Celebrating Canada’s women composers

Toronto soprano takes her project on the road with a stop in Whistler on Sunday (Jan. 28)

Clarisse Tonigussi has an affinity for bringing classical music to unusual venues.

Last year, for example, she took her Canadian Women Composers Project to a bar, a barn and church. For that reason, she was immediately intrigued by The Point Artist-Run Centre, a hostel-turned-art space on Alta Lake.

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“I want to make audiences feel comfortable,” she said, on the phone from her home in Toronto. “I’m trying to make classical music as chill as possible. It’s there for enjoyment. You want to go to a concert for fun.”

She also wants to teach audiences something — namely, about Canada’s female composers, many of whom have been historically underappreciated. For her part, Tonigussi recently earned a Masters degree in voice performance studies from the University of Toronto, and even she hadn’t heard of many of them.

It wasn’t until an instructor suggested she delve into Canadian music for her graduating recital that the soprano singer began to dig deeper. “I decided to create a program of all-Canadian women composers to support Canadian music,” she said. “My teacher said, ‘this is a great idea; you should take it on the road.’ I’m not sure if she meant it literally around the country, but that’s what I took out of it. One idea led to another and here we are.”

Accompanied by Vancouver-raised pianist Matthew Li, Tonigussi’s performance includes an hour and a half of music that ranges from Gena Branscome — a composer from the 1900s — to contemporary composers who wrote pieces especially for the project.

“The recital is performed in chronological order,” Tonigussi said. “The pieces I chose date back to the early 1900s… progressing to a set written for me for the project from Rebekah Cummings in 2017. It was written (using) quotes from Anne of Green Gables, which is super exciting because she’s my childhood hero.”

As part of the project, Tonigussi reached out to contemporary composers like Cummings to talk to them about their work and get a better sense of what it’s like to be a woman currently composing music in Canada. The resulting interviews are on the project’s website.

“This (has been) the most eye-opening project,” she said. “I’ve never done anything that’s been so fulfilling and challenging at the same time. I’ve learned so much about the composers themselves because when you’re singing classical music you think about these old, white dead guys. So I actually got to have conversations about music that the composer had composed.”

The experience has also taken her across the country, which was secondary to its main goal of showcasing talented women, but still turned out to be a side perk, she added.

“At first I thought this would be a project I’d do in my year off and (then) go do a doctorate,” she said. “But I’d like to expand this project and have a full season of concerts in Toronto and invite different musicians to join the project and have them solo for a recital instead of me all the time. I (also) wouldn’t mind visiting the rest of the provinces with this particular recital I’m singing in Whistler and continuing to perform.”

The show at The Point takes place on Sunday (Jan. 28) at 4 p.m. Tickets are $20 or $10 for students.
Get them at thepointartists.com or at Armchair Books.

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