Toronto diary: Two international ensembles

My vertigo seems to be all better this morning. I’m so grateful to be able to go about my normal life again — especially since it sounds like vertigo is something that recurs. This is the post I wanted to share yesterday.

Toronto has an active live music scene that encompasses big, “official” venues (like the symphony and the opera) as well as festivals, clubs, and restaurants. Before we left the Bay Area, my dental hygienist (also mentioned in this post) told me, “It’s not like in San Francisco, where if you’re going to hear music, you have to plan ahead and buy tickets and line up and everything. In Toronto you can just walk into the local bars and a lot of them will have bands playing, and they’re usually pretty good, too. You can see some great bands for the price of a couple of beers.” We haven’t gotten out on as many nights as we’d hoped, but we have managed to catch a couple of interesting ensembles. 

The first of these performances, incidentally, was at a venue that’s deliberately not a bar or restaurant. “We envisioned creating a space that didn’t have that ‘cutlery’ ambience,” the owner said. “We wanted it to be all about the music, and not about drinking or eating or anything else going on.” Musideum is a little music wonderland: part musical-instrument museum, part shop, part recording studio, and part intimate performance space. The owner, Donald Quan, is a composer and musician who used to tour with Loreena McKennitt before a sudden collapse forced him to change his lifestyle.

Folding chairs set up at Musideum

Performance area at Musideum

Erik on a bench at Musideum

At Musideum, on a Tuesday night, we sat among dozens of Icelanders — and the Icelandic consul in Toronto — to hear Ensemble Úngút. The duo (that night, a trio) does jazz interpretations of Icelandic folk songs. Of course we couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, but the singer, Rosa Baldursdóttor, did a beautiful job of making everyone feel welcome, explaining what all the songs were about, and situating them in cultural context when necessary. (“Most of our love songs are sad, because life is hard,” she said. “We do have some happy songs… usually these are the songs about animals.”)

This is the only video of Ensemble Úngút I could find online, but it’s a gorgeous song, and gives you a sense of the calm, private feel of the performance.

The second performance also took place in a cozy, dimly lit room, and the group also played an Icelandic song (one of the happy tunes, about animals!), but otherwise the two concerts couldn’t have been more different.

Ensemble Polaris at Tranzac

Ensemble Polaris describes itself as “Canada’s only arctic-fusion band.” If you don’t know what that is, I’m not sure they do either; they cheerfully acknowledge that they “defy classification!” There are about nine members playing instruments ranging from cello to nyckelharpa to recorder to tabla; most of the musicians seemed to double or triple up on multiple instruments throughout the evening; one sang; Swedish bagpipes were brought out; many of the pieces were arranged or composed or researched by the members of the group. We heard a Scottish folk song, something tango-inspired, and a Brahms waltz. Everyone seemed to be having fun, the musicians most of all. After a few pieces I leaned over and whispered to Erik, “If I ever join a band, this is the kind I want to join,” and he responded, “I’ll join too.”

Oh, and to make things even more international, we heard them at Tranzac, the Toronto Australia New Zealand Club! And there was no charge to get in.

Here they are performing live at a different venue. You get a sense of their eclecticism and energy.

In rehearsal, doing a song in a totally different style from the previous:

On recording, in yet another totally distinct style:

If all we did in Toronto was go to performances at Tranzac and Musideum, I think we’d be pretty happy.

To be fair, there are definitely similar events and venues in the Bay Area (Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse springs instantly to mind, as does Freight & Salvage, which I didn’t get a chance to check out before we left), but everything feels more accessible here in Toronto. Maybe it’s because the city is more transit-accessible, or because it’s safer, or maybe it’s just that we live in the city as opposed to outside of it.

One last thing: it’s coincidence that both these performances had ties to Iceland, but we are going to Reykjavík in August! We’ll be there for a month. So exciting.