In the Media

Musical Toronto blog, February 16, 2012

Aldeburgh Connection at 30: The magic comes from the open spirit of its founders by John Terauds

It’s ironic that The Aldeburgh Connection, a concert series that excels in casting an intimate, salon-like glow at every performance, is going big and splashy for its 30th anniversary celebration at Koerner Hall on Sunday afternoon.

That concert, which features 16 singers fostered and showcased over the history of this art-song performance series, is, without a doubt, one of this season’s must-hear events.

The guests are a who’s who of Canadian talent: Gerald Finley, Nathalie Paulin, Gillian Keith, Michael Colvin, Brett Polegato, Colin Ainsworth, Benjamin Butterfield, Tyler Duncan, Shannon Mercer, Susan Platts, Lauren Segal, Krisztina Szabó, Giles Tomkins, Monica Whicher and Lawrence Wiliford.

Co-artistic directors and piano accompanists Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata give up their usual hosting duties to mezzo Catherine Robbin and former Shaw Festival artistic director Christopher Newton.

Sunday’s showcase piece will be Ralph Vaughan William’s Serenade to Music, written for 16 singers (see video below).

For more information on the concert, click here. For one of the few remaining tickets, click here.

Ralls and Ubukata, who met at Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival in England in 1977, started the Alderbugh Connection as a wouldn’t-it-be-fun song recital at University of Toronto’s Hart House on Feb. 21, 1982.

There was enough of an audience interested in the art song repertoire to encourage the duo to slowly expand into a small regular season of Sunday-afternoon concerts, usually held at Walter Hall (supplemented in recent years with a couple of summertime events in Bayfield, where the couple has a cottage).

The Aldeburgh format is a compelling mix of words and music, themed around a particular composer, influential arts figure or place. This has allowed for programmes that focus on French mélodies or Schubert Lieder or, say, the musical passions of Jane Austen.

In what could very easily become a dry format, Ralls and Ubukata always add a dash of wit. They take the music very seriously, but have a knack for keeping their audiences entertained.

I first met the couple around the time of the Aldeburgh Connection’s fifth anniversary. Ralls was teaching voice at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Ubukata was a freelance accompanist, coach and assistant organist at St. Simon’s Anglican Church on Bloor St. E.

Between moving to Toronto and getting my own organist’s job, I sang at St. Simon’s. It didn’t take long to get invited to Ralls and Ubukata’s Annex home, where a concert grand piano stretched through the full length of what should have been the dining room.

The couple were — and continue to be — the best kind of mentors, sharing their love of literature and music, peppering any conversation with caustic wit, and encouraging guests to mix freely amongst themselves.

As has been the case with so many people who have crossed their literal and figurative thresholds, I’ve loved the curiosity, laughter and friendship that go with knowing Ralls and Ubukata.

Every bit of that openness comes across at an Aldeburgh Connection concert, making for that ineffable magic.