Music to the Ears

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

When Arash Lotfi came to Trinity to study mathematics and philosophy two years ago, he didn’t want his ten years of jazz and classical piano training to slide into a casual hobby. He signed out Seeley Hall to practice on the grand – that thrilled him – and signed up to play at informal cabarets, and that satisfied his appetite for performance. But with no formal music program, Trinity’s opportunities for mentorship were limited.

And given the amount of musical talent the college hosts, that was especially unfortunate. Perhaps Trinity’s resonant halls, which make every footfall sound like a horse hoof on cobblestones, amplify the effect, but from informal coffeehouses to rock shows in the Buttery to recitals in Strachan Hall and the chapel, music always seems to be wafting in from some distant corner of the college. Matthew Airhart, director of development and alumni affairs, was inspired: “We should create additional opportunities for current students to be involved,” he thought. An artists-in-residence program seemed like the most obvious solution.

Elizabeth Wilson ’65, a longtime volunteer and supporter of the College, agreed. She also happened to be a friend of one of Canada’s most renowned piano chamber ensembles, the Toronto-based Gryphon Trio. She thought would it be a natural fit for the College: in addition to performing public concerts, the Trio teaches music at the University of Toronto and runs training programs for amateur musicians from Grade-8 students in small-town Ontario to post-doctoral students at Stanford University – and the Trio was thrilled about the opportunity to be involved with Trinity, too.

“At Stanford you get a concentration of brilliant minds,” says Gryphon cellist Roman Borys, “And Trinity seems to attract students who are similarly well-rounded.”

So this past January, Borys, along with violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon and pianist James Parker, signed on to be Trinity’s first-ever artists-in-residence. The program is funded entirely by donations from alumni and friends of the College. In residence until December 2013, the Trio will be giving student- and alumni-only concerts, public performances, hosting student workshops and mentoring selected students in solo and ensemble performance.

For Lotfi, “getting to sit a foot away from the Gryphon Trio during their inaugural performance at Seeley Hall this past March was the highlight of my year.” And this concert was only the first of several collaborations to come between three musicians with educators’ instincts and a college with a tradition of music at its very heart.

It is a little-known fact that Trinity had a small music department and even grantedmusic degreesuntil 1904 when the college confederated with the U of T. In fact, it was Trinity College that awarded the first-ever Canadian professorship in music and Doctor of Music, in 1853 and 1858 respectively, to William Strathy, a British immigrant who claimed to have studied under Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt. As chair of the department, Strathy gave irregular (and little-compensated) lectures on music theory at the College, and appears to have shunted the best students into private classes in his Riverdale home.

As a result of Strathy’s focus on personal rather than institutional enterprise, the department under him was so listless that in 1881 the short-lived Toronto arts magazine Arionearnestly asked: “Why can we not have a chair of music at the university?”

Two months later, when Trinity’s student paper, Rouge et Noir (precursor to The Review), reported that Trinity in fact did have a department chair, albeit a distracted one, Arion writer J. Davenport Kerrison applied to be tested for a bachelor of music; he had written a symphony and two successful operettas, but Strathy failed him. Kerrison retaliated with an editorial in The Globe and Mail and a Trinity committee determined that Strathy’s exam had been unfair.

The controversy spurred the College to appoint a new examiner and codify the requirements for the bachelor and doctoral programs in music. Trinity granted four degrees in 1886 and the following year, began to offer in-absentia degrees in England. These London examinations quickly became popular with candidates whom did not have the arts prerequisites required by Cambridge and Oxford, but established musicians resented the intrusion. In 1890, 35 British performers and composers submitted letters to the colonial secretary condemning the Canadian degrees. Even though the degrees were perfectly legitimate, the U of T discontinued its perhaps too prescient distance education program in 1891.

Despite its early challenges in maintaining an official music department, the College’s many piano keys have never gone un-tickled, or its chords unstrung, for long. Prior to Strathy’s appointment, a glee club for amateur choral singers occasionally “sallied forth on a serenading trip by moonlight,” and in 1905 secured its first conductor. By the time it gave its final performance in 1922, the Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) was putting on musical theatre events and the Literary Institute (the LIT) was organizing the annual Conversazione, a more formal affair than today’s Conversat ball; a 1952 financial statement reports that the planning committee spent four times as much on corsages as it did on alcohol.

And in contrast to its degree program, amateur music has always thrived at Trinity through the initiatives of inspired hobbyists and professionals. James Campbell McInnis, who taught elocution at Trinity and Wycliffe colleges, first introduced concerted chamber music to Trinity, and Toronto in general, with his “Tuesday Nine O’Clocks” concerts, and the Earle Grey Players held a pre-Stratford Shakespeare festival in Trinity’s quad from 1949 until 1958 that included an Elizabethan concert in Seeley Hall.

“People have always been passionate about music here,” says Trinity’s Rolph-Bell Archivist Sylvia Lassam, “but it was very unofficial. A few people would organize something and when they died, it would die with them. But there was never any official music program [after 1904] other than the chapel.”

A part of College life since it was built in 1955, today Trinity’s chapel benefits from a passionate director of music, and a chaplain with a Master of Music. “I don’t flatter myself thinking people come to listen to my sermons,” says Humphrys Chaplain and oboist, the Rev. Andrea Budgey. “I know they come to listen to the choir.”

By offering choral scholarships to some of its leads, appointing a regular organ scholar to perform services and weddings and allowing U of T students and alumni to audition as well, the Trinity chapel choir engages students with its surrounding communities. And though director of music John Tuttle is an organ scholar of 50 years, he spent nearly half that time conducting the Hart House Chorus just a few blocks from the chapel. “There’s a real sense of community in a choir,” he says, noting that he has seen people who have met in the choir and gone on to date, some who married and even started families. “Other choir members have gone into Divinity, realizing through the experience that they had a calling for it. It’s a chance to be transcendent, otherworldly. It lifts you above the mundane.”

One of few chapels in the city that performs a weekly Evensong, annual advent carol services and a Tenebrae during the Holy Week, Trinity offers such transcendence regularly. Still, Budgey finds innovative ways to supplement the regular programming: last year, an Orthodox Church cantor ran an afternoon music series in the chapel; and for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night art festival, the same cantor and an alumnus organized improvised chants submitted via email, text messages and Facebook.

“I remember improvising a chant to the Wikipedia article on graffiti at two in the morning,” says Budgey. “It was a distinctly surreal experience.” She says they plan to involve the chapel in Nuit Blanche again this year, “but for the rest,” she says, “I think it’s fun just to wait and see what materializes from each new group of students.”

Unfortunately, Tuttle says, students seem to find it harder and harder to make the time for music. “It used to be, 25 or 30 years ago, we said we were going to take the choir to New York for a week and everybody would pile onto the bus. Now people say, ‘Well, I’ve got these papers due and my grades are so important.’ There isn’t a lot of opportunity—or they don’t perceive the opportunity—to waste that time, despite the fact that it’s not a waste of time at all.”

Quite the contrary, he says: playing and listening to music heightens his senses and awareness of his surroundings. Tuttle remembers being in St. Paul’s Cathedral years ago, listening to the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra practicing Tallis. “As they played, I started looking around and I thought, ‘my gosh, this is a beautiful building.’ And then I realized that what brought me to that revelation was the music.”

Sitting in the stained glass-filtered sunlight of Trinity’s chapel, Budgey makes an opposite connection between physical and acoustic space, but a connection nonetheless: “It’s such a beautiful building, it ought to be filled with music.”

Donna Haley, ’51, is one of the enterprising Trinity students who helped to fill the college with music well before the artist-in-residence program was conceived. “I would certainly have undertaken the opportunity when I was at Trinity,” she says, and is sure “undergraduates…will appreciate it all their lives.”

Sitting in the Grant and Ruth Douglas Boardroom on the first day of May, the Trio is brainstorming what specific form those opportunities will take. In addition to the sight-reading sessions based on student selections from the vast music library at U of T, Parker says they have plans in the works for master classes, including instruction on individual and ensemble playing. After that, he says the students’ interest will largely guide the programming.

Then he mentions a student who will start at the College in September. Even though she had been accepted to the U of T Music Department with a full scholarship in piano, she chose to study International Relations at Trinity.

“I don’t think she wants to give the piano up,” says Parker, “but sometimes that happens when you go to university and you become so focused on something else ….”

“Our residency here might create an opportunity for other students like her,” Borys says hopefully. “They won’t have to make this painful choice between their music and their schoolwork.”

Patipatanakoon adds: “If our relationship with Trinity could help students just to keep music in their lives …”

“Yeah,” says Borys. “What we’re talking about here is not music for a career, necessarily; it’s music for life.

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