario Pops Orchestra as a community ensemble essentially dissolved when the pandemic hit. Carlos always had bigger plans for the ensemble; the lockdown simply brought the situation to a head. “That’s when I jump started the professional orchestra,” he says of the reset. “It was a pivotal moment.”
With the help of some sponsors and from the Toronto Musician’s Association, he started to put the next step into place. During the pandemic, they played concerts without an audience to record the results.
“After that, it was really well received,” he says. “One of our first videos — Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik — we got something like 200K hits.”
“We’re kind of a niche orchestra,” he adds, although that niche includes a broader base than the usual classical music crowd. He reports that about 1,000 people attended their first concert in Meridian Hall.
Just before the pandemic, Carlos was brainstorming ideas on how to create an inclusive project for OPO, featuring artists who aren’t usually in the spotlight. “I came up with the idea of the recording during the pandemic.”
The album Breaking Barriers, released digitally in late 2022, includes Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and St. Paul’s Suite for String Orchestra, Op. 29, No. 2 by Gustav Holst on the first disc. The second disc features Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, along with JS Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, No. 1, BWV 1041, and Violin Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005, along with Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto.
Get the digital and physical release (double CD available March 31) here.
He was already familiar with the work of bassoonist Marlene Ngalissamy. “That’s why I programmed the Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto.” Carlos notes that, along with recording the performance, it was videotaped as well. “The Vivaldi video has so many comments,” he notes. “People are being moved by it.”
Moscow born Marlene Ngalissamy came to Canada at the age of 10, and began her studies of the bassoon about three years later. She studied first at the Montreal Conservatory of Music, and has gone on to study at the Curtis Institute of music. She won first prize at the Canadian Music Competition in 2012. Marlene is currently principal bassoon with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, is part of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, and has performed with major orchestras across Canada.
“That’s why I came out with the idea. I invited first one soloist, then [had] the idea of asking all three.” He used a chamber group for the recording, and a collaborative approach with the soloists in choosing the repertoire.
Violinist Tanya Charles Iveniuk is OPO’s Concertmaster. The native of Hamilton, Ontario, has roots in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and has performed throughout North and South America, and the Caribbean. A graduate of the UofT with a Bachelor of Music, and an Artist Diploma from the Glenn Gould School, she has gone on to win multiple awards. Along with her work with OPO, she is the concertmaster of the Obiora Ensemble, and violinist with Ensemble du Monde (Guadeloupe), Toronto Mozart Players, and the Odin Quartet.
Violinist Yanet Campbell Secades is a soloist, chamber and orchestral musician who was born in Camagüey, Cuba. “She’s a beautiful musician,” Carlos remarks, “a rising star.” She’s won awards in both her native country, (first prize at Cuba’s prestigious Unión de Artistas y Escritores Cubanos in 2015), and Canada (a prize winner at the Federation of Canadian Music Festivals’ National Competition in 2019). With a Master of Music from Memorial University of Newfoundland, she is currently working on the Artist Diploma Program at the Glenn Gould School.
The recording formally marks the beginning of the orchestra’s professional wave. Carlos says that, with their non-traditional approach, new website and social media reach, Ontario Pops attracts many audience members who wouldn’t typically attend a classical music concert. That’s a base he’ll continue to build on.
What’s next for Ontario Pops Orchestra? “My goal has always been to take classical music into the open air, out of the stage,” says Carlos. He’d like to see large scale outdoor concerts, free to the public, similar to those staged by many American orchestras. “I think there’s room for that.”
The Breaking Barriers concert on March 31 will take place at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre. More information and tickets here.
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