Music

Owen Underhill's Hinge for Piano and Chamber Ensemble by Chris Foley

This recording dates from nearly 20 years ago, and was one of my most memorable performing/recording projects from the time I was a member of the Vancouver New Music Ensemble. Owen Underhill’s Hinge, with its intricacy and interaction of piano writing against the chamber ensemble, was a challenge and required a ton of preparation. We really nailed the recording, and our work here is a fine example of the cohesion that the ensemble played with in the late 90’s.

Here’s the full lineup from the recording:

Owen Underhill, conductor
Chris Foley, piano solo
Kathryn Cernauskas, flute and piccolo
David Owen, english horn and oboe
François Houle, bass clarinet
Salvador Ferreras, percussion
Victor Costanzi, violin
Sue Round, cello
David Brown, double bass

Keith Jarrett Plays Over the Rainbow by Chris Foley

Pianists trained in the classical tradition might find Keith Jarrett’s physical mannerisms a little off-putting. But in this arrangement of Over the Rainbow you’ll find a stillness, beauty, and perfect choice of notes in the improvised sections that makes Jarrett’s style so moving.

From Music School to the Opera World by Chris Foley

Embarking on a professional opera career after the sheltered world of university can be eye-opening, writes baritone Lucas Meachem in What School Doesn’t Teach You About Opera. Lucas’ advice looks at how to deal with uncertainty and the importance of developing your own program where none is laid out for you in life. How he motivated himself to create a course of study during a two-month hiatus:

The first time I had time off as a young professional was when I was singing in Stuttgart and the stagehands went on strike. I had two entire (paid) months off and I had to be intelligent with my time. I took the opportunity to learn German and hired a tutor. I became proficient by the time I left the country.

It was up to me how I spent those two months and I had to continue being productive or else I would have gone stir-crazy as well as gotten behind on my potential development as a singer. I had to motivate myself to develop without a program telling me how.

The only place where I disagree with Lucas is regarding the responsibility of music programs to teach students about real life skills and situations - I feel strongly that they should, and that many music programs are failing their students in this regard.

A deep dive into Lucas’ blog is well worth the time - you’ll find a lot of practical advice and wisdom there.

(Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash)

My Next Read by Chris Foley

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Look what arrived in the mail yesterday! It’s not every day that you get to read a novel about music that’s written by someone with a deep and meaningful knowledge of what the musical life actually entails. A huge thanks goes out to Rhonda Rizzo for sending me a copy - stay tuned for some thoughts on The Waco Variations.

Olivier Latry Plays the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor at Notre Dame de Paris by Chris Foley

Many of us this morning are heartbroken by the devastating fire at Notre Dame de Paris, one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures. Fortunately, the great organ survived, according to Paris’ deputy mayor:

10:35 a.m.

Paris’ deputy mayor says Notre Dame’s organ, among the world’s most famous and biggest, remains intact after a devastating fire at Paris’ main cathedral.

Emmanuel Gregoire told BFMTV Tuesday that a plan to protect Notre Dame’s treasures was rapidly and successfully activated.

The impressive organ dates to the 1730s and was constructed by Francois Thierry. It boasts an estimated 8,000 pipes.

We can only hope that the organ is once again in playable condition during our lifetimes. Until then, we have only the recorded legacy of great performances on that instrument. Here’s Olivier Latry playing Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor: (Update Friday, April 26, 2019) It appears that the video referenced in the title is no longer available on YouTube for whatever reasons. In its place, here’s a video of Olivier Latry playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor:

You can read more about the Great and Choir organs here, here, and here.

What I Learned Over the Last Two Weeks by Chris Foley

This is a place I always go to when I’m in the western Conception Bay area. The weather in the first week of April was warmer than when I came here in mid-June two years ago.

This is a place I always go to when I’m in the western Conception Bay area. The weather in the first week of April was warmer than when I came here in mid-June two years ago.

Once in a while you encounter a period of time where everything snaps into clarity, and where the most important issues and questions all of a sudden seem to make more sense. A few days ago I got back from a two-week trip on the road examining at the Kiwanis Music Festival in Carbonear and examining for The Royal Conservatory’s Certificate Program in Winnipeg. In both these places, I had the chance to observe musical communities at their finest.

The stage at the Carbonear Regional Community Centre.

The stage at the Carbonear Regional Community Centre.

The trip started with a full week adjudicating in Carbonear, a small town up the Conception Bay coastline northwest of St. John’s, Newfoundland. What I found intriguing was how a small town of less than 5000 people can support a festival with a full week of piano and voice classes. What intrigued me about this trip were the words of those who had previously adjudicated in Carbonear, and how it had transformed their outlook on music education. So I left with an eagerness to discover something that several of my colleagues had already learned while working there.

The first thing I noticed was how well-run the festival was. Adjudicating a full festival is no small feat, and the web of rules, scholarships, and qualification requirements can be difficult to navigate at the best of times. However, the day-to-day logistics were handled with a level of detail that allowed me to concentrate on the music and how I could help each performer, given the limited time available in performing classes throughout the day.

The view from my motel room in Carbonear. The weather tended to be quite variable, and I experienced three seasons in one week.

The view from my motel room in Carbonear. The weather tended to be quite variable, and I experienced three seasons in one week.

But as the week developed, I also noticed a number of other things. Music in Newfoundland holds a central a place in the life of families, noticeable by the sheer love and engagement of so many musicians and the large number of relatives that came out to support the performers, many of whom learned multiple instruments.

The performers were highly supportive of each other, even in competitive classes. After performing, I would notice that many of them high-fived and fist-bumped each other. Sadly, there are only a few awards available for each class, many of which are quite sizeable. But after announcing the results, I was pleasantly astonished to notice that those who didn’t win genuinely congratulated those who did.

This was a tough shot to make, and I had to time the shot with the rise and fall of the waves so as not to have my iPhone swept out to sea.

This was a tough shot to make, and I had to time the shot with the rise and fall of the waves so as not to have my iPhone swept out to sea.

There are also strong ties between those working in the arts community with the business community at large. This is a relationship that in many places is largely not known or understood, but when you see it in action, you can see a community working together with strong cohesion, and with the best interests of everyone. In Carbonear, there was a strong understanding in the business community that arts activities are an integral part of the area’s economic activity, can strengthen ties within it, and bring people into the area. The large number of people learning instruments also created a strong demand for teachers in the area. My hope is that as current teachers in the area age and eventually retire, younger teachers will move to the community in order to continue the local musical traditions.

The trip continued with a short examining stint in Winnipeg, where I had a chance to catch up with some of my dearest friends as well as meet new ones. Tempering my admiration of the high standard of playing was a realization of the very real issues facing educators in that city, especially regarding the mental health of young people.

A well-deserved drink at Winnipeg airport at the end of the trip.

A well-deserved drink at Winnipeg airport at the end of the trip.

I like to thank people for the impact that they have in the world, and in the case of the last two weeks, the list of people I personally thanked, either in person or on social media, went well into the dozens. But I wanted to thank everyone once more who makes such an impact on their community in Carbonear, St. John’s, and Winnipeg. You know who you are, and I just wanted you all to know that your dedication to the arts community and young people whose lives you impact, either as educators, parents, or volunteers, really matters. You’re doing great work, and the example that you’ve shown will inform the work I do for a very long time.

Hybrid Life: Balancing Careers in Music and Writing by Chris Foley

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Today’s guest post is from Rhonda Rizzo, a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  If you’re interested in following Rhonda’s projects, check out her blog No Dead Guys. I hope that Rhonda’s account of managing her twin careers resonates with you the way it does for me - this is the way forward for many of us as we enter a much more entrepreneur-oriented era for success in the arts.


It took my first recital (age 6) to convince me I wanted to be a pianist.  It took selling my first story (age 15) to convince me I wanted to be a writer.  It has taken me decades to figure out how to balance the two.  I am, a career mentor once told me, a hybrid. She was the first one who saw the value of maintaining both career paths when most people told me I needed to specialize and choose between the two.  

Balancing two parallel career paths is tricky.  My focus zig-zags; sometimes it’s the piano that absorbs me and other times it’s writing.  This could be a sign that I’m not serious about either career, but it’s the path I’ve taken because I’m creatively incomplete without both disciplines in my life.  And, after decades of working in both art forms, I can see the common ground that feeds them both.  

Communication.  It’s the earth, the hummus, the guiding force, the creative stuff that dictates my writing and playing.  Some truths require the poetry of words; others go so deep they need the wordless communication of music.  The trick is to listen closely and obey the creative impulse, regardless of the communication channel.  

It took decades of working in these parallel careers before they fused in one project.  I’m a career non-fiction writer who found myself compelled to write the fictional story of a young pianist, Cassie, who survives the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas. The resulting novel,  The Waco Variations, is Cassie’s journey of healing—a journey made possible through her love of the music she plays.  In Bach and Barber Cassie finds the structure she lacks in her life.  In Rachmaninoff and Chopin, she learns how to grieve.  In the very act of delving deeply into music, she finds the healing she needs to transcend tragedy and create her life.  

The Waco Variations is a book I couldn’t have written had I not been a career pianist.  Sinking into notes, following musical lines, feeling the thrill of connecting with the mind of the composer—these are things that form the tapestry of my life as a pianist.  Conversely, had I not had decades of honing my writing skills, I’d have never been able to put these experiences into words.  

Since the novel’s publication, my duel career paths have returned to their individual, meandering ways.  The writing part of my life has allowed me to connect with other “hybrid” musician/writer colleagues, introducing me to people all over the globe. Through these connections I have a list of articles and guest blogs to write. My musical career continues to pull me to the music of living composers, which I record and write about on my blog.  I’m knuckle-deep into a new set of compositions that I’m lucky enough to be the first person (other than the composers) to hear and bring to life.   Most days find me with my hands on both keyboards—the piano and the computer—searching for ways to communicate truths living in music and life. I play with notes and words and I hope that despite the challenges of juggling multiple projects something beautiful enters the world through my hands.

Year One for Professional Singers by Chris Foley

Zach Finkelstein has a new blog about how to survive and thrive as a professional performing artist, and his post on getting to a living wage as a singer is eye-opening. I feel his numbers are right on the mark regarding how much a singer should expect to make at various tiers of performing organizations. It’s not pretty.

Becoming a professional singer has almost nothing to do with the pedigree of your young artist program CV or elite conservatory or how many competitions you win. It is all about your ability to survive for a decade or longer while trying to build a professional career.

If you’re a student or recent graduate from a music program, this is recommended reading.

The First Note by Chris Foley

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Some thoughts on performing from lesson notes sent to my first student of the day:

The moment your fingers touch the keys, you already need to have a clear sense of rhythmic pace, the sound you want, as well as your musical vision for the piece. Take more time before you start! Silence is the frame out of which your musical performance emerges. 

Remembering Roger D. Moore by Chris Foley

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The Canadian musical scene just lost one of its most active philanthropists, as Roger D. Moore passed away last week. Having made his fortune in the computer industry, Roger decided to spend the rest of his life funding new work for the concert stage and theatre. The list of works he has commissioned is long indeed, and I am personally thankful to Roger for sponsoring Tapestry’s Composer/Librettist Laboratory for over a decade.

Many who live and work in Toronto noticed Roger riding his bike to concerts throughout the GTA. He was probably the most cultured person in town, and routinely saw between two and four performances a day, many of which he funded. He was the type of person that anyone would feel comfortable talking to, and I remember many conversations about the early days of both the computer industry and Toronto’s opera scene. He was highly trusted by both boards and performing artists, and at Tapestry he frequently advised both.

In computer science, Roger’s company I.P. Sharp Associates built the packet-switching protocols of IPSANET, one of the ancestors of the modern internet and one of the first packet-switching frameworks that allowed for the development of email.

One of Roger’s final projects was the cataloging of COC productions from 1950 to 2019.

Photo above is courtesy of Tapestry Opera. I’ll add more links as they become available.


Update: For those interested in attending the visitation, it will be from 2-4pm today at the G.H. Hogle Funeral Home, 63 Mimico Avenue in Etobicoke.

Here’s a tribute to Roger put together by Stacie Dunlop last year: