There’s a side of my career that doesn’t often get a lot of attention, even though it has been responsible for some of my most cherished performances, and continues to provide a humbling reminder of music’s power to move a listener when other methods fail. For the past several years I’ve performed concerts for the Health Arts Society, a non-profit society that brings live music to elders in care facilities throughout Canada. Many of these men and women are no longer able to attend cultural events in their communities due to poor health or mobility — so Health Arts brings professional-level music and theatre events directly to their residence. I’m so proud to say that, to date, I’ve performed 130 concerts for this incredible organization.

I’ve given concerts throughout BC under the Health Arts banner, but this past week presented a wonderful opportunity to perform in and around Toronto, thanks to the recently initiated Heath Arts Society of Ontario. HASO’s general manager, Raymond Aucoin, paired me with the fabulous Toronto-based pianist, Younggun Kim, and together we gave a week of concerts that included works by Schubert, Chaminade, Bizet/Borne, Chopin, and Poulenc.

These concerts reaffirm the worth of what I do. There is always someone who is touched in a way that I’d never expect: once, after a bedridden woman shouted “bravo” at the end of a performance, one of the staff informed me that it was the first thing she had spoken in months. There have also been a number of occasions when I’ve been approached by individuals who were professional musicians themselves, and am regaled with tales and anecdotes. And I challenge anyone to keep it together when you’re playing Ave Maria and the whole room hums along with you — years later, it never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to bring music to where it is needed most, and the reminder of how intensely vital the arts are in every stage of our lives.

A week of new music has come and gone! In my previous post I mentioned that I was going to listen to a new musical work every day for the month of April. So far, it’s been an interesting experience: my “listening time” often occurs at the end of the day, when I realize “Damn, I haven’t listened to a new piece yet…. Argh”. Often I was torn between listening to a new piece and curling up on the sofa with a book and a beer. That said, each night I managed to pry myself away from my book (if not my beer) and dutifully listened to something new.

And, I gotta say, each night I was rewarded for the effort.

I actually think I lucked out this week: everything I listened to was frickin’ awesome in its own way. Most of this music was entirely new to me, while a couple were pieces I had heard maybe once or twice many moons ago, and had more or less forgotten. The list this week was:

April 3rd – Toru Takemitsu: Sky, Horse and Death

April 4th – Derek Charke: Sepia Fragments

April 5th – Richard Rodney Bennett: Tom O’Bedlam Song

April 6th – Bela Bartok: 5th String Quartet

April 7th – Maurice Ravel: Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé

April 8th – Alban Berg: Altenberglieder

April 9th – Vladimir Martynov: Night in Galicia

The Martynov was the wild card of the bunch. Recommended to me by composer Jocelyn Morlock (who was referred to it by her former composition teacher, the late Nikolai Korndorf), I personally found this sprawling 70-minute work began to outstay its welcome by the fifth movement. But the opening movement is so intensely striking, balancing healthy doses of chant-inspired minimalism and folkloric ridiculousness. Here’s a clip for anyone interested (seriously, it blew my mind, so if you can spare 15 minutes, it’s absolutely worth a listen):

I decided today that I need to listen to more music. Some people might find such a statement ridiculous, coming from the mouth of one who claims to be a “professional musician”. And to an extent it is a ridiculous statement: particularly as someone who performs and commissions a lot of new music, I’m constantly surrounded by new sounds. But the truth of it, at least for me, is that the demands of juggling the various facets of a freelancer’s schedule — performing, teaching, practising, networking — often don’t allow for time to sit back and truly listen to music. Yes, one could argue that I’m listening to music whenever I practise, rehearse, or perform, but I’m talking more about a kind of listening that does not involve counting, analyzing, or a mild (yet constant) level of panic.

So the plan is this: every day I’m going to attempt to listen to a piece of music that I’ve 1.) never heard before, or 2.) heard before once or twice, but never really had the chance to truly listen, or 3.) heard before, but interpreted by a different performer. Most importantly, I’m going to make an effort to pick music that does not feature the flute in a major capacity — God knows I listen to enough flute music, so the repertoire for this project will focus more on vocal/choral, opera, string quartets, electronic music,etc. And I probably won’t post every day (in fact, I’m pretty certain I won’t). But I’m hoping to share some of my findings, particularly stuff that I think is particularly noteworthy. Some of this stuff may strike one as being blatantly “standard repertoire”, but the idea of this project is not only to unearth some of the more esoteric stuff out there, but also to acquaint and reacquaint myself with some important repertoire that I’ve simply never had the chance to get to know: for example, I’m hoping to get through a number of Bartok and Shostakovich string quartets, among other things.

I thought I’d start off with some Toru Takemitsu. This is a work of musique concrète entitled Sky, Horse and Death. The piece is strangely short in duration: I find myself just starting to get into the quasi-ritualistic repetitions of bells, vocal cries, and horse whinnying (yes, there are horse whinnies), and suddenly it’s over. It’s hypnotic, surreal, and more than a little disturbing.

It’s not often I get to work with harpsichord. As someone who performs a fair bit of new (or at least newish) music, the proximity of this wondrous beast is a rare privilege. Fortunately, this all changes on Tuesday, when I’ll be performing a concert with harpsichordist Chris Bagan at the Cellar, as part of Music on Main’s Month of Tuesday series. Chris and I have will present four works by titans of the Baroque era: J.S. BachFrançois Couperin, and G.F. Händel. These are composers who obviously need no introduction, and their music is stratospherically beautiful. In addition to these, we’ve commissioned four new works by Canadian composers, each reflecting on/paying tribute to one of the older works. Composers Cassandra MillerJocelyn MorlockAlfredo Santa Ana, and Edward Top have all contributed fantastic gems that range from darkly mournful to humourously affectionate to all-out demented. It’s been such a pleasure getting to know these pieces, and we’re honoured that Cassandra, Jocelyn, Alfredo, and Edward have taken the time out of their (occasionally hellish) schedules to write these pieces especially for this event.
I’ve been wanting to present a programme of music from the 18th and 21st centuries for a while now. The Baroque and Modern eras of music are two cornerstones of interest for me, at least in part because they are two musical epochs that have suffered neglect from conventional concert programming. The rise of period performance practice, while unquestionably integral and inspiring, has inadvertently robbed us modern instrument performers of a vast treasure trove of repertoire: many performers are afraid to programme music of the 18th century for fear of playing it “wrong”. Likewise, the music of contemporary Canadian composers is often programmed apologetically as short, token works inserted between standard, Romantic warhorses. This concert is a way of addressing these curious facts, but moreover it’s an opportunity to connect with and share some intensely gorgeous music (like Couperin! Why don’t we play more Couperin??). At any rate, I’m deeply indebted to Dave Pay and the folks at Music on Main for allowing us the opportunity to present a programme that  celebrates our musical heritage through a uniquely Canadian lens, and acknowledges our debt to the past while still looking forward.
If you’ve been to the Cellar for A Month of Tuesdays, you know it’s one of the best places in Vancouver to hear classical music: an intimate, informal atmosphere that combines great music, food, drink, and friends (my four favourite things!). Please click  here for more information, and if you’re in the area and would like to come, consider reserving your seat in advance, as concerts on this series do have a tendency to sell out.

I’ve just returned from an inspiring short-term residency at the Banff Centre: for two weeks Rachel and I were burrowed away in the snow recording our new Tiresias CD, Halos of the Moon. I think it’s safe to say that this was one of the best recording sessions I’ve ever experienced. We had a fantastic pair of technicians, Emma Laín from Spain, and Zhanna Corbett from Lithuania, who managed to get us a beautiful sound and provide us with a warm and relaxed environment (I can get a *tiny* bit stressed once the microphone is on. Just saying). Outside the recording studio, we had a chance to rub elbows with some amazing artists, including the Bozzini Quartet, composer Ana Sokolovic, and choreographer Marc Boivin. All in all, an intense but fun time.

The rest of March features some incredible projects! On March 15, I’ll be performing at HE[A]R, presented by Vancouver New Music. A series of concerts recognizing International Women’s Day, the March 15th event features music by Kaija Saariaho, Dorothy Chang, and Mary Finsterer, as well as percussionist Daniel Tones, soprano Dory Hayley, and electronics wizards Keith Hamel, Bob Pritchard, and Martin Ritter. It takes place at the Waldorf in Vancouver (which, if I’m not mistaken, boasts the last Tiki lounge in the city).

A few days later, on March 20, I’ll be performing for Music on Main’s A Month of Tuesdays with harpsichordist Chris Bagan. We’ll be presenting a delicious programme of Baroque masterpieces by J.S. Bach, G.F. Händel, and F. Couperin, alongside new works commissioned especially for the event by Canadian composers Cassandra Miller, Jocelyn Morlock, Alfredo Santa Ana, and Edward Top. It’s been fascinating to see how each composer approaches the ages-old combination of flute and harpsichord. The results are wonderfully varied, breathtakingly lovely…. and occasionally demented.

Finally, I’ll be off to Victoria for Aventa‘s final concert of the 11/12 season. Taking place on March 25, this concert will premiere two major Canadian works, Dark Matters by Jeffrey Ryan and Tell Tales for piano solo, obbligato horn and ensemble by Michael Oesterle. Uh, now that I look at all this, I suppose I should get off the computer and start practising!

February has been a month of change: last week I stepped down from my position as Co-Artistic Director of the Redshift Music Society. After seven incredible years of working with an inspiring roster of performers, composers, and friends, I felt it was time to explore new career directions and dedicate more time to performing. With that in mind, I couldn’t be more excited about the coming weeks. On February 26th, Tiresias — my duo with pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa — departs for the Banff Centre for a week of intense rehearsing, followed by the recording of our new CD. This album, entitled Halos of the Moon, is a project that is very dear to both Rachel and me, as it is a musical exploration of the ties that unite Japan and Canada (both Rachel and I are “Hapa”: individuals of both Japanese and Western heritage). Halos of the Moon will feature music by Japanese composers who have had links to Canada (Toru Takemitsu and Jo Kondo),Canadian composers of Western descent who have been influenced by Japanese musical culture (Elliot Weisgarber, Derek Charke, and Anthony Genge), and Canadian composers of Japanese heritage (Kara Gibbs and Hiroki Tsurumoto). It’s a beautiful, challenging programme. And, I must admit, Rachel and I are so excited about returning to Banff we have to control ourselves from spontaneously squealing with delight during rehearsals (actually, if you knew either of us, you’d know we’re not the types to squeal. But we still feel like doing it).

Mark Takeshi McGregor & Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa

I felt it was time to send out an update about the Bach Project, my recording endeavour with organist Michael Murray (you can read more about the project, and the incredibly generous individuals who supported it, by clicking here). It’s ended up being a busy season, so it took a bit of time for Michael and me to make all the necessary edits (Chop! Chop! Chop!), and now we’re waiting for our recording technician to return the final versions to us (Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!), so we can move on to mastering, jacket design, and manufacturing of the final physical product. There are a lot of balls in the air at the moment, but we’re confident that the CD will be ready this Spring — which, I realize, is fast approaching! In the meantime, we’d love to give you another taste of what’s to come: here’s a link to our recording of the first movement of Bach’s b minor sonata, which is one of my favourite flute pieces of all time. Enjoy, and expect to hear from us soon!

I’m proud to be a member of Aventa, a Victoria-based new music ensemble directed by Bill Linwood. Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege of performing dozens of concerts around the world alongside these fabulous musicians, and rubbing elbows with some of the most spectacular composers of our time.

Aventa will perform on Friday, 3 February 2012, as part of the Victoria Symphony’s 2012 New Music Festival. The programme includes Living Toys by Thomas Adès, an incredibly colourful and virtuosic work for chamber orchestra, The Human Condition by Canadian composer Anthony Genge, and Eight Irish Madrigals by Gavin Bryars, which also features soprano Anne Grimm and tenor Benjamin Butterfield. Bryars, who shot to international stardom with his works The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, will be in attendance at the festival — and he’ll be performing the double bass with Aventa in his own work! Read more about the event here.

Redshift Music Society, a Vancouver-based nonprofit dedicated to bringing new Canadian music to a broader public, has just digitally released a new album, Redshift X, commemorating their ten years of existence. I’m pleased to report that I’m featured on no less than six of the ten tracks, which are taken from previous and upcoming Redshift CD releases, including Delicate Fires (my 2007 CD with Rachel Iwaasa, as our duo, Tiresias), Different Stones (my multitrack flute album from 2008) and Trade Winds/Halos of the Moon with Tiresias, which will be released later this year. Redshift X features music by Canadian composers Jocelyn Morlock, Jordan Nobles, James Beckwith Maxwell, Jeffrey Ryan, Christopher Kovarik, Rodney Sharman, Jennifer Butler, Emily Doolittle, and Marci Rabe, and even includes a previously unreleased studio recording I made in 2009 of André Cormier‘s ten-flute piece, tous facteurs étant égaux #2.

This album is available for FREE download: go to the Redshift home page for more info, or simply click here to download all ten tracks. This is a wonderful tribute to Canadian composers and performers, and a terrific way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of an organization that is very, very dear to me. Happy Birthday, Redshift!

I’m thrilled to finally be working with Vancouver composer Alfredo Santa Ana — not once, not twice, but three times this year: on January 19 I’ll premiere his new trio, “On Fairness”, with violinist Karen Gerbrecht and cellist Olivia Blander. This performance is part of a conference at the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver entitled “Explorations of Fairness.” The very next day (January 20) the Redshift Music Society will present a new work of Alfredo’s for eight percussionists, along with new and recent works by composers Kathleen Allan, Jocelyn Morlock, Jordan Nobles, James O’Callaghan and Chris Sivak. This event, called B.A.M.! takes place at the Blusson Spinal Centre at 8pm. Finally, Alfredo will write a new work for me and harpsichordist Chris Bagan, which will be premiered on March 20 at “A Month of Tuesdays” presented by Music on Main. Alfredo’s new work will be a companion piece to Couperin’s “Concert Royal No. 4”, which will also be performed that evening, along with music by Cassandra Miller, Edward Top, Jocelyn Morlock, G.F. Handel, and J.S. Bach. More info on that soon!