Our inaugural concert in the Great Hall of Hart House, Toronto, on February 21, 1982, was on a Sunday afternoon. After three seasons of concerts for various organizations across Canada, it became clear that we should present our own series. So, inevitably, on three Sundays in Walter Hall in the Faculty of Music, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, we presented English Afternoons. Because of that initial bias, afternoon tea was an intermission feature – and remained so, by popular demand, right up until the final concert in 2013. Advertising in our first season was largely by word of mouth, based on friends’ Christmas card lists, and we sold tickets out of a shoe-box; it was an exciting moment when audience figures rose into three digits. Before long, Walter Hall was filled and our Sunday Series became a vital part of Toronto’s musical calendar.
For each afternoon we engaged several singers and chose a particular theme, with carefully chosen narration between the musical numbers; we sought to open up the context which gave rise to the songs – of a composer or poet, in a particular place or time – to help our audience appreciate more deeply the art-song repertoire which was so dear to us, but which sometimes seemed difficult to approach, partly because of language. Anniversaries often gave us a starting point – Tippett’s 90th birthday, Poulenc or Britten’s centenary, the 200th of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, the 300th of Bach and Handel, the 2,000th of Ovid’s Metamorphoses – all provided grist for our programming mill. We took great delight in weaving together a sequence of words and music, refining our skills over three decades: we enjoyed balancing words and music, light and serious, vocal and instrumental, and are proud to present the results in our online archive. Do visit and take a look!
After eight years of the Sunday Series, we felt the need to add recitals to feature longer works in the shape of complete song-cycles (such an important part of the art-song heritage), but without our narrative framework. Two concerts in the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in 1993 presented song-cycles by Francis Poulenc and the complete Italienisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf; subsequent seasons included major cycles of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Fauré and Britten. One of our most exciting and memorable events took place on Schubert’s 200th birthday, January 31, 1997. Seven singers (two of whom were, the same evening, singing Beethoven’s 9th in Roy Thomson Hall, fortunately only yards down the street . . .) and various instrumentalists, including André Laplante, Joaquin Valdepeñas, James Sommerville and the Penderecki String Quartet, beguiled an enthusiastic audience which included listeners to the CBC’s live cross-country broadcast.
Our recitals enabled us to present our finest singers in more songs than our audience would hear from them on a Sunday afternoon: Catherine Robbin, Gerald Finley, Michael Schade, Russell Braun and Adrianne Pieczonka were among the many who gave memorable performances, mostly in the Glenn Gould Studio, and a number of these events led to CD recordings. After the great success of Schubert’s Birthday Party in 1997, we wished to pay homage to one of the composer’s greatest fans, our dear friend and mentor, Greta Kraus, who sadly passed away a year later; she had always been crucial to us – and to so many performers – in our musical preparation. In 1999 we presented the first of our annual Greta Kraus Schubertiads, which were to continue in her memory for fourteen more seasons.
On December 4, 1998, soprano Heidi Klann and baritone Alexander Dobson sang the first of what we then called Young Artist Recitals. Annually, singers from the University of Toronto’s vocal and opera programmes auditioned for places which we offered in two recitals each season. These concerts, renamed in 2006 the Discovery Series, provided an all too rare recital experience for these talented performers outside the framework of their studies. Many of the singers went on to appear in our Sunday Series or Recital Series, or were featured in larger scale events, such as our Great Song Marathon celebrating our 20th anniversary in 2002 or another all-day event, Hugo Wolf and his Poets, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. Others would come with us in June to the shores of Lake Huron for the annual Bayfield Festival of Song.
The Artistic Directors have always enjoyed spending time in western Ontario; in fact, Bruce was born in the town of Goderich on Lake Huron. After a decade of summer cottage rental, we took the plunge and bought a house – an 1858 “Ontario Cottage” – on the Main Street in Bayfield, a village just south of Goderich. There, we were gratified to find a thriving and warm community of friends who, as soon as they realised our skills, asked us to perform for them. In July 2004 we presented the first of three annual concerts in the jewel-like Town Hall (1882) which raised funds towards the hall’s preservation. A group of alumni from our Discovery Series performed music which we had initially presented in Walter Hall, Toronto. After the third concert, in May 2006, enthusiasm ran high enough to encourage us to plan the first of six annual Bayfield Festivals of Song.
The first two Festivals each spanned a single weekend; in 2009, we extended our events over a ten day period, which would include one of the most enjoyable aspects of the summer: a tour of elementary schools in Huron and Perth Counties. There were typically seven or eight concerts for the young students, so that our audience figures for the Festival rose to some 1,500 in all, performing to an age-range of about 4 to 84! The second week would also feature a singers’ masterclass given by a visiting artist, such as Catherine Robbin, Mary Lou Fallis or Laura Tucker. In the Town Hall, a quartet of Discovery Series alumni would perform most of the concerts, alternating with recitals by visiting celebrities, including James Westman, Nathalie Paulin, Anita Krause, Brett Polegato, Shannon Mercer and Susan Platts.
We have enjoyed a number of concerts on tour – in Ontario, across Canada, in the US and the UK. These have been recreations of performances already given in our Toronto series, though sometimes with some inevitable changes in personnel. Summer festivals have frequently welcomed us, including those in Guelph and Elora, the Shaw Festival and the Festival of the Sound. More unusual events were the result of invitations from the Glimmerglass Festival, the Wagner Society of New York and the Jane Austen Society of North America – these are all detailed in our online archive. But pride of place should go to our appearances at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, England. We paid two visits, firstly for a single concert in 1988 and secondly for two concerts as part of a five-city tour on the occasion of our 10th anniversary in 1992.