Music (and Girl) Talk with Ambur Braid

In Naeem Khan. Photo by Jennifer Toole

In Naeem Khan. Photo by Jennifer Toole

Opera star Ambur Braid knew she was destined for the spotlight. Like every artist, it is important to stand out from the crowd. For Ambur, this seems to be an effortless task. She is, how do I say this without sounding uber jealous, drop dead gorgeous, and expresses her lovable charisma throughout each performance.

And just like Braid, Music Niagara, since 1998, has brought together artists from all over Canada and internationally to performance a variety of music genres always sounding more fresh each season. let me just add this festival also takes place in Niagara wine country – need I say more?

Next month, everyone should take a weekend getaway trip to see Rachmaninoff and ribs, with a side of Sibelius – a delightful summer concert featuring Rachmaninoff, Sibelius and a scrumptious picnic for an intermission. I chat with Ambur about her upcoming performance and even squeeze in a few fashion related questions because along her gorgeous-ness, I also want to raid her closet.

MC: Could you share more about your Music Niagara performance and how you are preparing.

AB: I’m performing a concert with a BBQ picnic at intermission! ​It’s a ​great opportunity to have some delicious Canadian wine and listen to some of the sexiest music ever written.

This is a challenging program and my first time singing in Russian and Swedish. ​

The wonderful ​pianist​, Anna​ Shalaykevych​, is helping me with the Russian and ​a​ Scandinavian friend is correcting all of my Å’s in the Sibelius​. These are two gorgeous languages to sing in, but there is indeed a learning curve.​ I hope that this is the beginning of a long term relationship with Rachmaninoff. His music is so gorgeous and so much fun to sing.

MC: If you could tell us what the first three to five words come up in your mind when you hear the names Rachmaninoff and Sibelius, what would they be.

AB: Sex, wine and death. Hurray life!

MC: Attire selection for the evening’s performance.

AB: It’s a surprise (even for me). It is in a church, so I​ would​ prefer to be more covered up. I love gowns with long sleeves​.​ Caftans are usually my first choice​, for every occasion.​

MC: What is your go-to-style when it comes to your everyday look (running errands, attending rehearsals and practice sessions).

​AB: Loose tops and maxi dresses. Basically anything where I can be pant-less. ​Tight ​trousers are the worst. ​

MC: And now, of course, what is your favourite style if you are able to select your wardrobe for performances.

AB: ​Comfortable, breathable, long sleeved and heavy. My new favourite gown is the one that I wore to Operanation in May by Temperley London. It was so heavy and felt like armour – I love that. ​

MC: Any favourite designers?

AB: Lucian Matis is so dramatic and Greta Constantine just gets better and better​. I also love what Tanya Taylor is doing right now – I could live in her clothes every day. After a few years of pretty predictable fashion, Gucci and Vivetta have this whimsy in their designs that is making fashion fun again.

My go-to’s are J.Crew, for nautical basics and comfortable heels, Ela for clutches and handbags, Gucci, J. Mendel and Naeem Khan for gowns, Muhlbauer for hats and turbans because my head is so big, Vivetta and Temperley London for day dresses and Maison Marrakech for caftans and slippers.

Jonathan Crow and Co.

Jonathan Crow, is all over the place – he has already established himself as a talented leading violinist performing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as Concert Master, was appointed this year as Toronto Summer Music’s Artistic Director, continues his chamber work with the New Orford String Quartet, and may I had, just so happens to grow more handsome as her gets older. I promise to focus on the music for the rest of this post.

The BC native has been turning heads in all directions and there is no slowing down. This evening he will perform an English chamber recital featuring both ensemble and solo works for piano and violin featuring works by Elgar, Mozart and others. We ask Mr. Crow about this extra special summer with Toronto Summer Music.

Photo by Sian Richards

Photo by Sian Richards

MC: What do you love about performing with Toronto Summer Music in comparison to your seasonal work with the TSO?

JC: I love the idea of getting to work with young pre-professional players who are excited to play great chamber music. I remember playing my first professional gig almost 20 years ago, and being shocked at the speed at which I was expected to put everything together- the learning curve was pretty steep! TSM does a great job of bridging this gap between student performance timelines of a few months and the professional world. TSM is also a great example of a “festival” type program where artists come in from all around the world and put together exciting programs in a short time- giving the potential for truly unique musical events.

MC: Please share more about your musical interpretation with a smaller ensemble and the repertoire you are focusing on for your TSM performance. 

JC: In my opinion there isn’t a huge difference between chamber music and orchestra- the same skills come into play in both fields. No matter what the kind of music, one has to have great listening skills as well as the ability to adjust to colleagues- both in rehearsal and on the fly during a concert. Chamber music is great for enhancing these skills though, as with only a few people on stage it is a little easier to really have an interaction with each colleague, giving perhaps the chance for more spontaneity than any other form of music.

MC: How does this year’s ‘London Calling’ them resonate with you musically? 
JC: My parents are both British, and I’ve spent a lot of time in England both visiting relatives and working. London is one of the world’s great cities, and has such a huge musical history; it’s fantastic for me to be able to perform an entire concert (and be part of an entire festival!) that takes place around a specific city that means so much to my family and me! It’s amazing to see such varied repertoire that all has a connection to one amazing city.
MC: Do you have a favourite English composer?

JC: For me it has to be Edward Elgar- specifically because of a recording of his violin concerto made by a young Yehudi Menuhin with Elgar himself conducting. I fell in love with this piece and the rest of Elgar’s music as a kid when I listened to this recording over and over. There isn’t a huge amount of chamber music by Elgar unfortunately, but I’m really happy to be performing the Elgar Sonata for Violin and Piano this week.

Photo from Toronto Star

Photo from Toronto Star

MC: Finally, how do you feel about your new appointment as Artistic Director?

JC: I’m pretty to excited to take over from Douglas next year- this is a great festival and he has been doing amazing things! I believe so strongly in what this festival has to present- Toronto in the summer is an amazing place, and the TSM presents a mix of events unlike any other organization in the country. We already have lots of great ideas for 2017- hopefully we can pick up where 2016 left off and make a great festival next year!


A Shakespeare Serenade

Two years ago, to mark his 460th anniversary, an international survey[1] was released sharing results based on the following question – to name the number one person people associated with contemporary UK arts and culture. William Shakespeare.

This year’s theme for Toronto Summer Music would not be complete without paying musical tributes to this unforgettable icon. His plays and poems have inspired more music than any other English-language author.

Tomorrow evening, Patrick Hansen will direct A Shakespeare Serenade. Young singers from across the country will channel every facet of the music and texts through musical settings by composers such as Britten, Verdi and others. A unique concert like this should not be missed and here are a few more reasons why.

patrick hansen

MC: What is the beauty in directing a performance such as this one with such a rich and dynamic group of artists?

PH: Each of the singers are individual artists, varied in their experience and talent, so that usually creates a lovely “garden” of performers who each bring something to the table. This program is unique in that all of the singers are present on the stage while each sings a song. They are creating imaginary relationships between each other and the songs’ texts. The pianists are also present in the space – not off to the side – and so they become part of the interaction between the players. Some of the singers have performed often together, some only know each other. This performance is giving them a chance to get to know each other better as singing actors.

MC: How do you get in inspired when interpreting Shakespeare through the works of Barber, Britten, Finzi, Gounoud, Tippett and Verdi?
PH: My inspiration as a director starts with the music. My inspiration as a conductor and pianist, when dealing with opera and song, is oftentimes more focused on the text than the music.  I try to look at both through these two lenses with equanimity. In this program, it is Shakespeare’s voice that is the most present – overriding the composers’ as a group. However, one of the exciting things about the program is that it looks at a few texts multiple times (“Come Away Death”, for example where we feature Quilter’s, Korngold’s and Finzi’s take on the text), and we also play with gender, which adds a different subtextual view not necessarily found when these songs are sung by one performer.

MC: When you hear ‘Shakespeare and Music’, what 3 to 5 words first come to mind?

PH: I hear the obvious: If music be the food of love…

But actually, my mind turns to four words:


[1] (2014, April 23).  Shakespeare ‘a cultural icon’ abroad. Retrieved from

The Rape of Lucretia

Festival season is in the air and another year of Toronto Summer Music is among us. This year’s theme, “London Calling” features artists collaborating to perform the works by some of Britain’s greatest composers.

Since 2010, Against the Grain Theatre has been dazzling audiences with their fresh, daring re-interpretations of classical repertoire. For this year’s festival, Artistic Director Joel Ivany and  Music Director Topher Mokrzewski will present Britten’s  The Rape of Lucretia – a  “haunting chamber opera about the ill-fated Lucretia, whose was rape by Tarquinius Sextus — son of the Etruscan King of Rome — and consequent suicide spurred the revolution that toppled the monarchy and brought about the Roman Republic”.

Amidst the preparations for tonight’s performance at Winter Garden Theatre, we chat with the lovable soprano Chelsea Rus about Lucretia and what can be expected from the entire opera collective.

soprano chelsea rus

MC: The collaborative efforts behind this performance has received so much praise. Can you share more about your behind-the-scenes experiences with the production?

CR: Benjamin Britten believed that it is essential to have a true marriage between text and music, and that these forces work side by side to create an effective story. The Rape of Lucretia is a shining example of this. Our team of directors, designers and musical staff has made sure that this comes through in our production and we have thoroughly considered the context and themes of this piece. On the first day of the rehearsal we had a read through Ronald Duncan’s libretto as a cast with the entire company. This allowed us to find deeper meaning, symbolism and the subtext that is riddled in Duncan’s text, and mirrored by Britten’s music.

As a chamber piece, there are eight characters and the orchestra is made up of thirteen members. The intimate size of cast allowed us to form trusting relationships with one another, which is absolutely essential to a piece with such sensitive subject matter. In only a few days, we created a safe place in rehearsal to try and fail at new concepts, techniques and emotions. Therefore, as a team we have carved out a story that for each individual has so much truth in it.

The costume, lighting and design team have worked together to create a production that is visually spectacular, haunting and realistic. The setting is war time, and the Male and Female chorus observe all the action on stage as people from present day. All elements of this show have come together to create a world where past and present collide.

Photos by Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

Photos by Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

MC: This is a unique opportunity when it comes to hearing Britten’s chamber operas. How did you musically prepare for this?

CR: Both musically and dramatically, this piece has been a huge undertaking for all members in the cast and orchestra. Britten’s use of irregular phrasing and meter may not be apparent to the ear of the audience, but required months upon months of mastering by the cast. However the most difficult part of preparing for this piece was no doubt the delivery of text as it is incredibly dense with history, mythology and double meanings. In the case of both Female and Male chorus, there are many sections of extended recitative, which take time to shape musically and dramatically. We took so much care in dissecting phrases, and finding subtext in every sentence in order to find the true meaning in Duncan’s words. It has been such an artistically fulfilling experience.

MC: In general, what does Britten’s work mean to you?

CR: The Rape of Lucretia is an incredibly important and relevant piece of music and literature. The original myth takes place twenty-five hundred years ago, yet you turn on the news to find similar if not exact situations in present day. Exploring a subject that a lot of us are uncomfortable talking about is crucial to finding a path to change. We must become aware of how even with all of the knowledge, technology and intelligence in the world, history has and will repeat itself which I think is the most frustrating theme in this opera. The aim of Duncan’s libretto and Britten’s music is not to leave the audience with immediate resolve to change the world, but instead to invoke important questions about humanity.