by Raymond Bisha

When Rufus Wainwright brought his Rufus Does Judy show to Carnegie Hall in 2006, the performance sold out, as did subsequent performances in London, Paris and Los Angeles.  

The beginnings of Rufus Does Judy lie in the aftermath of 9/11.  Wainwright was living in New York at that terrible time, looking for something that would bring solace from the traumatic events that were unfolding around him.   He began listening to the album of Judy Garland’s 1961 show, looking for at least a distraction.   As he listened and re-listened to the album, he found something deeper with which he connected as a performer at an almost visceral level.

“Somehow that album, no matter how dark things seemed, made everything brighten. She had this capacity to lighten the world through the innocence of her sound. Her anchor to the material was obviously through her devotion to music. You never feel that she didn’t believe every word of every song she ever sang.”

From those chaotic beginnings to Carnegie Hall was a five-year journey that began with almost everyone, including the show’s eventual producers, thinking that Wainwright was completely mad to even attempt something so audacious.   It was of course a spectacular success.

…Toronto audiences now get their chance to hear what all the fuss is about…

It takes someone of exceptional daring to recreate what is often called “The greatest night in show business.” – Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall.  The live-concert album of Judy’s concert spent 73 weeks on the Billboard charts.  On the other hand the live-concert recording of Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall did just fine and earned Wainwright a 2009 GRAMMY® nomination.

Toronto audiences now got their chance to hear what all the fuss is about as Rufus Does Judy comes to the Luminato Festival for two nights only.  Rufus and his orchestra perform such beloved hits as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Stormy Weather” and “Chicago” plus many other great songs.   These performances are highlights of this year’s Festival.  (When Rufus Wainwright last appeared in the Luminato Festival, the performances sold out almost instantly.)

Rufus also dropped by the Choir! Choir! Choir! performance to sing Hallelujah with the choir.   Choir! Choir! Choir! is an all inclusive Toronto singing group, though in some ways they could just as easily be considered a community-based social movement.   Since their founding in 2011, the choir has developed a dedicated local audience, and a thriving international fan base on YouTube.

Toronto is home to several internationally renowned orchestras, two of which are being featured in this year’s Luminato Festival.  The Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Peter Oundjian takes to the Music Stage on June 21st with performances of two very different orchestral masterpieces.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony may be one of the best-known pieces of classical music in history.  Those opening four notes have been quoted or referred to across many different media:  in novels such as E.E. Forster’s Howards End, in films from Mr. Holland’s Opus to Fight Club, in cartoons as diverse as The Simpsons and Animaniacs, and of course in advertising where music from Beethoven’s Fifth was recently used to accompany swarms of drones.

The Toronto Symphony Luminato performance brings one back to the source, and shows why this piece has had such a grip on people’s imaginations almost since the day it was composed.  Shorn of words, films, cartoons or advertisements, this is quite simply one of the greatest musical works of all time.   And in case the epic journey of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony isn’t enough, the Toronto Symphony also performs George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a quintessentially New York composer’s rollicking tribute to the sights and sounds of the French capital.

The Toronto Symphony musicians are also featured in a performance as their chamber ensemble, the TSO Chamber Players perform Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, together with narrator Derek Boyes.  L’histoire was written during World War I, and tells the story of a discharged soldier who makes a pact with the devil, but comes to the horrified realization that in such deals, the devil always wins.

One of Toronto’s other musical treasures is Tafelmusik, Canada’s award-winning period instrument orchestra.   The prestigious British publication Gramophone Magazine named Tafelmusik “one of the world’s top baroque orchestras”.  On June 19th they brought the music of Bach, Handel and Telemann, three of the best-known baroque composers, to the Music Stage.    The stage may be new, but with their performances Tafelmusik transported the audience back to glorious sounds of the high baroque.

…It may have been one of the biggest events ever presented by the Luminato Festival… 

One of the highlights of last year’s Luminato Festival was unquestionably Apocalypsis, a gigantic piece by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer.   This colossal music theatre performance included more than 800 performers, from singers and dancers, to 12 mixed choirs, 12 string quartets and 13 conductors.  It may have been one of the biggest events ever presented by the Luminato Festival.   For the many people who missed hearing it then, they had a second chance at the Music Stage for an Apocalypsis listening party.  

The band Battle of Santiago and DJ Medicineman brings Fábrica de Ritmo to the Hearn Music Stage on June 25th, in a multimedia deconstruction and reconstruction of classic Latin rhythms from Cuba to Brazil that will have the dance floor hopping.

And finally: what has 26 bikes, 14 turntables, 12 songs and six snacks?    That could only be 66 Wheels, Kid Koala’s new bicycle tour across the city.   The fun started at Trinity Bellwoods Park, with stops at some of the Kid’s favourite spots for music and food, and finally ends at the Hearn where participants are invited to join Kid Koala’s Music To Draw To.

The Luminato Festival offers a dizzying array of musical choices, from symphonic music to Rufus Does Judy, and from Latin rhythms to giant sound installations.  For seventeen magical days in June, this creative universe opens for all to explore.

Raymond Bisha has been a professional musician, broadcaster, tour manager and concert promoter. He is now Director of Marketing & PR at the classical music label Naxos, for whom he hosts a regular series of podcasts.