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PREVIEW | 21C Music Festival Brings New Music Luminaries To Toronto January To May

By Anya Wassenberg on November 24, 2023

Clockwise fr top left: Bridget Kibbey; Brad Mehldau; Kronos Quartet; Fazil Say; Lara St. John; Laurie Anderson; Brian Current (All photos courtesy of the artists/RCM)
Clockwise fr top left: Bridget Kibbey; Brad Mehldau; Kronos Quartet; Fazil Say; Lara St. John; Laurie Anderson; Brian Current (All photos courtesy of the artists/RCM)

The 11th version of the 21C Music Festival kicks off on January 19, wrapping up months later in May after a diverse line-up of Canadian and international artists, including return appearances by Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet.

Five of the offerings will take place in January 2024, with two of the major events pushed to April and May due to the busy schedules of the artists involved.

The 21C Festival 2024

We spoke to the RCM’s Executive Director of Performing Arts Mervon Mehta to take a look at the eclectic offerings of this year’s 21C.

Festival Of New Music

The festival offers Toronto audiences the chance to refresh their ears with new music. Here are some of the offerings:

  • More than 14 premieres: 1 world (Sebastian Currier: Ongoingness) and 13 Canadian (Laurie Anderson’s Statue of Liberty, Valerie Coleman’s Danza de la mariposa, Chaya Czernowin’s Habekhi (The Crying), Melissa Dunphy’s Kommos, Pierre Jodlowski’s Respire, Adah Kaplan’s Whitewashed, Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Luciernagas” from Suite Mestiza, Tania León’s Indígena, Žibuoklė Martinaitytė’s Ping Pong Concerto, Brad Mehldau’s 14 Reveries for Piano, Jessica Meyer’s Confronting the Sky, Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 2, and Milica Paranosic’s Bubamara).
  • The works of 3 Canadian composers: Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt Gramatté’s Caprice # 1: Die Kranke und die Uhr and Caprice # 5: Danse Marocaine, Ana Sokolović’s Danza # 2, and works by Nicole Lizée);
  • Performances by 8 Canadian artists and ensembles (conductor Brian Current, mezzo-soprano Beste Kalender, narrator Mervon Mehta, violist Barry Shiffman, violinists Lara and Scott St. John, and cellist Winona Zelenka).

Fazil Say performs Gezi Park 2:

Fazil Say and Friends (January 19)

Turkish pianist Fazil Say is known not only for his interpretations of works from the classical repertoire, but his own compositions. He’ll be performing his pieces for solo piano, voice, and chamber ensemble, including Gezi Park 2 and 3, The Moving Mansion, as well as a selection of songs and piano jazz fantasies on Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Mozart’s the Rondo alla turca, and Paganini Jazz

His collaborators will include Turkish-Canadian mezzo-soprano (and RCM alumna) Beste Kalender, violinists Lara and Scott St. John, violist Barry Shiffman (also Director of The Taylor Academy and Associate Dean & Director of Chamber Music at The Glenn Gould School), and cellist Winona Zelenka, (currently Assistant Principal Cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra).

Mervon had encountered Fazil Say many times, and he’s appeared at Koerner Hall before, often playing his own work in a larger programme of classical music. It was Mehta’s suggestion to put together a concert entirely of his own work.

“He’s an extraordinary composer,” Mervon says, describing his pieces as a blend of Western classical, Turkish folk music and jazz. Mezzo-soprano Beste Kalender, with her Turkish background, was also his suggestion.

Lara St. John: ♀she/her/hers (January 20)

Canadian violinist Lara St. John has garnered attention both for her artistry and her activism. Her album♀she/her/hers was released in 2022, and featuring original work for solo violin by 12 different composers, including world premieres by Milica Paranosic, Micheline Coulombe St. Marcoux, Laura de Rover, Melissa Dunphy, and Adah Kaplan, along with pieces by Laurie Anderson, Valerie Coleman, Gabriela Lena Frank, Jessica Meyer, Jessie Montgomery, and Ana Sokolović. The recording is part of her mission to fight for the rights of women and marginalized groups, sparked by her own experiences with sexual abuse as a teenager.

21C Afterhours: Indígena (January 20)

Conductor and award-winning composer Brian Current leads the Glenn Gould School’s New Music Ensemble in an adventurous programme for an evening performance. The title piece, Tania León’s Indígena, is a work for large ensemble. The concert will also include Respire, by Pierre Jodlowski in collaboration with dance company Myriam Naisy, Chaya Czernowin’s Habekhi (The Crying) for mezzo-soprano and electronics, and Žibuoklė Martinaitytė’s playful Ping Pong Concerto.

Bridget Kibbey with the Calidore String Quartet & Mervon Mehta (January 21)

Acclaimed harpist Bridget Kibbey is joined by New York’s Calidore String Quartet, with Mervon Mehta stepping in as narrator, in a programme that includes a new commission for harp and quartet by Sebastian Currier titled Ongoingness. Mervon will narrate Poe’s classic Masque of the Red Death, and the concert will continue the Poe theme with André Caplet’s harp quintet inspired by the same story.

“How cheeky of me to book myself,” Mervon laughs. “I’m a ham at best.” He and Bridget Kibbey, with a different string quartet, had already performed Poe’s piece at another music festival. It was so much fun, however, they vowed to do it again. “It’s very juicy to narrate.”

“I asked her to put together a whole programme of harp music,” he says. As it turns out, the Caligore String Quartet are headquartered down the street from Bridget’s home in New York.

“Someone has called her the Yo-Yo Ma of the harp, but she is really a fascinating artist,” he says. “We’ve never done a harp concert, per se,” he notes. Bridget will also conduct master classes with harp students while she’s in town.

Brad Mehldau: 14 Reveries (January 27)

Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Brad Mehldau will perform solo for an evening that includes a piece commissioned by The Royal Conservatory, Wigmore Hall (London), Cal Performances (UC Berkeley), and Carnegie Hall. The title work, 14 Reveries, is based on the notion of interior experiences. It will be the piece’s Canadian premiere.

Mehldau has performed several times at Koerner Hall in the past. The world premiere of the commissioned piece took place at Wigmore Hall in London. “It’s based on French Impressionistic music and French Impressionistic Art,” Mehta says. He first came across the noted jazz pianist years ago working in the United States. “I remember being floored by him,” he recalls.

For the second half of the concert, he’ll play pieces from his album Suite: April 2020, along with pieces he’ll announce from the stage.

Laurie Anderson (April 5)

Laurie Anderson will return for another captivating performance. Her appearance at the 21C Festival in January 2020 performing The Art of Falling was nothing short of magical, and audiences can expect the unexpected from this always interesting artist.

Laurie’s last appearance at 21C was a residency that lasted a week. “She was here for a bit, and was very generous,” he recalls. “She’s incredibly busy.”

The process for working with Anderson is different from most. She discusses the engagement with Mehta, and then considers the performance for a few months before deciding on exactly what she’ll bring. The lack of details hasn’t hurt ticket sales. “We’re almost sold out,” Mervon reports.

Kronos Quartet: Five Decades (May 9)

San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet is celebrating five decades of championing new music, and they make a return visit to 21C with a programme that includes pieces by Nicole Lizée, Terry Riley, Peni Candra Rini, and Aleksandra Vrebalov. The ensemble is also celebrating their newest member, cellist Paul Wiancko. The other members include founder and violinist David Harrington, and longtime members John Sherba (violin) and Hank Dutt (viola).

Kronos has appeared at 21C several times. “We’ve been part of their commissioning projects,” he says. “They feel a real loyalty to us.” Mehta mentions that he presented the innovative ensemble in Philadelphia and elsewhere earlier in his career.

He mentions their seminal 50 For The Future Project, which makes new string quartets available for free, along with notes and instructive material. “It’s an unprecedented act of generosity,” he says. “They’ve a 50 year legacy.”

  • Tickets and more information about 21C and all the concerts available [HERE].

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