To some people, Peter-Anthony Togni is a classical composer. To others, he’s a jazz pianist or a church organist. And to many others, he’s known as a radio announcer for the CBC. The Pembroke, Ont., native, who currently calls Halifax home, has built a multifaceted career through his ability to be many things to many people.
He’s fronted [ok as is] his own Peter Togni Trio, a combo (with Jamie Gatti on bass and Tom Roach on drums) with a Modern Jazz Quartet-influenced sound. “We do a lot of jazz riffing on classical music,” he says. “Bach, Greig, the Beatles, even country tunes.”
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Sanctuary, his classical trio — an unusual instrumental combination that consists of Togni on organ, cellist Christopher Both on cello and Jeff Reilly playing bass clarinet. With this trio he’s toured from New York to St. Petersburg, Russia, and all the way to Shanghai. “Some of what we play are improvisations on Gregorian chants,” he says. “About half of our rep is my own music, and I do transcriptions for the trio. The underlying theme for Sanctuary is modality and chant.”
Togni studied organ and composition at the University of British Columbia, and at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, France, where he won first prize in composition and studied organ and improvisation with Jean Langlais. Drawing on his various musical activities, he likes to mix things up, composing a kind of music that’s uniquely tailored to his interests and talents. For instance, there’s his choral composition Lamentations of Jeremiah, for bass clarinet and choir. (The work was recently released on a compact disc on the ECM label.) “That piece came out of my deep relationship with Toronto’s Elmer Iseler Singers and with Jeff Riley,” says Togni. “Jeff wanted me to write a piece for bass clarinet and choir. There’s a lot of virtuoso playing, and about 30 percent of it is improvised. The choir is like a Greek chorus and the bass clarinet is the voice of Jeremiah.” Then there’s Lux Aeterna, for choir and Indonesian gamelan, which was recently premiered at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. And there’s Illuminations, for bass clarinet and string orchestra, which earned him a Juno nomination in 2006 as best classical composition, for a recording by Sanctuary.
Togni’s style could be described as eclectic or even postmodern, yet if there’s a common thread connecting much of his music, it’s his fascination with liturgy and ritual. “I feel called to write music that voices my faith,” he says, warming to the subject of what motivates him to compose. “I’ve written non-sacred works but I would say they always have a sacramental underpinning. I draw from the Catholic tradition and also Buddhist and Russian Orthodox traditions.”
And how does Togni’s work at the CBC — where he’s currently the host of the Radio 2 show “Weekender” — fit in to the mix? “I’ve done an inordinate amount of listening,” he replies. “Also, when you talk about music and have to present it to people, you have to really get inside it. For me, broadcasting is very important — it’s part of who I am.”