​​by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
oronto ON July 28th 2019

Saturday Afternoon at the Opera at Westben: Joyce El-Khoury, Jason Howard, and Brian Finley light up The Barn!​


Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
- ​symphonic, choral, opera, chamber, jazz and period music​ -

Joyce El-Khoury; Photo credit: www.joyceel-khoury.com

Jason Howard, baritone; Photo credit: www.jasonhoward.net 

El-Khoury’s voice is captivating, athletic, authoritative, and well controlled. She has a broad palette of tonal nuances and textures, as well as great range, and dramatic expression. She showed a refined subtlety in her performances of the Puccini arias from La Rondine and Tosca (‘Vissi d’arte’). She has had major roles with important companies, and her career is taking off. The audience leapt to their feet after her performance of Tatiana’s letter scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

The Barn at Westben

Howard has a strong voice in the upper range and a lovely mezza voce. He could almost be a dramatic tenor for certain roles. His repertoire was varied and well executed ranging from operatic tragedy to Broadway. He expressed well the cynicism and malevolence of Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello, in both his dramatization and vocal qualities.

It was a delightful surprise to hear Finley performing solo piano music, including one of his own compositions. His accompanying supported and complemented both singers in their style, dynamics, timing, and expression. He played with the piano lid open on the large stick, which suited El-Khoury, but at times the sound volume may have been too much for the lower range of Howard.

The founders, donors, and volunteers have made a wise and generous investment in Westben. Congratulations on twenty years of excellent music across several genres, and looking forward to many more!

Also of note at Westben, is the composer-performer residency program for improvisation, now in its second year, and boasting one hundred international applicants.

As Brian Finley remarked, opera is an intimate experience in the intimate venue of The Barn. Indeed, I have found that musically exciting things have been happening in barns lately. Fresh from my experience of the Gambrel Barn in Elora, on Saturday I attended a performance in Campbellford at the 20th anniversary of Westben’s summer music festival of “Concerts at The Barn,” in the acoustically designed, pristine, musically dedicated barn.

​​The festival is very well organized and managed by founders Donna Bennett (soprano who has sung with many Toronto companies) and Brian Finley, who have both been awarded the Order of Canada. Their venue is welcoming, well thought out with congenial grounds, and helpful volunteers.

​This Saturday the festival hosted a performance of opera arias by coloratura soprano Joyce El-Khoury and baritone Jason Howard, accompanied by Brian Finley who also offered us piano solos. The program featured Russian, German, and French songs, alongside a mix of favourite Italian offerings, many of them large scenes.