One of the curious things about the profession of vocal coaching is that people don’t generally begin their musical training with it in mind as a career goal. The average beginning piano student doesn’t even know what a vocal coach is.
And so it was with Miah Im, the newest addition to the vocal teaching staff at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music: not until her undergrad years at the University of Michigan did she take an interest in working with singers. Yet she progressed rapidly, and upon graduation at the age of 25, she became the youngest person ever appointed as music director of the San Diego Opera Young Artists Ensemble Program. After that, she taught at Juilliard for a couple of years, and then became director of the opera studio at the University of Maryland.
Im is a Canadian – born in Winnipeg, and raised in Toronto – and, in her view, her appointment at U of T last year seemed almost fateful. “I’d lived in the States for 16 years, since 1993,” she points out. “I did all my schooling and work there. But there was a part of me that was always drawn back to Canada. I knew that I would return some day.”
It’s hard to believe five years have passed since “the little Oundjian that could,” as one WholeNote reader affectionately dubbed him, chugged into town. His contagious energy continues unabated. Case in point: every September since 2005, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has taken its show on the road, to Northern Ontario, for a five day “residency tour.” Thanks to cellphones, I caught up with him anyway.
So where are you this time?
Oundjian: En route from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie and it’s an absolutely glorious cloudless day.
Not doing the driving I hope?
Oundjian: No I’m sitting beside the person who organized the tour [Roberta Smith]. She drives like Stirling Moss by the way, so we have to speak fast … we’re only 200km from Sault Ste. Marie!
How many musicians on tour?
Oundjian: Fifty-five to sixty, something like that, we’re doing some fairly big pieces, the Mendelssohn “Italian,” a bit of Carmen, a big new piece by Gary Kulesha … so sixty I would say.
For how long?
Oundjian: We came up Monday and had a concert last night [Tuesday] in Sudbury for a wonderful public. This morning, two youth concerts for school children, tomorrow a school concert in the morning and a public concert in the evening, then Friday morning another school concert and then we go home.
Five years ago you were in Connecticut about to hit the road for here, first time as music director. We talked quite a bit about the differences between your anticipated roles as music director and as conductor. Do you see that distinction differently now, or have the two roles tended to merge?
At last, it’s finished. The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Telus Centre for Performance and Education, behind the RCM’s Victorian home on Bloor Street, is now officially complete, inside and out.
“The construction took three years,” says a proud Peter Simon, the RCM’s president. “And the planning began two years before that.” Simon estimates that the final price-tag for the building was about $120 million.
The centrepiece is Koerner Hall, a 1,140-seat concert hall that opens with a gala concert on September 25 – followed by a season of 70 more concerts. And for Toronto’s musical communities, the presence of this new facility in the heart of the city brings both opportunities and challenges. It’s a bold venture that will surely change our musical culture.
For four years Agnes Grossmann has been artistic director of the Toronto Summer Academy and Festival. Born into a musical family – her father was director of the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir – she was a gifted pianist who enjoyed the benefits of an excellent musical education in Austria. However, she is no stranger to adversity: an injury to her right hand brought an end to her pianistic career. She then took up conducting – in a country where women are given few opportunities to enter this profession.
In 1981 she accepted an invitation to teach and conduct in Canada. Today she lives in Toronto, with her husband, the conductor Raffi Armenian. In June, she spoke about her musical career, and the festival that’s been described as “a virtual oasis in the desert of the Toronto summer.”
Colin Eatock:I understand that you began your musical career as a pianist, but were forced to abandon the piano because of an accident. Today, would you rather be a conductor or a pianist?
Agnes Grossman: Of course my real dream was to be a pianist. I certainly would have loved to do that all my life. Already as a child I wanted to be a pianist – and my father, who was my first teacher, discovered that I had absolute pitch. I went to the Academy, and developed very fast.
But because of my accident I discovered a new palette of musical expression. I’m grateful today to have experienced all this: it gave me new possibilities to learn how one can influence sound through movement. Through the orchestral and vocal repertoire I found a new musical world.
CE:Why did you move to Canada?
AG: Cynthia Floyd – who is a pianist at the University of Ottawa and who was a colleague of mine at the Academy of Music in Vienna – phoned me and asked if I would be interested in coming to Ottawa as an artist in residence, to take over the university’s orchestra and choir. Cynthia knew I had become a conductor, and I occasionally conducted concerts with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and Chorus. I came to Ottawa and stayed for two years.
I had never been in Canada before. But I had a good friend, Raffi Armenian, here. We knew each other already when I was 17 and he was 19, when he came to study at the Hochschule für Musik. Raffi and I have known each other since Vienna, and that was an important connection to Canada.
CE:How did your career unfold after you came to this country?
AG: From 1981 to 1983 I had a lot of guest appearances with the Chamber Players of Toronto, and was asked to become artistic director, starting in 1984. But I was also asked to return to Vienna to become the conductor of the Wiener Singakademie, the choir of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. So there were three years when I was in Vienna at the Singakademie, but also the conductor of the Chamber Players of Toronto, so I came to Toronto six times a year. In 1990 the Chamber Players toured to Germany and Austria. But this was the last year of this ensemble: there was not enough money.
In 1986 I received an offer to become director of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. At that time I was with the Singakademie, but also teaching ear training and choral conducting at Vienna’s Hochschule. I gave all that up, because I was mainly interested in performance, and I didn’t have enough opportunities in Austria. That’s when I permanently moved to Canada – and I have not regretted it. For nine years I was with the Orchestre Métropolitain. It had been in existence for two years, and had a small, mainly contemporary, repertoire. I decided to build this orchestra with German repertoire, because the Montreal Symphony under Charles Duotit concentrated on Russian and French music. Dutoit rehearsed his orchestra in English – but I rehearsed the Orchestre Métropolitain in French. It helped that I had learned French when I was a student in Paris.
I was asked to take over the Orford Arts Centre in 1989. Lots had to be done, because under Gilles Lefebrve it was wonderful, but after him it had come down a bit in artistic quality. I built it up with the greatest joy: I brought in pianists, vocalists, string and wind players from all over the world. And with the chamber orchestra I could do some important festival concerts in Orford.
In 1995 I was asked if I would be interested in taking over the Vienna Boys’ Choir. That was the time when I left my positions in Canada. I went back to Vienna in 1996 and began to prepare for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the choir. As you know, my father was for many years artistic director of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. He established the vocal quality for which they are so famous.
I did a lot. I created a much larger repertoire, but I also reduced the number of concerts. At that time every boy sang 100 concerts per year: these concerts were necessary to keep this institution running, because it was self-financing. My idea was to slowly integrate some sponsors and government funding, and at the beginning that idea was applauded with enthusiasm. The quality rose considerably, and we did a celebration concert in 1998 with Haydn’s Seasons, where I conducted not only the Choirboys, but also the Chorus Viennensis, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, and soloists. This was very important because all the concert managers in the world came to this celebration, and realized that the Vienna Boys’ Choir was back on track. We also did tours, including one to the United States and Canada.
CE:What was it like to be the only woman who has ever served as artistic director of the Vienna Boys’ Choir?
AG: I think it was a breakthrough for a woman to be asked to become artistic director. There was enthusiastic support – even from the board, who are all former Choir Boys. But of course I also felt that it was very new to them, and a learning process. Austria is a Catholic country, where I was not allowed to conduct in the Royal Chapel: only men may conduct there. That gives you a picture of the situation. On the other hand, all my suggestions and plans were openly accepted in the beginning, and it was agreed that something had to be done to reduce the workload for the children: they had school in the morning, a one-hour break, two hours of rehearsal, another break, then supper, and then homework in the evening. There were also two concerts per week.
After the American tour in 1998 I came to a board meeting and was told they had decided to go back to the old way, which meant no sponsors or government money. That was the moment when I said I wouldn’t stay, because I don’t believe in this way of doing things. I came back to Canada, and Orford invited me to return as artistic director
CE:Let’s talk about the Toronto Summer Music Academy and Festival. Was it your idea?
AG: The form of the festival as it is today was certainly my idea. But in 2003 David Beach, who was dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, had organized some summer workshops, for professional and amateur musicians. It was called Silver Creek. We talked about the workshops, and I said I was astonished that Ontario doesn’t have an institution like Orford or Banff. I said it would be interesting to build something similar. He said maybe you come to our board meeting and present your plan. That was at the end of 2005.
My idea met with a very enthusiastic reaction. I planned a four-week summer festival and academy for 2006, with three concerts per week, including concerts by the young musicians. I also planned for an opera: we started with Don Giovanni, and had auditions across the country. We also brought some very important musicians to Toronto, including pianist Richard Goode, who gave a wonderful recital.
CE:Other people have tried to launch summer festivals in Toronto, without much success. Why has it been so hard to attract audiences in Toronto during the summer? And why have you succeeded where others have not?
AG: I do think that the “cottage effect” is one of the reasons why this has been a problem. Many people leave the city in the summer. And I know that others have tried to start festivals, but perhaps there was not enough money to do something important. We had a good board to raise the money, thanks to Jane Smith, who’s a real go-getter. The whole board is really supportive. After every concert there’s a reception, either at one of the homes, or in a club. It’s really wonderful how they are working for this event.
Also, I’m connected with many important institutions in Canada. I had a network, and I could ask people if they were interested in coming. Well, of course they were interested. My experience has allowed me to invite musicians who would come for a very friendly price: people who were with the Chamber Players or the Orchestre Métropolitain, or whom I know from Europe and Japan. They strongly believe in my musical vision. I could ask people like Menahem Pressler and Janos Starker, and great musicians from Canada: André Laplante, Shauna Rolston, the Gryphon Trio, and all the artists who have participated.
And the Faculty of Music building was empty in the summer time. It’s a perfect place for chamber concerts and opera.
CE:Did some people say you were crazy?
AG: People said, “You can try, but I’ll tell you right away that it would be most astonishing if it works. There’s already Stratford, Shaw, Parry Sound, Elora, Niagara, and other festivals. How will it work in Toronto?” But it worked.
CE:In the last three years, what have you learned about running a summer festival in Toronto?
AG: I think what I learned was that there is a public that is most attentive. When the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet came, they said, “Wow, there’s a public that listens with a remarkable attentiveness.” And they were absolutely right. One aspect of attraction is coming to the masterclasses, to listen to teachers teaching young students and witnessing the transformation that can happen within one hour. This enhances the experience.
I have also learned that chamber music and opera need new kinds of publicity – creative ways of publicizing classical music. It’s a never ending process to explain to people the beauty of classical music. And the idea of thematic programming is also very important.
CE: How did you select the programming for this summer’s festival?
AG: As you know, we have our theme of “Eternal Stars.” This year is an accumulation of important composer anniversaries: Haydn and Mendelssohn, and also the 50th anniversary of Martinů’s death. This year these composers will be performed – but certainly not exclusively. “Eternal Stars” also refers to the performers who will give us sparkling performances. On Tuesdays we’ll have duos. We’ll start with violinist James Ehnes and pianist Jon Kimura Parker who will play together for the first time. And on Thursdays we will demonstrate the beauties of quartets, starting with Pressler’s quartet and then the Leipzig quartet. On Saturdays we have stellar artists from around the globe, whether Japan or Canada or France.
We have no fully staged opera this year, but we have an opera gala concert. We plan to have a staged opera again next year.
CE:You are running both a summer festival and an academy. Why the academy? And what is the relationship between the two?
AG: Most of the performers are also giving masterclasses. It is very important for the young musicians to experience their teachers on stage: that’s how they understand fully what their teachers are talking about. Twice a week the young musicians will perform at the Church of the Redeemer, and we’ll also have student concerts at the Royal Ontario Museum for the first time.
And thanks Bill Waters’ support, we are able to give scholarships. Many of the American summer schools give out full scholarships, and we are competing with them. This allows us to bring in the best young musicians.
CE:I notice there are no Dixieland bands, Celtic harpists or pop singers on your festival. It’s just classical music – and this is rather unusual these days. Why have you chosen to only present classical repertoire?
AG: There is already lots of jazz and world music in Toronto, at Harbourfront and in other places. And the mission of Toronto Summer Music is classical music. But jazz is definitely something that’s important for classical musicians because of the improvisation skills required. We plan to integrate that in the future.
CE:We live in difficult economic times. Do things look good for your festival this year?
AG: We have no fully staged opera, and this is a reaction to the financial difficulties. But we see that ticket sales are better than ever. This is astonishing – and it could be that people are staying closer to home. Also, we’re well established, and not very expensive. We offer a very reasonable way of experiencing great music and artists.
In 2001, the manuscript of a seven-movement baroque Gloria was discovered in the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London. Though unsigned, it was eventually attributed to Handel, and so created a buzz of excitement that reached far outside the world of early music. So it was no surprise that the singer chosen for the first recording was British soprano Emma Kirkby, whose light clear voice epitomizes the early music sound.
The following year, Kirkby came to Toronto to perform the Handel Gloria with the city’s internationally acclaimed period instrument orchestra, Tafelmusik. Last season she was back with Tafelmusik as a highlight of the orchestra’s 30th anniversary celebrations. I spoke with her then.
Kirkby’s longstanding relationship with Tafelmusik arose from her friendship with Jeanne Lamon, which dates back to before Lamon joined Tafelmusik in 1981. “We were teaching together at summer school in Orford,” Kirkby told me. “We did some concerts together for the students, and I loved her playing. We talked together and had a really good time, so I kept up with her. When she told me, ‘I’ve got this new orchestra – come and sing with us,’ I did, and I enjoyed it so much that I made a CD of Vivaldi with them for Hyperion.”
The 1987 recording helped bring the orchestra to international attention. “Since then, they have just gone stellar,” says Kirkby. “Really, it’s just fantastic what they’ve done.” So it was fitting that she should join their 30th anniversary celebrations with a special collection of songs, madrigals and arias from her favourite repertoire. “I’ve been here every few years to do things with them and always enjoyed it. But this concert was a particular indulgence. We met up last year after I heard them in Beijing playing a remarkable concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I was absolutely stunned by their brilliant young violinists, who stood up one after the other and played fantastic solos.”
She continues: “Jeanne has always been the most extraordinary educator. I’ve always enjoyed how she directs Tafelmusik because she is so courteous – not hectoring or bossy at all. She is just quietly demanding. Everyone respects everyone else, so they just get on with it. I think it’s a very inspiring atmosphere.”
I talked with Kirkby at the apartment she was staying in during her Tafelmusik visit. Even in her jeans, shirt and vest Kirkby was as elegant as she appears onstage, and every bit as radiant. From the first moment I met her, she was so unassuming that it seemed natural to call her Emma, as she insisted. Yet Dame Emma would have been the proper way to address her, since in 2007 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She is one of the few classical musicians to be so honoured – and the only early music singer.
Kirkby’s voice remains the gold standard for early music. Yet it created great controversy when she first gained attention in the 1970s, and today still manages to polarize critics. In 2007 BBC Music magazine not only included her on its list of “The Twenty Greatest Sopranos,” but ranked her tenth. That provoked a predictable amount of indignation from critics and traditional opera buffs. One critic asked, “What planet are they on who place Kirkby above Ponselle or Schwarzkopf?”
If Kirkby had a motto, it could well be, “On behalf of the music.” It was for the sake of early music, she told me, that she was pleased to be on the Queen’s list. She has a rare ability to separate who she is from what she does, and appreciates each of her numerous awards and honours for the influence it has. “If it reflects the number of people that can enjoy themselves with my repertoire who couldn’t before – that’s the point. There’s such a huge repertoire for normal sized voices like mine, deeply satisfying stuff as good as any music written anywhere, ever. Therefore if something encourages people to jump in, I’m delighted.”
Her ensemble approach towards making music was apparent in the way she engaged with the various instruments in the Tafelmusik orchestra, her voice matching the different colours of the orchestra to reveal exquisite, sometimes surprising, nuances. Her phrasing is so natural and her ornamentation so effortless that her virtuosity comes almost as a surprise – and is all the more thrilling for that. Her robust palette of colours is all the more remarkable considering that she does not rely on vibrato or extreme dynamics to project her voice.
Yet when she talks about singing, her focus is on enunciating the words clearly. Singers should sing as they speak, she says, pointing out how the techniques required to produce a big operatic sound can get in the way of the words. Kirkby is puzzled why so much singing on stage is so loud. As an example she wonders why the ensemble at the end of Don Giovanni, which was being performed by the Canadian Opera Company when she was here, is always done so loudly, with the singers almost shouting. How much more effective it would be, she says, if it were done in a gentler, more contained way.
Similarly, she points out, a keyboard accompanist in a Schubert lied can sound more beautiful and expressive just by keeping the instrument’s lid open and playing softer. To the same end, she emphasizes that students shouldn’t be working only with a piano as their accompaniment. They should have lutes, harpsichords and fortepianos to accompany them – whichever instrument is appropriate to the period and style.
Kirkby is no hardliner when it comes to period instruments. She can even accept Rameau’s keyboard works being played on the piano – if they are played pianistically and using the colours of the piano. But while Kirkby enjoys an opera singer of the past generation like Janet Baker for her honesty as a performer, she also admires a current singer like Cecilia Bartoli for her commitment to period instruments and practices.
Mostly, Kirkby has worked with period ensembles, and these days does so even more frequently than she did earlier in her career. Of course there are exceptions, like her performances in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at Carnegie Hall with long-time colleague Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of St Luke’s, and her recording of songs by early 20th-century American composer Amy Beach. But for the most part, Kirkby is happy to stay within her specialized repertoire. She emphasizes how much there is still to explore and make known to people. “That’s where the real excitement is.” She is now concentrating on the lute song, and says, “The lute song repertoire is incredibly distilled and beautiful – but you do need a lute.” She mentions lesser-known composers like Sigismondo d’India, Georg Schimmelpfennig and Jacques du Vert, who were “a thrill to discover – gorgeous music.”
Kirkby has made a prodigious number of recordings – well over 100. Many have had great influence, and not just in early music circles. Her groundbreaking recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s music, A Feather on the Breath of God, has been a best-seller since its release in 1984. The Handel Gloria has reached the repertoire. “I love it, and sopranos all over the place have picked it up, with very good reason, because it’s a beautiful piece. It is a brilliant work to put in a concert. It has everything you’d want – it’s delightful, it’s full of variety, it’s very moving in the middle and very flashy on the outside, and what’s more, you don’t need enormous forces for it.”
In her last decade or so, most of her recordings, like the Gloria, have been made by the Swedish record company BIS. “They have been just gorgeous to work for. They let you work in the loveliest places, and their engineers produce a beautiful sound. I’ve been lucky enough to record for them with my closest colleagues like Anthony Rooley, Jakob Lindberg, Lars Ulrik Mortensen and London Baroque. We did quite an interesting recording of cantatas by Cataldo Amodei. No one has heard of him but he’s really special. Maurice Greene is better known than Amodei, but it was quite nice to give him a push as well. Most of my other recordings have more obvious repertoire, like lute songs of John Dowland on Honey from the Hive with Anthony Rooley, and lots of Handel with London Baroque.”
One of my own favourite of Kirkby’s more recent recordings is Classical Kirkby. When Kirkby was made honorary president of the Classical Association of England, instead of the customary acceptance speech, she performed this fascinating programme of English lute songs based on classical themes. Like so many of her recordings and concert programmes, it is the result of a prodigious amount of research. Much of that research she credits to lutenist and conductor Anthony Rooley, her former partner and the father of her 21-year-old son. “That recording was great fun, and I had a lot of help from Anthony in that, because he’s the scholar. He is the one that goes to the libraries and sniffs out the music. He has an amazing nose – he will go into the British Library for a day and comes out with all these remarkable discoveries.”
A programme like Classical Kirkby is unimaginable from any other singer, in large part because of Kirkby’s background studying classics at Oxford. In fact two of the songs by the seventeenth century British composer Henry Lawes, set to texts by the Greek poet Anacreon, are sung in ancient Greek. “Classics always suited me,” she says. “I am quite a words person, and I really enjoy classical literature. I went to a series of different schools as a kid, because my father was in the navy, and so we moved a lot. I landed up in places where Latin was taught at quite a young age. And I just took to it, so it was complete luck.”
Her profound knowledge of classical literature and languages has influenced not just what she sings but how she sings it. Her ability to appreciate the subtleties and references in the texts, especially in Renaissance music, with its musical investigations of melancholy and loss, contributes to her compelling expressive range. “Composers in the Renaissance and Baroque periods all knew their classics. It is a pleasure to suddenly come across a snatch of Catullus or a little scrap of Hellenistic philosophy in a renaissance song.”
Even as a girl Kirkby loved singing in choirs, and learned the choral repertoire, from Taverner and Tallis, through Purcell, Bach and Handel, to Berlioz, Tippett and Stravinsky. “Then, at Oxford, I sang in the choir at Merton College, because I had married Andrew Parrott, and he ran the Merton choir. It was heaven. It was the first time I ever got paid for singing – two pounds a service. It was amazing. I went back to my dad and said, ‘I’ve just been paid for doing what I love doing more than anything.’ So her father, who was a Royal Navy captain and a decorated war hero, said, “Well, the navy paid me to drive ships around the Mediterranean for 30 years.’”
“I had no idea I would be a singer,” Kirkby says. “That was just for fun.” In her case, when she was a student there really wasn’t much place for a voice like hers – in music schools or on concert and opera stages. Today, it’s hard to imagine how controversial Kirkby’s sound was in the 1970s, when the period-instrument movement as we now know it was just starting to flourish. But nonetheless, she still insists that “at that age singers should be singing for fun, and it shouldn’t be too serious. Maybe that’s old-fashioned of me because singers are all starting so young now. Basically my whole generation did not go to a music college. We started at a university, and I don’t think it did any of us any harm. I do think that a university education is wonderful, I really do. Maybe now the profession is so crowded that young singers feel they have to get in earlier, but I’m not sure that’s true. At 21 a singer is just the right age to start, so there should be no feeling at that point that it’s too late. In fact, it wouldn’t necessarily be too late ten years later.”
One of the benefits for Kirkby of focusing on Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, and performing mostly in smaller halls with period instruments, is that, at 60 – an age when most singers have had to stop performing – her voice retains its distinctive power and beauty. “Certainly part of my longevity has to do with my repertoire – although I don’t know how many more big bashes like this week with Tafelmusik I will want to do. I’m quite happy to go out to grass singing with a handful of instruments: gamba consorts, lute, harpsichord. I just love all that. I think it’s brilliant music-making and I know I can still do that fine and I’ll always be heard. We’ll see.”
EMMA KIRKBY: RECORDINGS
BIS has just released The Artistry of Emma Kirkby (BIS-CD-1734/35) a four-disc collection selected by Kirkby. It includes Handel’s Gloria. Her recordings on BIS can be viewed at:
A number of Kirkby’s recordings are listed on her website at: http://www.emmakirkby.com/recordings.shtml
Quotes about Emma Kirkby
Quote 1: One critic asked, ‘What planet are they on who place Kirkby above Ponselle or Schwarzkopf?”
Quote 2: When she talks about singing, her focus is on enunciating the words clearly. Singers should sing as they speak, she says, pointing out how the techniques required to produce a big operatic sound can get in the way of the words.