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Summary of the Proceedings of the Seminar on the Future of Song Recitals

5 May 2018 – Walter Hall, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto

Jointly Sponsored by Canadian Art Song Project, Art Song Foundation of Canada, Voice Studies, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, and N.A.T.S. Ontario

Steering Committee: Wendy Nielsen (University of Toronto), Kim Canton (Canadian Art Song Project), Shannon Coates (N.A.T.S), Jim Norcop (Art Song Foundation of Canada)


This full-day seminar consisted of a morning panel of four speakers, each giving short presentations and each followed by a town-hall discussion among the audience of about 120 stakeholders in the art form of song (teachers, singers, pianists, presenters, scholars). The afternoon offered short performances by four groups of artists who were given the challenge of designing a song recital to attract new audiences to the art form. A general town-hall discussion followed, with a focus on the take-away of the audience members from the day’s proceedings. A wine and cheese reception, hosted by Voice Studies, Faculty of Music, allowed the discussions to continue.

Chaired by Linda Hutcheon, the panel opened with a presentation on the song recital audience in North America by singer, teacher, arts administrator, and co-founder of the Art Song Foundation of Canada), Jim Norcop. Facing squarely the oft-heard complaints about the death of the song recital because of a lack of audience today, Jim challenged those present with the claim that such an audience has never really existed here, except in small urban pockets of activity: for decades, most song recitals were merely inserted parts of larger organized series of classical music concerts. He then challenged us all to change this situation and to join together to work to create and stimulate new audiences and to help establish the necessary (and missing) infrastructure for song. Introducing a theme that would echo throughout the day, he urged performers to look to smaller venues—churches, homes, schools, libraries—for new performance opportunities that are well suited to this art form, given its history of performance in salons and homes.

In the discussion that followed, the first to speak were Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, the founders of the Aldeburgh Connection, which for over 30 years offered an innovative model for song recitals, each centred on a theme (musical, literary or historical) which structured the narrative framing of the songs presented by talented young performers. (For the benefit of future generations, the archives of the Aldeburgh Connection will be made available through the Music Library at the University of Toronto.) Vera Danchenko-Stern (Peabody Institute) added to this her experience in establishing, 40 years ago, a chamber concert series for the Russian repertoire and her continuing efforts to engage singers in this song repertoire and to create an audience for their work. Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director of Soundstreams Canada, brought the conversation around to both contemporary music and Canadian content, giving examples of the creative breaking down of genre silos that can place song in new and exciting contexts (including, for instance, dramatized stagings of song cycles). To Henry Ingram’s request for practical information about how Jim Norcop organized the concerts he held at his own home,  Jim provided a brief history of the particular circumstances and successes in regularly bringing about 55 people to art song—some of whom were new to the form—through this kind of private event.

The second panel speaker was collaborative pianist, teacher, conductor, Warren Jones, whose title—“Language”—he translated as “communication”: the single most important thing in a song recital. As he put it, it is a matter not only of getting ‘bums in seats,’ but of keeping them there. Performers’ skill, talent, and reputation are not enough to do that. As a performer, he asks himself: “What do I have to say about this music and how do I get that message across to the audience?” He then works to deliver that “meaning, feeling and expression” as clearly and accessibly as he and his musical partner can in order to engage the audience directly. He strongly believes in clearly, slowly, “telling the text” before it is sung, so that when the “three-ring circus” of music/piano playing/singing comes at the audience members, they can understand and appreciate what is happening. Diction is clearly crucial for singers of song in communicating with audiences, but he urged performers more generally to find a musical “language” that can convey their message most appropriately and efficiently.

The discussion after the presentation was opened by George Vassos, founder and artistic director of the Art Song Festival at the Cleveland Institute of Music since 1985.  In this organization’s model, guest artists and master teachers of great acclaim work with younger singer-pianist teams (selected as teams). At the master classes and recitals, the audience has consisted not only of music students but also of what he called “civilians.” He stressed that it is our job to convince audiences of the importance and beauty of art song—and therefore why and how it is worth their time…and money! Singer and professor Donna Brown (Conservatoire de Montréal) addressed her initial fear of speaking (though not singing), despite her passion for the “genius” of the works she was going to sing. Positive audience response, however, convinced her to continue to speak (slowly, clearly) about each song—its music and its poetry—when she performs. She encourages her students to master this skill. Linda Hutcheon (as a “civilian”) asked whether “communication” is a talent one is born with or whether it can be learned. Is it a matter of personality or training? Various teachers in the audience responded that it can most certainly be taught and learned and that it is a skill that people in any walk of life can (and should) acquire. Warren agreed and indeed felt that this ability to communicate doesn’t necessitate having a beautiful voice; but, he also added that he believes that musicality is something that cannot be taught. Singer, teacher, director, and general director of Opera in Concert and Toronto Operetta Theatre Guillermo Silva-Marin felt inspired by the discussion thus far to challenge all the audience members to establish our own song series to make the art form thrive, perhaps starting with house concerts—as he has committed himself to doing—to introduce new audiences to this repertoire. He also suggested that we move away from talking about “art song” to using the term “song”—to be more inclusive (culturally, musically). This too was a theme that would return over the day. Singer and teacher (Wilfrid Laurier University) Kimberly Barber, in emphasizing the importance of communication in song, given her experience with the New York Festival of Song (motto: “No song is safe from us.”), agreed that we should broaden our concept of “song” in our current multicultural society.

The third speaker on the panel was Rena Sharon, educator, collaborative pianist, founder and artistic director of the Vancouver International Song Institute at the University of British Columbia, and of SONGFIRE Theatre, the first program for creating, training and performing art song theatre works. Her topic, “Re-visioning the Art Song Pedagogy and Performance Continuum for the 21st-century Audience,” began by addressing the question: “Why does this matter?” Her historical account of the role of song—both poetry and music—made a strong case for this art form’s human significance over time. Pointing out that over 145,000 songs constitute the global repertoire, she argued that sharing diverse perspectives and building bridges through song are crucial to our world today. Therefore, it is important to work actively to prevent the extinction of the song recital, and the performers are the ones who have to take up the cause, she feels. Surveying over 1,000 “avowed art song-haters,” students, and professors, she has discovered a series of difficulties audiences face: in comprehending diction; in reading the poetry in printed programs; in processing poetic meaning and translation while listening to musical content. Many feel disengaged, missing the dramatic narrative of opera and experiencing a “certain sameness” to song programs; they end up feeling “impressed but not moved.” She argued that while the traditional recital format is an intimate and direct experience to be cherished, if adaptive practices (like dramatization) can lure new audiences to the art form without sacrificing its essential aesthetic fundaments, we should offer such alternative paths in the interests of inclusivity, because art song has huge possibilities of playing a greater role in the world by working across cultural boundaries. She suggested thinking about art song as a “realm” that would include art song but place it in a broader social as well as artistic context. Addressing other audience-related issues—such as (bad) translations, the use of text projections and, more contentiously, image projections (photography, etc.)—she argued that now was the time to experiment and try new things that have already proved successful: alternate venues, humour, warmer ambience and less formality, theatricalization, cross-cultural collaborations, aiming for current relevance. Like many others on this day, Rena emphasized that this event was important because there were so few occasions like it for people to talk about these issues, either live or on-line. She therefore encouraged the organizers to consider more such meetings.

The first speaker to respond was singer and co-artistic director and co-founder of the Source Song Festival in Minneapolis, Clara Osowski. This new (5-year-old) festival invites 16 pianists and singers plus 8 composers (to study with Libby Larson) annually for 5 or 6 days of “focused energy”—training and performing—funded by high ticket sales (1/3) plus tuition. She encouraged us all, in planning such events, to think about where people are at professionally: in Minneapolis, emerging composers are paired with local professional singer/pianist duos; young singers and pianists are paired with local professional composers. Rosemarie Landry then spoke as a passionate art song lover, singer and teacher (at the Université de Montréal) about the intense love of art song/“mélodie” in Montreal as a city, and the contrasting but interesting need she discovered to teach the French (in Paris) anew about the fantastic “mélodie” repertoire. She also found that there was great passion for this art form in Tokyo where she taught recently, so she urged us all to work to bring in new audiences through the communication of our own passion. Mel Braun, singer and professor at the Faculty of Music, University of Manitoba, spoke about the fact that popular songs—aka words and music—are being composed everywhere by young people today, and these have a lot in common with art songs. Indigenous collaborations are also important to bring different traditions together in the name of song, and working with Camerata Nova, he is exploring ways of engaging the broader Canadian community in all its diversity.

The final speaker on the panel was Andrew Kwan, whose management agency has represented, promoted and nurtured Canadian artists (mostly instrumentalists) for over 25 years. His topic was “Creating Opportunities,” and one important message (delivered with wit and considerable irony) was the historical reminder that it took time in the past for art song to spread, given language difficulties and the musical education/knowledge of audiences, but spread it did. But he also noted that the competition today for the ears of music audiences is much greater, and so suggested that more popular repertoire be incorporated into song recitals to guarantee accessibility to a new audience, because a new one is indeed needed. Song as communication is crucial to engaging audiences but, while every other arts industry does research to understand its audience, we do still not really know who our audience is and how to attract it. If we did and it turned out to mean that we need to perform Gordon Lightfoot as well as Lieder, then so be it, said Andrew: we need to be sensitive to our audiences and change accordingly, as museums and other art institutions have in recent years.

Opening up the discussion was Marko Duic, co-founder and co-director of Concerts @ 100 which presents many home concerts every month. Addressing the issue of “popular” music and accessibility, he noted that perhaps Lightfoot’s songs are not considered art songs because they are popular, but that fact might mean than art song is therefore unpopular song—and that is the challenge we need to address. He then gave the history of his series of home concerts that are attracting large audiences. He and Gabriel Lau began offering concerts by students and then expanded to include professional musicians.  (Now additional smaller concerts for student performers only have been created to support them better.) All funds raised go to the performers. Providing information about the music presented gives the audience sufficient important context, he feels, so that turning to popular music is not needed for accessibility. A suggestion was made by an audience member that we write letters to the various media outlets to encourage them to advertise song recitals so that we can find out about the existing opportunities to hear young performers. Andrew Kwan too lamented the loss of many of the radio (CBC) opportunities, but pointed out that YouTube and Vimeo provide every performer with his or her own CBC-equivalent to promote their own work and share their passion for the art form with new audiences.

After the lunch break, four separate groups of performers presented short examples of their conceptions of the kinds of song recitals that might attract new audiences. The audience was urged to imagine themselves not as the art song stakeholders they actually were but as neophyte listeners. (Significantly, the Ontario Arts Council provided the fees for all the performers.)

(1) Soprano Danika Lorèn and pianist Stéphane Mayer performed new works composed by themselves (“Prairie Spring” by Mayer, text by Willa Cather; Lorèn’s settings of Lorna Crozier’s witty poems from The Secret Life of Vegetables, “Onions”, “Carrots” and “Cauliflower”) in combination with Richard Strauss/Felix Dahn’s “Epheu” from Mädchenblumen.

(2) The “Pocket Concert” group explained their recital (and business) model of intimate chamber concerts held in homes, work places, parks, and other untraditional venues: in each, the hosts provide the place, food and wine; tickets are sold to the general public, and the revenue goes to pay the performers. Violist and co-founder and co-director Rory McLeod, mezzo-soprano Victoria Marshall, and pianist, Jared Tehse then performed “Gestillte Sehnsucht” from opus 91, Two Songs for Low Voice, Viola, and Piano, by Brahms.

(3) Deliberately mixing the contemporary and the canonical, soprano Alexandra Smither and pianist Trevor Chartrand presented a varied program that included Smither’s arrangement of Annea Lockwood’s “I Give You Back,” Alex Taylor’s “Sea Rose,” Emma Wine’s “The Kind Moone”, and Vivian Fung’s “Mix a Pancake—along with Poulenc’s “Il Vole” and Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”.

(4) Tenor and teacher Lawrence Wiliford and pianist and professor (University of Toronto) Steven Philcox, the co-founders and co-artistic directors of Canadian Art Song Project (CASP), spoke of CASP’s double mission, both historical (recovery and publication/recording of earlier Canadian art song) and contemporary (commissioning Canadian composers to write songs for Canadian singers). Illustrating the first, Wiliford sang Healey Willan’s “Music When Soft Voices Die” and Derek Holman’s “Fair Daffodils”. To demonstrate their more radical dramatizations of new commissioned song, they first played a video excerpt from Brian Harman/David Brock’s  Sewing the Earthworm (CASP’s first commission), with soprano Carla Huhtanen, Steven Philcox on piano, and Jennifer Nichols dancing. This was followed by a video clip from Ana Sokolovic’s song cycle (of poems by various Canadians from across the nation) commissioned for the Canadian sesquicentennial celebrations especially for artists of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. This piece called dawn always begins in the bones was performed by soprano Danika Lorèn, mezzo soprano Emily D’Angelo, tenor Aaron Sheppard, baritone Bruno Roy, with pianist Liz Upchurch (directed by Anna Theodosakis).

The “town hall” discussion that followed ranged widely in responding to these potential models of ways to lure new audiences to song recitals. With some editorial licence, the responses have been organized below by topic raised, rather than by chronology.

a) Communication (for performers and audiences)

Laura Loewen (University of Manitoba) enjoyed all the performances, she said, in part because of the energy and commitment of the performers. She used the image of liking to feel she is going on a journey with the artists, sharing their passion and delight: their engagement gives her something to care about, even if she doesn’t know the piece. She reminded us that song connects people, telling our stories.  Singer and voice teacher Jeremy Ludwig (and others) noted how important new and newly composed music has proved in attracting new audiences. It was also pointed out, however, that the examples of new music in the performances just heard had been in English, and that too played a role in their accessibility. Elizabeth McDonald (University of Toronto and Women on the Verge—a group that commissions and performs women’s stories in music) stressed that we need to be looking forward as well as to the here and now, even if that may be uncomfortable at times. Contemporary words and sounds are a must if we are to engage a contemporary audience; the language of the audience is important for this kind of communication. But we need to connect the traditional canon with the here and now. Poetry is still relevant today, argued “ardent song lover” Daniel Lichti (Wilfrid Laurier University), especially poetry about nature, and thus it is something to be cherished whether it be new or traditional. David Parsons noted that different instrumentation opportunities (besides just piano) are welcomed in recitals, as are cross-cultural experiments, for these are important changes for performers and composers—and audiences. He urged us to think about the many possibilities of hearing things differently: for example, hearing Schubert in (fine) translation, instead of German—breaking down the language barrier. Daniel Lichti agreed, and pointed out that transcriptions have been around a long time and that we should use them to bring in fresh material to song recitals. Lorna MacDonald (University of Toronto) stressed the benefit for students of learning about the tradition of song. But one of her students recently put together a series of contemporary music recitals and, listening, she immediately heard what she called “the future of song”—poetry that mattered to the young people (sung, spoken, acted out) and music that was accessible. She suggested that teachers may need to give students more freedom to explore their own tastes and make room for this within our curricula.

Caroline Schiller (Memorial University) noted that the real success of all the performances that afternoon was because of the creative communication skills of all the artists. However, she emphasized the crucial importance for audiences today of offering the full context for the songs being communicated; artists must want their audiences to understand and do what it takes to ensure that comprehension (and thus enjoyment). Warren Jones linked communication and “involvement”: the Schubert salon audience consisted of amateur musicians who were thus already involved in music. In contrast, ours is a society of spectators, not involved participants, expecting to pay for entertainment. He admitted he has no illusions that song recitals by opera singers are for song-lovers; rather, they are for opera-celebrity lovers. He wants us to re-engage the audience by getting them to hear the music and poetry in different ways. Linda Condy (Newmarket voice teacher of 8 to 18-year-olds) agreed and felt that the younger we can do this, the better, for it is in the early years that we can make an impact: after all, these are our future audience members. She noted that there were challenges to this. For instance, she feels, as a teacher, constricted by the RCM restrictions on performers of song and fears that they damage the joy of performing song for young singers.

(b) Diversity

Picking up on the earlier discussion of the need to broaden the concept of “art song” to be more musically and culturally diverse in our current multicultural society, Alexandra Smither (soprano) felt that representation of diversity (not tokenism) is crucial in the recital hall: the uniformity of the standard classical audience needs expanding to include others, who could be made welcome by offering different content/new stories by different creators that would be relevant to wider audiences. In support of this, noting that 85% of her students are from immigrant families, Michelin Wright (Markham teacher of young people through high school) feels that such works would be crucial for engaging her students and their families and help them to be able to relate to art song. Darryl Edwards (University of Toronto) continued the content diversity discussion by recounting how excited his Chinese students became when they first heard Chinese art songs. Their desire to perform them was matched by that of a Jewish student (Moroccan and Spanish parents) to perform Sephardic songs. Our job as teachers, he feels, is to enable our students to sing their own songs in new ways, as well as to teach them the tradition we know. His colleague Elizabeth McDonald agreed that we do need to train independent young singers, but also give them good technical skills and foundations while they are with us. That said, she too looks forward to more much more diversity.

(c) Venue

A constant refrain all day in discussion was the need to move out of the traditional concert or recital hall and experiment with new venues, as chamber opera and other groups have been doing in recent years. Daniel Lichti called attention to the fact that the more intimate the setting, the more engaged are the audience members, even if they don’t know either the music or the poetry. Elizabeth McDonald too suggested thinking broadly when changing venues—moving to bars, churches, homes, etc. Lynda Moon (series presenter in the Toronto Public Library system) told of the series she began in one library 40 years ago. About  1/3 of the 600 concerts she organized were vocal. She pointed out that libraries are intergenerational, public, intercultural institutions that are perfect venues for song recitals. She encouraged beginning artists to present their recitals in this kind of venue to a ready-made audience, eager to listen and learn.

(d) Funding Opportunities

At one point, the “elephant in the room” issue was raised by Lorna MacDonald: money. Someone has to pay performers and pay them fairly and urged that this be part of the discussion today. And so it was. Natasha Campbell (private teacher and singer in Kitchener-Waterloo) first addressed this funding issue and spoke about her kick-starter campaign online that was successful in raising enough money to undertake a major project. Rory McLeod explained the “Pocket Concert” financial model, which pays all the artists. They too did a kick-starter campaign to get a financial cushion (of a full season’s costs) and succeeded (not only economically but in making new contacts with donors). They also raise funds by holding private events for a fee, and that money, in part, goes into subsidizing the public concert series. Tickets for the latter are sold ($48 general; $30 for age 19-35; $15 for children and youth). On average, 85% of the tickets are sold, and this is enough to pay the artists. The hosts provide food and wine, as well as the venue (their homes). Questions were raised about legal/insurance issues involved in house concerts: in some jurisdictions, tickets cannot be sold for a house concert, but donations can be received. Marko Duic’s “Concerts @ 100” operates in this way, with all donations (amounts are suggested by the organizers) going directly to the performers. Re insurance: Rory noted that hosts must have liability insurance. David Parsons (Ontario Arts Council) reminded us of all the various grants the OAC makes available as other funding means.

(e) New Experiments (in format, genre, media and other technology)

David Parsons said that what struck him was that in the 21st century this art form has been breaking down previously existing genre boundaries, making “words and music”, perhaps, the general category that can bring together theatre, song, and many other new generic (and technological) mixes. Rena Sharon concurred and spoke about her experiments with art song theatre: dramatizations of stories, words and music. The fusion with other arts and genres has the possibility to realize exciting new experiences for audiences—and performers. In her experience as a teacher, young singers become more engaged when the songs are made into dramatized characters’ stories for them, stories that they choose to tell/express in their own way on stage.

Lawrence Wiliford (tenor, co-founder and co-artistic director of Canadian Art Song Project) picked up on an audience member’s lament that the mainstream media (CBC but also in Europe) can no longer be counted on to initiate or even record song recitals. He thinks song has an audience already, though a dispersed one, but that classical music is not well represented in the dominant culture at all at the moment: in his view, film music dominates the concert halls; musicals infiltrate the opera houses. He argued that we need to use the other existing media—YouTube, etc.—to subvert the traditional media and get our voices out there.

Warren Jones spoke about another use of new technologies that has proved exciting:  the manifest success of a student’s practice of offering line-by-line translations of the songs in his recital online on the smart phones of the audience members—what he called a brilliant way of using cell-phone addiction to new and productive ends! Other audience members provided other examples of new technological advances in this direction. Caroline Schiller also wondered about trying creative experiments that might engage the audience on their electronic devices during a performance, allowing them, perhaps, to change the order of the songs by texting in choices. Elizabeth McDonald agreed that technology is crucial for the next generation because it is their major means of communicating with each other. We have much to learn from the fact that their technologically-connected “community” is a much larger one, and we should consider seriously the potential to enlarge even the song audience in this way, embracing rather than scorning the possibilities.

There was a strong consensus among this audience of the various stakeholders in art song that more such meetings as this would be welcomed in order to share new ideas, but also to talk through the problems and difficulties faced by teachers, students, performers and presenters in both keeping and creating an audience for the art form we all call “song.” One concrete move in this direction was begun by Paula Rockwell (Acadia University) who offered to set up a Song Recital Facebook page and listserv.

Submitted by Dr. Linda Hutcheon, OC, Chair of the Seminar

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