Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Claire Morley’s got a sweet gig. As the new Program Manager for the Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series (FCS), she oversees the programming for 70-plus concerts being presented this season. Thanks to her, an estimated 15,000 people will experience the series this year. For free.
Morley insists that she can’t take all the credit. Putting the series together is a collaborative process: “Many of the concerts, particularly those involving the artists that the COC works with most frequently—our Orchestra members, mainstage singers, and the artists from our Ensemble Studio—are really a joint effort involving different members of the company.” And the FCS is very much a community concert hub: music schools, dance companies and other arts organizations that the COC works with co-present concerts at the series.
Though Morley is new to this role, her long-time experience in arts organizations, as well as a being professional singer (she is a member of the famed Elmer Iseler Singers) certainly contributes to her keen ability to spot acts that can contribute to a wide-ranging concert experience. “I’ve been fortunate to sing in a professional chamber choir that collaborates frequently with many different organizations, genres and disciplines across Toronto and Canada,” Morley explains. “I’ve made a lot of connections that way and have since crossed paths with many of those artists through my work at the COC. And choral music itself is a very collaborative art form—especially when working in a chamber group. I think that in my role, along with having a strong and clear vision, having that natural collaborative ability and spirit is essential.”
Morley’s vision heralds a stirring series, which just launched with a vocal performance by the COC Ensemble Studio performers singing their favourite arias. Over the course of the season, the concerts will span a range of disciplines: Vocal, Chamber Music, Piano Virtuoso, Jazz, World Music and Dance. Morley’s excitement about the offerings this season is palpable: “There’s almost nowhere else in this city where you can see contemporary dance one week and an opera star or Indo-Jazz fusion group the next – and all for free!”
What makes the FCS such a gem of the Toronto arts scene is that each series is unique. There is always something audiences can see here that they can’t elsewhere–no matter the season. “That’s one of the strengths of the series!” enthuses Morley. “The space itself provides a very unique intimacy that isn’t easy to find elsewhere, but it feels very much ‘alive,’ since it’s situated right on the corner of Queen and University. I’d argue that no matter your taste in music or your experience as a concertgoer, there will always be opportunities to experience something brand new in the Free Concert Series. There’s definitely something for everyone! The choice is up to you!”
Still thinking that if the COC presents these concerts, they must be for narrow audiences with discerning tastes? Well, think again. The quality is certainly what you’d expect of a COC-produced concert. The concerts are performed in Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, itself architecturally and acoustically magnificent. But the series aims to appeal to a range of audiences. There are many programs specifically for young people and families. For instance, parents should mark their calendars for the March Break. Morley has selected and programmed concerts being presented in that week expressly with families in mind: “The first concert of that week is ‘Opera Interactive,’ when opera educator Kyra Millan, as well as artists from the COC Ensemble Studio, perform in a lively, interactive concert that explores a fun side of opera!” Later that week, Morley has booked the amazing singers from Cawthra Park Chamber Choir, who will take the audience on a choral journey in a program that spans several centuries: “The young singers from Cawthra are some of the most enthusiastic and dedicated musicians I’ve ever encountered, and the sounds they create are stunning!”
How is it possible to produce and present such a spectrum of concerts completely free of charge? “A key part of (former COC General Director) Richard Bradshaw’s original vision was that, no matter what, these concerts should always be free,” Morley explains. ”It’s a priority to make these performances as accessible as possible so that anyone who wants to attend can. The Free Concert Series really is a perfect way to discover something new,” she continues, “and without breaking your budget! I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with people at these performances who have gone into the concert knowing next to nothing about the art form they’re about to engage with . . . and who come out having newly discovered something really special. It’s wonderful to see live performance speak to people like that. That’s why we do this.”
And that’s why you need to go at least once this year. A sweet gig, for sure . . . and for you, its fruits are free.
What: The Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: September 2015-May 2016
Where: Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M5H 4G1
Sneak Peek of Series Highlights:
1.Two world premieres:
i) The Glenn Gould School’s New Music Ensemble, under the direction of Brian Current, premieres Strange Luminescence by Chinese-Canadian composer Alice Ho
ii) American pianist Kara Huber presents Pulitzer Prize-nominated composer David Rakowski’s Préludes for Piano, Book IV and the Canadian premiere of Bagatelles by Douglas Pew
2. Holiday-themed concerts all ages:
i) In December, holiday classics from a capella vocal quartet Cadence, and blues duo Braithwaite and Whiteley, as well as the Brian Barlow Big Band’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s jazzy interpretation of The Nutcracker Suite
ii) In March, the COC’s interactive March Break concert gives the audience a chance to use their operatic voices and the Danforth Four’s traditional Irish program anticipates St. Patrick’s Day
© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya