Category: The Arts

Breakfast at the Bar Raval

Yesterday afternoon, the patio of our favourite local restaurant bar was taken out by a three-car accident at the corner of College Street and Palmerston Avenue in Little Italy. Fortunately, no one was killed. The patio was demolished, and the front window cracked, but the distinctive mahogany decor of what aims to be Toronto’s most iconic bar was undamaged. It had to close for the rest of the day, and the architects were brought in to assess the situation. According to co-owner Grant van Gameren, interviewed on the radio this morning, the decor is intact. That’s great news.

At 8:00 a.m. today, the bar was back open, with the full menu and the same smart, smiling staff on hand to greet the early risers. I decided to join them to see for myself that all is well. It’s the first time I have actually been there for breakfast and I would heartily recommend it.

Since it opened a year ago, Bar Raval has won rave reviews, including Nº. 5 on “Canada’s ten best new restaurants” list, last fall, as determined by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. The problem for older folks is that the place is very small (only 1980 square feet), takes no reservations, and is designed for “standing up” — eating from small plates and leaning against the sinuous wood bars and round barrel tables. There are stools available inside and chairs on the outside patio, but if it is crowded, standing is the norm. In the past, I have gone mid-morning or mid-afternoon and always managed to get a stool. Now, I have learned that morning breakfast is okay, too.

So, what’s so special about Bar Raval? The restaurant was designed as a “pintxo bar, a cornerstone of social and gastronomic culture in Basque Country.” It serves coffee, wine, beer and cocktails, baked goods, tapas and pintxos (see photo of menu, below), cured meats, cheeses, hams, various exotic seafoods that come as “canned specialities” or “preserved and marinated.” Smoked Mackerel? Galician Octopus? Razor Clams? Asparagus Salad? Mushroom Tower? The regular menu is available all day, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. For breakfast, I learned that they also offer Smoked Salmon in a croissant, Raisin and Rhubarb Scones, Polvorone (I will try that, next time) and various other baked goods. The food is served on small plates, expertly prepared, rich and totally satisfying.

And the decor is stupendous. Designed by Partisans Architects, it is “a 21st-century reinterpretation of Spanish Art Nouveau.” As the architects have noted on their website, “van Gameren charged us with an ambitious task: to create ‘an art piece’ that would become an enduring institution… the rippled — and rippling — surfaces encourage patrons to get comfortable, lean into their soft edges, and become a part of the woodwork. Raval’s molten quality fosters fluid circulation and close encounters, honouring the spirit of its Spanish pintxo counterparts.” The architects worked with fabrication partner MCM Inc. and software engineers at Masterdom “to innovate the milling process.” Using red mahogany from South Africa, the decor was designed to recall the work of Spanish-Catalan architect and designer, Antoni Gaudí. Created on a 3D computer, the creative team developed “customized toolpaths that would generate over 9km of engravings on 75 panels of wood.” Van Gameren told me last year that while the flat surfaces could be cut by machine, the curves had to be done by hand. As the owners and architects intended, “the result” is “a series of three-dimensional tattooed ‘limbs’ that enfold patrons in a warm mahogany embrace.” And, so they do. This is an iconic restaurant and bar on an iconic corner. Locals and visitors alike can thank co-owners Grant van Gameren, Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow for creating a wonderful new destination in Toronto.

Now it will be up to Councillor Mike Layton and Toronto City Council to do something about the dangerous corner at Palmerston and College.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

back to top


Don’t Miss the Play “You Will Remember Me”

Theatre reviewers have raved about the play by Quebec playwright, Franςois Archambault, entitled “You Will Remember Me,” now playing at the Tarragon MainStage in Toronto. It was labelled “a pleasing family drama” by Karen Fricker in the Star, which explores “the reality of dementia and uses it as a metaphor,” says J. Kelly Nestruck in the Globe and, after discussion with “Canadian theatre legend” R. H. Thomson, “a play about identity” by Mike Crisolago in I was able to snag a last-minute ticket last week and found that the play is all the critics said, and more.

Given its subject, the play is surprisingly light-hearted. Edouard Beauchemin (R.H. Thomson) is a well-known Quebec history professor, public intellectual and nationalist who is in his sixties and beset with Alzheimer’s. Although he can recite historical facts, ad infinitum, and rage on about his favourite bugbear, he can’t remember whom he is talking to or why. He remains vigorous and occasionally brilliant, but cannot be left alone. His long-suffering wife, Madelaine (Nancy Palk), needs a break and decides to leave him with their daughter Isabelle (Kimwun Perehinec) and her new partner Patrick (Mark McGrinder). Isabelle is preoccupied with the demands of her career as a journalist. Patrick, temporarily unemployed, volunteers to pick up the ball. But he has his own agenda which includes his teenage daughter Bérénice (Michela Cannon). All the actors are superb.

To quote Karen Fricker (March 11, 2016), “Edouard is the latest incarnation of an iconic Québecois cultural figure: the charismatic, incorrigible, skirt-chasing male academic… whose ambiguities and excesses comment on the national situation.” The national situation in Quebec has changed since Edouard supported René Lévesque and the Quiet Revolution, years ago; young people today know next to nothing about the revolutionary struggle of which he was a part. The bane of Edouard’s current existence is the all-pervasive influence of social media which, in his view, has “dumbed down” contemporary intelligence. All this is suggested by sparkling dialogue and interesting plot developments. But he who scorns modern technology finds it has uses after all.

And who is it that best helps Edouard deal with his changing identity? His wife has left. His daughter is impatient and rarely connects. It’s “the strangers” in his “blended family” who step into the breach. Patrick and Bérénice discover that the trick is to live in the moment, and that the reality of the moment may, but need not, reflect the truth in the past. On the contrary, relationships can be enhanced, and secrets revealed, by the strength of the creative imagination.

My mother, after surgery for an aneurysm at 75 years of age, suffered a post-operative stroke which destroyed her short-term memory. Although not suffering from Alzheimer’s, she was demented for the remaining 12 years of her life. My experience visiting her and her fellow residents in the secure unit of a long-term care facility for six years was that “the creative imagination” was the key to successful emotional interactions between us. On many occasions, by knowing just a little of what remained in the long-term memory, I found it possible to connect in the present. Who knows whether what we talked about was true or not; it didn’t matter. What was important was to confirm each other as people connected in the moment. That the play portrayed that process left me awestruck. That it did so with such good humour and such pathos in a mere 90 minutes makes it totally compelling.

I would recommend the play to anyone who has been, or will be, touched with dementia. As the reviewers all said, it offers much food for thought and it’s a play you will not forget. Developed for Montreal’s Théâtre La Licorne in 2014 as Tu te souviendras de moi, it had its début in the English translation by Bobby Theodore as part of the Enbridge playRites festival of new Canadian plays in Calgary that same year. It played at The Cultch Historic Theatre in Vancouver last November. This co-production between Studio 180 and the Tarragon Theatre is its Toronto English-language début and runs until Sunday April 10th.

back to top


Beowulf in Toronto

Have you ever heard of a “scop”? The term refers to a “singer of tales,” the one-person storyteller, musician, entertainer and archivist who was the centre of community life in Europe a thousand years ago. The Toronto Consort, Canada’s outstanding period music ensemble which specializes in the music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early Baroque, brought such a scop to Trinity-St. Paul’s Jeanne Lamon Hall last week in the person of Benjamin Bagby. His performance was utterly mesmerizing.

For over 90 minutes, Mr. Bagby told the first third of the epic story of Beowulf, all in Old English. Most of the sold-out audience, like me and my friend, would have understood next to nothing of the archaic language of the poem but for the surtitles projected on a screen behind him. The amazing thing is that it made no difference. Like the lyrics of a foreign-language opera, the language of the poem brought its own magic which became the more seductive as the ear became attuned to hearing the words.

Recreating what would have been the performance of a millennium ago, Mr. Bagby brought with him a six-string harp, a replica of the remains of an instrument excavated from the grave of a 7th century nobleman in Germany. The harp is totally integrated into the performance, sometimes played and sometimes not, to add colour and drama to the story which Mr. Bagby recited or sang, as the poem required.

As Mr. Bagby explained in the Q and A which followed the performance, he came to the poem not from the perspective of English literature, which first attracted his interest as a boy. After pursing a career in music, he realized that the true beauty of Beowulf was its production value as an oral and musical performance, which had been its role in the pre-literate Middle Ages. How to recreate Beowulf as a production became the challenge. Initially, he spoke no Old English, so he had to learn from experts the pronunciation, metrics and tonality of the language. Then he had to figure out how to tune the harp correctly. Given the several possible ways to do so, he settled on the six tones used in the performance, as the program indicates, “through a careful study of early medieval modal theory, yielding a gapped octave which contains three perfect fifths and two perfect fourths. The resulting series of tones serves as a musical matrix, upon which the singer can weave both his own rhetorical shapes and the sophisticated metrics of the text.” I don’t understand the musical theory, but the “musical matrix” was clear to everyone and worked wonderfully well.

And so, a 21st century audience was drawn under the spell of the single scop and his harp. We learned about the royal family of the Danes, how Hrothgar built a great banquet hall which he called “Heorot” (Hart), and how the monster Grendel, living nearby in the marshes, terrorized the warriors reveling in the hall such that it could no longer be used. Twelve years later, Beowulf, a hero from the kingdom of the Geats renowned for his extraordinary strength and bravery, learns of Hrothgar’s dilemma and travels to Heorot to help. All the Danes greet Beowulf with enthusiasm except the jealous Unferth who chides him about his past exploits. Beowulf puts Unferth in his place and then prepares to deal with Grendel. At night the Danes leave Heorot to sleep elsewhere, as Beowulf and his men occupy the hall in anticipation of Grendel’s arrival. Eventually Grendel appears, protected by a spell from harm by any weapons. Beowulf discards his helmet, chain-mail and weapons, and vows to destroy Grendel with his bare strength. After a ferocious struggle, he grasps Grendel’s arm with its fearsome claw and pulls it from its socket. Grendel slinks away to die, Beowulf mounts Grendel’s arm high in the hall to mark his victory, and later enjoys the gratitude of the Danes.

It’s an epic story that would have been repeated over and over, with different variations and in less formal settings, throughout the Middle Ages. Benjamin Bagby’s recreation of the tale is a powerful reminder of our Nordic roots and of the continuing strength of the oral tradition. One need only watch American politics to see how it resonates today. History as entertainment. The hero as saviour. We know about that.

back to top


The “Pacific Passage” at the Vancouver International Airport

It was a long ten-hour trip by air from Liberia, Costa Rica to Houston, Texas, through US customs, and then on to Vancouver. Finally, we arrived, in the dark, at the most distant gate of the YVR US terminal. Needless to say, we were all eager to stretch our legs, get through the customs formalities, pick up our luggage, and get on our way.

But… not so fast. Between the gate and the customs hall is one of the most striking art installations in all the Vancouver International Airport. It took my breath away, so much so that I stopped to take it in more closely. I shall never forget it. And may even arrange to return by air from the USA to YVR someday, just to see it again.

Called Pacific Passage, the installation is intended as a “thematic or experiential corridor.” Its designers, AldrichPears Associates and the indigenous artists who worked with them, conceived the exhibit “to evoke the natural environment and indigenous culture of the B.C. west coast.” And so it does.

Arriving passengers pass beside a stretch of water, with pebbles under water and rocks around, green trees and dead logs, and an observation deck to allow a closer look. Suspended above the logs at the surface of the water is a carved indigenous canoe with the oars aloft. Overhead is an elaborate, brightly coloured, intricately designed, red cedar carving of an eagle. Or perhaps a raven. Other contemporary carvings of frogs, birds, totems, and masks, are scattered about. In greens and blues, browns and greys, contrasting with the bright red, yellow and black of the aboriginal art, it is an incredible welcome to the best of what the west coast has to offer.

The AldrichPears Flickr slideshow shows highlights of the corridor, together with some exhibit designs. It is worth your time to check it out (and, if necessary, to install Adobe Flash Player from their site onto your computer, so you can see the photos).

The Vancouver International Airport (YVR to locals and to others who love the airport) has the largest collection of Northwest Coast Native art in the world. Bill Reid’s bronze cast of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe (1994), in the rotunda of the International Departures level, is the second and last casting of the original Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Black Canoe (1991) at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. It is the most important of a fantastically rich collection throughout the airport and on its grounds outside.

Earlier this month, visitors were able to see new cedar carvings by Haida artist, Reg Davidson, in the Link Building Atrium, between the international and domestic terminals. The carvings include a 24-foot totem pole entitled Raven Stealing the Beaver Lake.

The Art and Architecture section of the YVR webpage includes further information about the collection, and several self-guided tours of the airport. In the old days, our family used to go to the airport from time to time just to watch the airplanes. Now there is art to see as well. Whether as a destination in itself, or to while away time between flights, the art at YVR is worth your attention.

With the encouragement of Bill Reid, the Vancouver Airport Authority in 1993 established the YVR Art Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization to encourage the training and development of B.C. First Nations art and artists. The Foundation grants scholarships and awards to First Nations artists, and provides recipients an opportunity to show their work at the airport. In 2015, the Foundation extended its programs to include Yukon First Nations artists. If part of our YVR Airport Improvement Tax is being used to support such art, it’s a good use of our money.

back to top


The Force of Sing-Along Messiah

For me, Tafelmusik’s Sing-Along Messiah always marks the start of the Christmas week. Ivars Taurins assumes the accent and attire of the composer, George Frideric Handel. Delegated by God to lead his popular oratorio, “Messiah,” for eternity, Handel presides over the Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir, the soloists, and a chorus of 2700 fans who fill Toronto’s historic Massey Hall to the rafters. It is a stirring event.

Sunday was no exception. An hour in advance of the performance, as busker Mr. Chao played familiar Christmas music on his soprano saxophone at the corner, choristers met their friends on the sidewalk outside the front door. They then scurried to find choice seats in the sections of the theatre designated for the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

Once the orchestra, choir and soloists take their places on the stage, Handel, assisted by his cane, hobbles to the podium, bent over by the weight of the ages. This year, for the first half, he was wearing glorious new duds, splendid crimson breeches and overcoat with “lots of bling” and a golden waistcoat. He carried a sword, which he set aside. When he asked the various sections of singers to identify themselves, he gave a variation of his standard warning to the tenors: “Do you see that sea of soprani? Tenors, be brave. Fear is the path to the dark side. If you give the soprano an inch, they will drive you into the ground.” Then to warm up the mass choir, he directed some “Do fa de mi re do” exercises drawn from the opening theme of Star Wars. Don’t let anyone tell you that a Baroque orchestra cannot be contemporary.

Messiah is familiar, and comfortable, and many think “we hear it too much.” But the airs are delightful, especially when sung by superbly sensitive soloists like those we heard on Sunday. The robust choruses resound around the hall when sung by sections full of choristers familiar with the intricacies of the music. I enjoy singing and once sang in a church choir, but my voice is failing and I never did learn to sing the music property. I read my score, but really rely on my friend, Marylyn Perringer, who has accompanied me to this event for years. She has sung in several choirs, knows the alto line well, and sounds wonderful while I lip sync the hard parts. When so large a mass choir responds with impressive discipline to the skilled (and sharp-tongued) direction of George Handel, the result is thrilling.

Although Messiah tells the Christian story, the glorious music attracts people of all religious faiths and those with none at all. This version is an abbreviation of the entire oratorio. The tradition is to sing the highlights of the original score, and then to conclude with a second singing of the Hallelujah Chorus which does truly “raise the roof.” For this final chorus, Handel picked up his golden sword, and, swinging it toward the audience in exultation, it became a lightsaber he used to direct the singing. Great fun. Long may the force of the Sing-Along Messiah continue.

For a taste of the Sing-Along Messiah, check out Tafelmusik on YouTube and the tweets of Sunday’s concert on Twitter.

back to top


Highlights of New York City #2

Marathon weekend in New York City is all-consuming. Runners decked out in brightly coloured running gear and their boisterous hangers-on swarm the streets and crowd the hotels. Even in this huge metropolis, the competitors stand out with their rosy glow and eager anticipation. Everyone has a map of the course. The runners plan their strategy; spectators like us consider the best vantage points on the 26-odd-mile course from which we can cheer on our companions.

The New York City Marathon starts on Staten Island, crosses into Brooklyn, goes up into Queens, and then crosses over Roosevelt Island on the Queensboro Bridge to 59th Street in Manhattan. It then goes up 1st Avenue to 138th Street in the Bronx, through Harlem, and then down 5th Avenue into Central Park at about 86th, back down to 59th, and then into the Park near the west side.

For spectators, the first challenge is to figure out the New York subway system. There are numerous lines, identified only by numbers or letters, running north and south and also across the city. Different directions on the same line are sometimes accessible only from different entrances on the street. Some trains are express and do not make local stops. Others make local stops but may not go to the end of the line. The system is complex and requires paying attention all the time.

We were impressed that the subway was cleaner, and generally without the graffiti which marked it years ago. It is a very big system, however, and maintenance seems to be an issue. Several very long escalators at major exchanges were out of order on marathon day. Climbing long lengths of shut-down escalators is an exercise unto itself. And some exits from the system are narrow, with unstable surfaces on the stairs. Anyone with mobility problems or carrying a stroller has difficulties. For all its problems, the New York subway is a vast resource which reaches into all the boroughs. Clearly, it is the way to cover the course of the marathon.

We decided to make our way to about the ten-mile mark on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, then to the 14-mile mark in Queens, and then to the final leg on 5th Avenue. The first two positions gave us great sight lines. Diverted by lunch, we had to rush to get to about 5th Avenue and 86th Street before our runners passed. The finish line itself was accessible only to those who purchased tickets for seats in the stands (a security precaution?), so we met our runners in “the family meeting area” near Columbus Circle. But for the Marathon, I would have had little reason to learn how the subway works beyond the core.

As our friends did not start the marathon until 11:00 am, we had time to sightsee. Our companion, Mark Pedrotti, is a retired opera singer who has sung in the past with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and the New York Philharmonic, among others. He knows the city well, and loves to meander the streets of Lower Manhattan. For brunch, he found a tiny café in Soho that could have been out of Vienna. It served excellent coffee and freshly baked croissants filled with crab, or prosciutto, or bacon and tomato – a totally satisfying start to the day. Then he led us to the National September 11 Memorial, where two square pools stand in the footprint of the twin towers, surrounded by a large tree-filled garden. Waterfalls (the largest manmade falls in the United States) cascade down the sides of the pools and disappear into a void. The names of all the victims of the terrorist attacks are inscribed in bronze on the walls of the pools. We found the simplicity of the pools and the silence of the scene, broken only by the falling of the water, incredibly moving.

Last, but not least, the Marathon gave us an excuse to see “Tannhäuser” at the Saturday matinée of the Metropolitan Opera. I had never been to the Met before, and was thrilled by the grandeur and immensity of the opera house, and the quality of the production. That we were attending live a performance being seen simultaneously by Cineplex viewers around the world was particularly intriguing. The cameras transmitting to Cineplex are totally unobtrusive to the live audience. The world is truly very small, and New York City is at the centre of it.

back to top


The Vancouver Eastside Culture Crawl

The Eastside Culture Crawl, which occurred over four days last week in Vancouver, is a bonanza for lovers of arts, crafts and design. Held once a year for the past nineteen years, the Crawl features over 450 artists and artisans who open their studios to meet the public. The energy and creativity of the participants, and the thousands of Vancouverites who flock to visit, is more than exhilarating, especially on a bright sunny day in late fall.

The Crawl takes place on the Flats, just east of Vancouver’s well-known downtown east side. The area runs roughly from Main Street to Commercial Drive, between Powell Street near the harbour down to Terminal Avenue and First Avenue in the heart of Vancouver’s former industrial core. Some artisans work out of their homes. Others share space such as the MakerLabs on Cordova, the Octopus Studios on Powell Street, the Acme Studios on East Hastings, the Onion Studio on Union Street, or the Arts Factory on Industrial Avenue. Still others work in huge old warehouses such as the Mergatroid Building on Vernon Street and, around the corner, the even larger, four-storey Parker Street Studios. There, over 148 artisans have spacious ateliers, some with wonderfully big windows for the natural light, and rent is cheap (apparently only $1.00 a square foot). Clearly, the entire neighbourhood is teeming with creativity.

My friend and I took in the Crawl for only a few hours last Saturday. Alas, our time was far too short, and we saw only a little of what was available. We were totally amazed by the numbers and variety of the people who make their living in the visual arts. Painters, weavers, furniture makers, jewellers, potters, photographers, glass blowers, sculptors; all manner of creative artists and designers. We were also charmed by the chance to talk with artists about their work.

Most were eager to talk. Kaija Rautiainen showed us how she uses a computerized loom to produce magnificent wall hangings embossed with paint. Michael Brown, originally from Toronto, demonstrated how he achieved the effects in his evocative paintings. Jeff Martin told us how his high-end fine furniture attracts clients from abroad. Three years ago, he crowd-sourced the funding to attend a trade fair in New York City for architects and interior designers and has not looked back since. Propelled by these trade fairs, most of his furniture goes to clients in the United States, Europe and even the Middle East. When I asked if he would ever move to the United States, he said that he had spent time in New York City but wanted to live in Vancouver. A popular attraction at the Crawl were the huge bronze and serpentine sculptures of bears, birds and other animals produced by award-winning sculptor Cathryn Jenkins and her mother Fran. Fran was born in 1933 and continues to work as a prospector and sculptor.

We agree with the organizers that to do justice to the Crawl, at least two visits are necessary. The organization of the Crawl makes it easy. Popular street food vendors sell a variety of hot and cold foods: cheese sandwiches, samosas and curries, different flavours of chili, bratwurst, hot chocolate, coffee, and even crème brûlée, torched to taste. A shuttle service offers regular rides on two different routes around the area. Bicycle riders can park their bikes free of charge at the bicycle valet service. Last year, over 25,000 people attended the Culture Crawl, and more were anticipated this year.

The Culture Crawl marks the rise of the Flats as a hub for artistic creativity in Vancouver. The City is already engaged in a revisioning project to enhance the area. Apart from the cheap converted studio space, high-end art galleries are increasingly relocating to the Flats from South Granville further west. In the summer of 2017, the Emily Carr University of Art and Design will also move there from Granville Island. The vitality of the area will undoubtedly attract locals and visitors alike. The sooner, the better. Our skilled artists and artisans need support from the home crowd. And we need their imagination and creativity.

back to top


The Whitney Western Art Museum

People who have visited New York rave about the Whitney Museum there. I want to put in a plug for the Whitney Western Art Museum, in Cody, Wyoming. It is one of five museums which make up the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a truly wonderful complex which provides a comprehensive view of the life and history of this most interesting region. In the couple of half-days we had available, I only had time to explore the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Buffalo Bill Museum. I found both enthralling, and look forward to another visit in the future.

The Whitney Museum was a surprise. The masterpieces of many very famous American painters are on display here: N.C. Wyeth, Frederic Remington and Edgar Paxson are names I knew. Paxson’s huge Custer’s Last Stand is an iconic painting of the historical event which is full of exact detail, drama and pathos. The museum is particularly rich in Remington paintings: his vivid scenes of local life, his landscape studies, and a recreation of his studio, built in 1892 at New Rochelle, New York. Like Buffalo Bill Cody, one of Remington’s goals was to make the west known to easterners. His painting of a horse on a narrow mountain road, and Wyeth’s view of the Round Up on a similar road, puts our own experience of the switchbacks on the Beartooth into context. How they did it in their day is beyond belief.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The range of the collection is most impressive. I particularly liked several old paintings by George Catlin depicting the life rituals of the Mandan Indian people. And it was fun to find Russell’s 1915 painting of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arresting outlaws, presumably north of the 49th parallel. Paintings of the landscape, wildlife, Indians, and of settlers moving west are compelling, as are the many depictions of the clash between the Indians and the American military. Among the many sculptures of people and animals, I most admired Walter Matia’s “The House of Lords and Marsh Grasses,” maybe because herons are my favourite birds and this particular rendition was totally arresting. The more modern art is an extremely varied collection, some whimsical and amusing, others profoundly disturbing. For a virtual tour of the Gallery, see the on-line collection on the website of the Center.

back to top


A Woman of the World

Liz, our Ambleside neighbour, is a woman of the world. At 91 years of age, she is a dynamo with a wealth of life’s experience she is more than willing to share. We have lived at the same end of the apartment corridor for nearly five years now, and, although my husband and I are here only intermittently, we are getting to know each other.

Liz was the child of a supermarket chain executive who lived all over western Canada when she was growing up, ending up finally in Vancouver. Thereafter, she lived in the United States, central Asia, and Ireland before settling back on the west coast. She has a personality typical of the highly mobile: an ability to adapt to constant change, inherent curiosity, and a warm congeniality which engages strangers quickly. It’s an openness to meeting people one often sees in expats and in the military.

The first day we moved into our Ambleside apartment, we established a bond. One of the movers had come to Canada from Afghanistan. She saw him, talked with him, and, within minutes, learned the same life story he had told me earlier. It turns out she had spent ten years in Afghanistan, from 1964-1974. She lived there with her husband who worked with an American company in diesel engines. At the time, Kabul was a bustling and romantic stopover on the route to India, before the city was devastated by the Russians, the civil war, and then the Taliban. Our son and daughter-in-law are career officers in the Canadian military. Both have deployed to Afghanistan several times. It’s not very often that one meets someone who has actually lived in Afghanistan for a decade. Liz joined us for dinner one evening when “the kids” were visiting. It was fascinating to listen to the stories they exchanged.

I later learned that Liz also lived in California for twenty years, and another twenty years in Belfast Northern Ireland. When her American husband died, she trained as a massage therapist and worked at the La Costa Resort and Health Spa in San Diego County. Her pay at this most expensive and exclusive of resorts was $3.57 an hour and Gloria Steinem was one of her clients. Later, she moved to Belfast to live with her widower cousin who was a writer and a playwright. When he died in 2005, she returned to West Vancouver to  the same apartment building once inhabited by her parents. 

Liz is a painter who studied at the Vancouver School of Art. Over her lifetime she has had many exhibits, Today, her paintings adorn the walls of her apartment and grace the foyer of our building. Thanks to Liz for permission to include some photos of her paintings in this post.

Liz knows how to drink scotch with the best of them. At dinner recently, she drank my husband under the table. She was going strong when he made his excuses to go to bed. Later she apologized for staying so late.

She has also taken me under her wing. She recently confessed that she hated older women wearing long hair. When I first moved into the apartment, I was sporting braids. It was part of my “return to my roots” post-retirement phase which my western cousins loved but my eastern colleagues said was totally unsuitable for Toronto. Last week, I was complaining that my hair was too long. She immediately went into her bedroom, took out a couple of combs, and taught me how to pull my hair up into something more sophisticated. My new look I owe to Liz.  I think I will keep it. And she has encouraged me to drink scotch: “it is the least caloric of the drinks.”

Liz has always been healthy and vigorous, until a freak accident recently left her in chronic pain. She now has a walker and is investigating how marijuana might improve her medical condition. She has visited a cannabis dispensary on Robson street, purchased some salves and tinctures, found a family doctor knowledgeable in the use of medical marijuana, and is consulting with others about appropriate strains. That, and her daily swimming, will undoubtedly keep her alive and kicking for at least another decade. We hope so. She is the most wonderful of neighbours.

back to top


Julian Richings: A Star of Stage and Screen in our Midst

Two weeks ago, I had coffee with an honest-to-goodness star of the stage and screen. Julian Richings, another denizen of the West End (College Street) YMCA, joined me at the local Starbucks to “talk theatre.” What a delightful experience! As Julian talked about his career and the evolution of the theatre, I was struck by his modesty, candour, and superb sense of humour. Julian may play bad guys, villains, and other odd or dark characters; in his real life, he is totally congenial. 

Julian was born in Oxford, England, studied drama at the University of Exeter, and began his theatre career in the 1970s. As traditional English repertory theatre was disappearing, young actors such as Julian increasingly worked in community outreach programs, bringing theatre to non-traditional places; schools, old folks’ homes, prisons, beaches. These programs were funded by local councils, the British government and Manpower grants until Margaret Thatcher cut arts funding in the early 1980s.

In 1981, Julian was invited to a symposium at York University, which led to a show at Theatre Passe Muraille. He fell in love with Toronto. He felt liberated from the control and domination of old English institutions and found Toronto to be “huge and underpopulated,” a place of diversity and possibility “where everyone moved.” He joined a theatre company in Orillia that used local people from the Rama reserve, and spent several months touring First Nations reserves across the province, “a mind-blowing experience” for a newcomer from England. By 1984, he was in Canada permanently, married, and on his way to building his Canadian acting career. Having moved once already, from the United Kingdom, he has never since had any desire to go elsewhere.

He soon found that he “was his own instrument” and that he was going to be “a character.” He says that “as a canvas, I’m a primary colour.” He described how actors go through a “self-identification” process which must be pursued in the marketplace, always putting themselves forward, and sufficiently confident to withstand “a lot of rejection.” His agent knows what roles are being cast, submits his résumé if he suits the criteria, and schedules him for auditions. In his view, acting is “the most collaborative medium” when actors come together for only a few days at a time, and need to be highly available and to feel comfortable coming in and out. As the theatre community in Canada is small, work also comes by word of mouth. He appreciates that the approach to stardom in Canada is more relaxed than in the United States, and that actors here may be less overwhelmed and isolated by celebrity. He recognizes “the incubating effect” of Canadian content rules, and welcomes being part of the creative community in the Toronto scene.

As an actor, Julian has been busy. He was a regular on the War of the Worlds TV series. He has had three Dora nominations and one Genie Award nomination. He has had recurring roles in Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital and John Woo’s Once a Thief. For five seasons, he has played the role of “Death” in the US television show Supernatural, the wildly successful series produced by Warner Brothers and filmed in and around Vancouver. He also played “Lor-Em” in the 2013 Superman film Man of Steel. In January 2016, he is scheduled to play at the Tarragon Theatre in Mustard. His Wikipedia entry lists all his roles in film and television. For pictures, background and upcoming roles, see his webpage. Julian also teaches as a guest artist at the Wexford High School for the Performing Arts in Scarborough, and participates in the Canadian Stage Company Outreach Program

Julian is starring in My One Demand, a live, interactive film “about unrequited love” that will be screened in selected Cineplex theatres and streamed online as part of the Luminato Festival in Toronto next week: June 25th — 27th, 8:00 — 9:30 p.m. When I asked Julian what this was all about, he described it as a multi-media collaboration of people working with the theatrical company Blast Theory from the United Kingdom. The collaborators, from different disciplines, will act out a scenario live for one and a half hours, showing the journey of seven people starting at the Toronto General Hospital and ending at Cherry Beach. Although a set scenario, the film will use video and social media, and each performance will vary according to local conditions as they change. The idea is to push the meaning of theatre as a journey, using modern technology. It sounds fascinating. Check the trailer on Julian’s webpage and schedule it into your calendar to watch.

back to top


Inside the Jewel Box: A Visit to the Aga Khan Museum

I am delighted to introduce my second Guest Blogger, RYAN CHURCH.

Ryan just graduated, with a Masters of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation, from OCADU. He is the founder and CEO of BiomeDesign Inc., and hails from British Columbia. His website is

Here’s Ryan…

Driving the Don Valley Parkway to the Aga Khan Museum does little to prepare you for what lies ahead. The complex includes the Ismaili Centre, a vast garden, and the sparkling white jewel box of the Museum. The jewels within the museum are just that, one-of-a-kind masterpieces that speak to the cultural richness of the Muslim world. The founder of the Aga Khan Museum wanted the museum to be a place where the Muslim world could be understood; its cultural riches, its crafts, arts, textiles, and knowledge made evident to the wider world.

As a designer, the first thing I noticed was the attention to detail. Every floor tile, every bathroom mirror, bejewelled seat cushion, window covering, and mural carries the same theme. No expense has been spared. Throughout, 99 variations on the word Allah and the theme of infinity done in a myriad of variations. All give a sense of unity and peace to the entire building. The geometrical and mathematical significance of these designs is not lost on those with elementary geometry – the square of odd numbers radiates and shimmers as light plays with shadow, day with night.

Entering the permanent collection, I was struck by the projections cast on the wall – the projectors themselves facing vertically and reflecting their images off mirrors; little slits in the wall, arranged just-so. Around the corner, treasures from the ancient world echo ancient and revered knowledge. A personal favourite is the famous Qanun, the Canon of Medicine of Ibn Sina from the mid 11th century. Within this velum volume is the medical knowledge of ancient Greece, that of Galen and Dioscorides, passed along the Silk Road as far as Iran where the Golden Age of Islam was flourishing. Beside it is a volume of Mansur’s Anatomy, the Tashrih-e Mansuri, complete with an illustrated full-colour image of our understanding of the human body at the time. We remember that much of ‘western’ medicine and knowledge was known in the near east for millennia before the Renaissance re-birth in the west.

Going further is yet another masterpiece, Ferdowsi’s epic poem, the Shahnameh, or ‘Book of Kings.’ Written at the beginning of the 11th century, this national epic of Iran spans some 60,000 verses. It tells both mythological and historical tales of the Persian Empire back to the beginning of time (570 AD, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad). The Museum has 11 folios of the most richly decorated of the manuscript, that of the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576). The rest, some 800 in total, are scattered around the world. These folios glitter with vibrant colour, ink and gold, and speak to the cultural richness of this museum. Among the 11 on site is the frontispiece of the Shah Tahmasp Shahnameh, known as the “Mona Lisa of Iran.” It is currently in storage for preservation but will be on display in the future – what a treat that will be! In the meantime, visitors can view photos of this folio on iPads located near the others.

The museum itself is not large but, unlike most museums, it compels you to observe and rest at each image and artifact, and to contemplate its significance for the birth of the modern world – and not just the Islamic world. That, perhaps, is the point: why the Aga Khan chose Toronto as the home for such an important cultural collection. Canada is seen, at least by some, as a model country where cultures and races from all backgrounds mix, and carry on with what it means to be human. The Aga Khan Museum is an outward manifestation of that, and we are all the richer for having it here in Toronto.

Parking costs $10 for the day, but you get a voucher equal to the parking fee if you visit the gift shop or have lunch in the restaurant, which you will want to do. A visit to the Museum, and the gardens, is more than an all-day affair.

back to top


A Chilean-Canadian Renaissance Man

So you think we go to the gym for a workout? Only partially. An ongoing draw at the West End (College Street) YMCA is the social scene, particularly the very interesting people one meets. The gregarious and endlessly fascinating Jorge Schönherr, from Santiago, Chile, is one example.

Jorge is a consulting mining engineer who got his early experience in Antofagasta, in the far north of Chile. He came to Canada as a landed immigrant in 1974, after the Pinochet regime lasted longer than he had expected. He chose Toronto because the many mining companies based on Bay and King Streets made it “the mining capital of the world.” In what were very good times for the mining industry in Canada, Jorge thrived. Over the course of his career, he worked for a variety of companies in British Columbia (Copper Mountain), Panama, Peru, Ecuador, and mainland China. As a consultant, he did exploration, mine evaluation, project management, pit design, and mine operations. Like other engineers who have developed new mines, his work has required that he become expert in environmental issues, community relationships, and how to negotiate permits with governments and local authorities.

But mining is only one side of Jorge’s life. As a young person, he had an artistic inclination which has never left him. In 1959, he did a three-year program in sculpture at the School of Fine Arts, University of Chile in Santiago. Inspired by the rocks, the sand, and the stark geology of the Atacama desert and the north of Chile where he worked, his materials of choice were concrete, cement and clay. He later took up other art programs in 1966-67 and again in 1986-88. By this time, his interest had turned to painting in pastels, again inspired by the strong impressions derived from his “day job.”

Jorge first exhibited his paintings in Santiago in 1987, when he won second prize for painting in the Eighth National Painting Competition. The next year, he mounted his first solo show in Santiago and in Valparaíso. Four years later, he had two exhibitions in Toronto, at York University’s INDIGO Art Exhibit, and at the Gallery 306 then at 80 Spadina Avenue. He last exhibited in 2005, at the Second Annual National Art Exhibition LATINOAMERICA in Toronto, and a Solo Exhibition at the Pablo Neruda Museum, Isla Negra in Chile. You can see some of his paintings on YouTube and others in the slide show below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As well as his painting, Jorge has written a memoir of his life in Chile until 1974. Among other things, he discusses the artistic community in Chile during the Allende period. It was a vibrant, fervent time when the first Marxist ever elected president of a democracy attracted sympathizers from around the world. He writes of Chilean national poet Pablo Neruda and writer Graham Greene, and many others. He spent two years writing the book in Canada. It was then launched in December 2014 in Santiago. Already, there are demands for another printing, and for a second volume describing his life since. Now all we need in Canada is an English translation.

back to top


Emily Carr at the AGO

I thought I knew about Emily Carr. After all, she comes from British Columbia, her iconic paintings of totems and trees are familiar, and I own (but have not read) a book she wrote that I was given in high school. Everyone knows about Emily Carr, right? Wrong. The new Emily Carr exhibition which opened at the Ontario At Gallery last week is full of surprises. The co-curators have pulled together the best of her work, from across the full span of her career. They have set it all in context, and made her come alive as never before. Juxtaposed with her paintings are magnificent examples of the First Nations art which inspired her. Put together, they leave a lasting impression. The show comes fresh from a four-month stint at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London. This was the first ever exhibition of Carr’s work in England and it won rave reviews. No wonder.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Emily Carr is a heroine of the first order, a painter of remarkable sensitivity, who brought Post-Impressionist Modernism to the unique west coast Canadian scene. She was also a prolific writer who, late in life, won a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. Strong, independent, self-willed and determined, she was a feminist, an environmentalist, and a friend of indigenous First Nations long before these terms were invented.

Born in 1871, her personal story is compelling. Although her parents died when she was in her teens, she still managed to leave her home in Victoria and travel to San Francisco, London and later to Paris to learn the latest trends in contemporary art. She returned to the B.C. coast and, between 1899 and 1912, made many trips up Vancouver Island and then further north up the B.C. coast, to Haida Gwaii (then called the Queen Charlotte Islands), into the interior east of Prince Rupert, and then up the Alaskan panhandle. A recently discovered 1907 diary of her trip to Alaska, with her sister, is full of delightful stories and colourful drawings, one of the highlights of the show. On her travels, she fell in love with the art and culture of the indigenous coastal people, and with the haunting wilderness of the coastal forests. She had found her sense of place which then inspired her entire career.

Making a living from her art was difficult and for 15 years she was preoccupied with running a boarding house and breeding dogs. Then, in 1927, the Director of the National Art Gallery, Eric Brown, asked her to put some of her paintings in a show on Canadian West Coast Art. She came east for the show and met painters from the Group of Seven. Their love of nature matched her own, and their approach to their painting accorded with her perspective. She became a close friend of Lawren Harris who encouraged her, at 56 years of age, to return to painting full-time. She did so with a passion. She made more trips up the coast, and painted while living in a trailer in the woods, with only her menagerie of animals to keep her company. Her vision and style changed to express the spirituality she found in nature. Many of her most searing, most important and, later, most valuable, paintings date from this period.

When health issues (a couple of heart attacks and a stroke) curtailed her painting, she turned her attention to her writing. In just a few years, she published three books: Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of Small (1942), and The House of all Sorts (1944). After her death in 1945, there were four others, including Growing Pains (1946).

I was thrilled by the show, the power of her paintings, the beauty of the First Nations art, and the example of her story. Now where is that book I got in high school? I need to read it. The show runs to August 9th. Don’t miss it.

Photographs courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario, with thanks.

***** You may be interested in my second post about the Mike Duffy trial.
See Cameras in the Courtroom? at Re-view from the Bench, April 19, 2015.

back to top


Seymour: An Introduction

This little gem of a documentary premiered at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival. Released for general viewing in New York the first week of March, during the 7 Days of Genius Festival at 92Y (the famous 92nd Street YM & YWHA), the film is now playing in Toronto theatres and undoubtedly elsewhere. Catch it when it comes your way. This is a work of quiet genius which warrants repeated viewings. The woman sitting next to me the day I went had already seen it three times, bringing a dear friend with her each time.

So what’s the attraction? The star is 88-year-old Seymour Bernstein, the world’s most unlikely hero. The director is Ethan Hawke, in his documentary directing début. Bernstein is a recluse who has lived alone in the same small New York apartment for 57 years. He is also a former performance pianist, a prolific composer, and a gifted piano teacher. They met at a dinner party given by one of Bernstein’s piano students a few years ago. When Seymour learned that Hawke was to be a guest at dinner, he did a Google search to find out who he was. When Hawke talked with Seymour and learned Seymour’s story, he decided there and then that it had to be made into a film.

Two and a half years of shooting Seymour’s life spontaneously and without rehearsal have now become what Seymour considers “a masterpiece… a harmonious whole, like a Beethoven sonata.” I would agree. Although a film about classical music, and about those who make music, the film is much more. From Seymour’s perspective, the object of the documentary is to show how a passion for an art form, or for a talent of any kind, can influence the art or the talent, and life itself. The tragedy is that too many musicians can perform on the stage but, unable to bring the same discipline to their personal lives, fall apart in the practice of life.

It turns out that Seymour is more than the sum of his career, more than the extraordinarily talented musician who mastered the piano as a child, brought classical music to American troops during the Korean war, became an acclaimed concert pianist in America and abroad, and gave his last public piano performance at 52 years of age. Thereafter, he devoted himself to teaching piano, composing piano music, and nurturing new generations of pianists to do their best. The improvement in the playing of the students in his NYU master class shown in the film is palpable, even to someone as untutored in music as I.

Watching Seymour discuss his life and his work with those who knew him best, and with Hawke who had just met him, we realize that he is a thoughtful and articulate philosopher of the art of living. In his view, nurturing our talents affirms the essence of who we are. Our talents are autonomous and take on a life of their own. The more we pay attention to our talents and pursue them to the extent that we can, the greater we grow in self-dignity, self-development, and self-love. The greater the synthesis of intellect, emotional life and physicality (which all successful musicians must find), the more we become a whole person. Adhering to no organized religion, Seymour is clearly an extremely spiritual person. He believes that his “inner voice is a spiritual reservoir” which “answers questions for him, helps overcome obstacles, and tells him all he needs to know.”

The film culminates in a piano concert where Seymour plays in the rotunda of Steinway Hall in New York, his first public performance in over 35 years. He admits that, but for the documentary, he would never have given the performance. Among the pieces he plays are the Bach Cantata #106 and Brahms Opus 18 #2, pieces of music which Seymour says “reflect the deepest feelings of the human soul.” Recorded live, his piano recital will be released as a separate dvd. To prepare for the film, or to follow-up for greater detail, see the video “Ethan Hawke on his Documentary Debut ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ at 92Y.” Much of the material in this post comes from this fascinating discussion between Seymour, Ethan Hawke, and Columbia University film scholar Annette Insdorf.  Watch it and you will see why the film is so seductive.


back to top



They Want to Sell the CBC Headquarters in Toronto

I am appalled. CBC President and CEO Hubert Lacroix unveiled in June his five-year plan for the future of the CBC. Among other things, he indicated that the corporation aims to offload half of its real estate and, if they receive an offer on its flagship Toronto headquarters, “we will certainly entertain it.” Today, I read in the National Post that they have “hired a consultant to help decide whether it should sell its building.” I don’t know about you but, for me, this is the last straw.

The CBC has been the national institution which has brought this country together since it was founded in 1936. Contrary to what the majority in Ottawa may think, the CBC has provided the voice, told the stories, promoted the music, showed the games, encouraged the debate, and prompted the humour, uniting this country for nearly 80 years. From coast to coast to coast, Canadians share what they have heard and seen on the CBC. New immigrants listen to the CBC overseas before they even come to Canada; they learn English listening to the broadcasts and, when they arrive, they are already tuned into the cross-country nature of our nation.

What madness now prevails in the “national” government that it, and its minions on the CBC Board of Directors, are determined to run this gem of our country into the ground? And now they want to sell the building so that they can use the assets to fund current expenses. And when the assets are exhausted? How much easier it will be to end their lease, shut the door and fade away.

In my view, the CBC’s headquarters in Toronto, The Canadian Broadcasting Centre, is a contemporary cathedral. A very special space which has been set aside to promote citizenship and the cultural values of our nation. The Glenn Gould Studio is named after one of Canada’s most famous musicians. Its intimacy, pristine acoustics, and superb technical capacity have made it the venue of choice for untold concerts, radio productions, debates, and community forums. The Barbara Frum Atrium remembers one of Canada’s most articulate broadcasters. Rising to the sky, surrounded by galleries on each floor, the atrium has been the site of many Choral Concerts, Sounds of the Season, Pierre Berton’s memorial. These are community events which bring people together and are broadcast and/or televised across the country. We need more of them in these venues, not a sell-off to the private sector.

Cathedrals, synagogues, temples and mosques are community symbols of religion as a significant force in the culture. So long as a community exists, these remain sacrosanct. We need to redefine our public spaces as places that fulfill similar needs for those who are non-religious. People meet their spiritual needs in a secular society through community and sharing, through music, art, writing and discussion. These are the values the CBC was created to promote and which are embodied in the CBC headquarters on Front Street.

Would they sell off the National Art Gallery? Or the National Museum of Canadian History (as it is now called)? Or the AGO? or the ROM? Would they sell St. Michael’s Cathedral? St. James? or Metropolitan United Church? Would they sell off the University of Toronto? Massey Hall or Roy Thomson Hall? How can the mandarins deprive of us of our civil patrimony just so they can balance the budget?

I remember not so long ago when Peter Gzowski and his cohort, and legions of broadcasters before them, were working from cramped studios in diverse locations on Jarvis Street and elsewhere. The new CBC building brought them all together with the aspiration that the synergy and symbiosis of proximity would allow their talent to nurture a growing country. That building opened as a symbol of the potential of the CBC and what it could give to the nation. It seems that no sooner did the CBC gain the facilities it merited, and earned with yeoman service over the decades, than the mandarins in Ottawa, of both political stripes, determined that its budget could be cut.

What folly!!!! As the second largest country in the world, with a terrain more far-flung than most of its citizens can imagine, with two official languages, a multitude of diverse cultures, many regional distinctions, a host of first nations, and 250,000 immigrants from abroad every year, the need for a national public broadcaster is as great as it has ever been. And since the technology of “broadcasting” has now proliferated to include so many new platforms, the need is as great as ever to build a common community in whatever formats the public uses.

I agree with Wade Rowland, who wrote in the Globe and Mail earlier this year that “the public broadcaster is not a business…. It exists not to make money… but to fill a public need…. The CBC is a public good, like the school system, like medicare, like our universities and colleges, our public museums and galleries.” Who cares if the Globe and Mail, or the National Post, or Bell carry on their businesses from premises which they now lease? They are private for-profit companies. The CBC is a not-for-profit public institution which is essential to the well-being of our nation. In my view, its flagship Toronto headquarters should be designated and preserved in perpetuity as a National Historic Site.