We Are ALL Music's Children
- Written by mj Buell
- Category: We Are ALL Music's Children
“What I would love to see in Canadian music and probably never will, but still hope, is that there would be pieces from the Canadian repertoire that Canadians would feel they possessed, the way they possess the novels of Margaret Laurence or the paintings of A.Y. Jackson."
– John Beckwith, the self-described “optimistic pessimist” in conversation with Eitan Cornfield – Canadian Composers Portrait: John Beckwith.
Composer, writer, pianist, teacher, administrator, cyclist and consummate Canadian, John Beckwith was born and grew up in Victoria, BC. His father, whose family settled in Nova Scotia in the 1760s, was a lawyer and his mother was a teacher and a school trustee. Beckwith first came to Toronto at the age of 17 on a piano scholarship, to study with Alberto Guerrero.
An alumnus of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and an instructor there, he was dean from 1970 to 1977, and founder of the U of T Institute for Canadian Music. At a time when the “serious” music in our relatively young country was largely Eurocentric and classical, Beckwith’s composition students were encouraged to additionally explore all the music of North America –aboriginal music and folksongs, hymns and jazz.
Beckwith’s own oeuvre includes opera and lyric theatre, orchestral and chamber music, choral works and many songs for solo voice. These reflect collaborations too numerous to list – but particularly notable among them is his longtime association with the poet and playwright James Reaney. A former reviewer for the Toronto Star and a CBC scriptwriter and programmer in the 1950s and 1960s, Beckwith has written many articles and books on musical topics. In 1987 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012) is Beckwith in his own candid, lively and humourful words: detail-rich reading for anyone interested not only in its writer but also in the Canadian music scene of his lifetime. Eitan Cornfield’s documentary Canadian Composer Portraits: John Beckwith (Centrediscs) features Beckwith himself, but also reflects the colourful fabric of his world, including contributions from family, friends and associates.
Suppose a friendly fellow traveller asks what you do for a living? When people asked Violet Archer what she did, she would say she wrote music, and the next question always was, “Yes, but I mean what is your occupation?” When Harry Somers told friendly fellow travellers he wrote music, they always asked “What kind?” to which his reply was “Unpopular music.” Would I reply with one of those composer sarcasms? Yes, probably.
Tell us about that childhood photo. I think it depicts my first bike, but that seems unlikely: the first real bike, maybe. The background is a new home my family moved into in the spring of 1936, which means I had just turned nine.
Your absolute earliest memory of music? Absolute? I wish I could make an interesting answer, but I can’t. I’ve read about “earliest specific memories of music” and once composed a work for children’s voices trying to depict the evolution of musical awareness – it’s called Basic Music. My very early memories (from age five or so): playing in a rhythm band in our living room, organized as a neighbourhood project by my mother; singing and dancing with my young sister to the accompaniment of a wind-up Edison phonograph. The half-inch-thick discs included things like the Coronation March from Le prophète (Meyerbeer) and The Whistler and His Dog.
Musicians in your family? Both my parents sang, played the piano and were active in musical organizations; all my children are musical, two of them professionally. Two of my granddaughters are outstandingly musical but it's early to say whether they will pursue musical careers.
Where did hearing music fit into your life as a child? I listened to radio constantly and uncritically but came to enjoy specially the orchestral concerts of Toscanini and others, and the Saturday broadcasts from the Met Opera. Thanks to my parents, I attended many live concerts and as a child heard many renowned performers – Rubinstein, Elman, Marian Anderson; astonishing to think that Victoria hosted so many in those rich touring years. I took piano lessons from age six, and sang in a church choir from ages 8 to13; there was not much of a regular music program at school.
What do you remember about a first music teacher? My first piano teacher was Ogreta McNeil, who later moved to Toronto and became the head of the Toronto Public Library’s music division, and one of the founders of the Canadian Association of Music Libraries. Later I studied with Gwendoline Harper, who later moved to Spokane, Washington to a position with the Teachers’ College there. I feel fortunate that they were both excellent musicians and gave me a solid grounding not just in piano but in music in a broader sense.
What were your first experiences of making music with other people? The piano was my only instrument, so I didn’t have any orchestral experience. I played duets and two-piano pieces with fellow students, and later accompanied many singers.
Do you remember any early performances for an audience? There were some occasions in Victoria, including a few radio recitals. Mostly my performing experiences (soloist, accompanist, chamber musician) happened later in Toronto, again with several on radio.
What experiences helped to form your appetite for staged works? I was active in theatre and as a teenager won a scholarship to a summer acting course at the Banff School of Fine Arts. One of the teachers said I was talented and could have a career in professional theatre. I also acted in Toronto during student years and came to know a number of theatre personalities of my generation. This background, yes, was influential for the various stage projects I later worked on.
When and how did composing become part of the picture? It just seemed more and more important starting when I was about eight and increasing gradually through my teens.
Do you remember when you began to think of yourself as a career musician? Impossible to be exact about this.
When did teaching and mentoring become part of your plans? Well, I had to eat. Composers have to have a day job. Besides academic life I also did a lot of professional writing (criticism, research) and editing. The central part of the “plan” was to be able to keep composing. In fact I never regarded myself as much of a planner. I was lucky.
Where does music fit into your family life at home today? Live piano and chamber music at home whenever possible, though I practise piano less than I used to. Not a great deal of listening to recorded music or radio. Frequent attendance at live performances (concerts, opera).
If you were ALONE and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose? I don’t have a great singing voice and my hearing these days is feeble. Besides all that, I’m no good at imagining desert-isle paradises. There’s a lot of music that I absolutely adore but some that I can’t stand: many music lovers would say the same, I’m sure.
Did you ever think you would do something else? You must be kidding.
On 28 April New Music Concerts is presenting a concert at Trinity-St Paul’s, for which I was invited to curate the program, including some of my own music. The list includes works by Stravinsky and Weinzweig (two strong influences on me in early composing days) and three works by me, two of which are quite recent (2015, 2016) and have not been played before.
A new Music’s Children contest will appear next month in our May edition.
- Written by mj Buell
- Category: We Are ALL Music's Children
Julia Wedman lives in Toronto’s Bloordale Village, in the beautiful main floor apartment of a house owned by her dear friends Sue and Jubal and their adorable two-year-old son Oskar, who live upstairs. She enjoys spending time with her beloved family and friends, teaching, travelling, going to beaches, gardens and museums, learning about art and history, summer backyard parties that include dear friends eating at a long table filled with delicious food, and days that start out horribly but take unexpectedly wonderful turns.
Violinist Julia Wedman first caught the attention of Southern Ontario audiences in a 1998 concert with the innovative I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. A core member of that ensemble from 1999 to this day, she joined the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in 2005. Wedman is regularly featured as a soloist in Tafelmusik’s home concerts as well as their North American and international tours, and she contributes her skills and creative thinking as an occasional leader and collaborator in the development of new programming. Wedman is also a member of the Eybler Quartet, a period-instrument ensemble that plays well-known but also often relatively unknown classical repertoire. Increasingly busy performing outside of Canada, Wedman is also a sought-after teacher and coach in Canada and abroad.
Born in Prince George, BC, Wedman and her family moved to Saskatoon when she was six. After high school, a former violin teacher helped Wedman move to London, Ontario, where she enrolled at Western University, followed by studies at Indiana University and the University of Toronto.
Suppose you're chatting with a friendly fellow traveller who asks what you do for a living? I always say I am one of those lucky people who makes a living doing exactly what I want to do – I get to spend my days playing incredible music with dear friends.
Tell us about your violins? I play two different violins....One is a 1694 Hendrik Jacobs (Amsterdam). Jacobs was one of the most famous Dutch violin makers, and the sound of the instrument is deep and beautiful. This instrument likes being at low pitch (A=415 or lower).
My second violin is from about 1860 and is from an unknown maker in Milan, Italy. Its sound is brighter and very sweet. This violin likes to be at a higher pitch (A=430 and up). So I generally use the Jacobs for Baroque music (Tafelmusik and I Furiosi) and the other one for later music (Eybler Quartet, etc.)
Do you remember that childhood photo being taken? No, but I definitely remember practising as a child and those pajamas were my favourite ones! My earliest memory of playing violin was that I had a little box and a stick. We had to wait for a violin to be ordered because I was too small for the ones available. I remember the excitement of my first real instrument. It was so beautiful, and it made a sound!
Your absolute earliest musical memory? Probably my dad playing some tunes on his violin – he would take out his violin and play from a book with old folk songs like Amazing Grace and Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair. I loved that book.
What did your parents do to earn a living? My father is a financial advisor (I know – that part didn't rub off). But the workaholic qualities may have! And he sings in the Victoria Choral Society choir. My mother is retired, but worked as the administration person for the Lutheran bishop of Saskatchewan for many years. She started piano lessons last year!
Why the violin? One day driving home in the car, my dad said to my older brother and me, "Ok kids, would you like to play violin or cello?" Already I had a wacky sense of humour, and I thought he said "jello" and started laughing hysterically. "How can you play jello? I can't play such a silly instrument! I'll take the violin!"
Music in your childhood home? Home was mom, dad, my older brother Chris, my younger brother Mark, my younger sister Naomi and our little cockapoo dog Rusty. We all had to take music lessons for ten years. Chris is an accountant now but still plays percussion in the Saskatoon Concert Band. Mark was more interested in sports and is a mechanical engineer, but now he puts his musical training to use practising with his two daughters who both take music lessons. Naomi is an English teacher in Barcelona and a wonderful violinist, composer and improviser. She plays more contemporary music - country, folk, rock, blues, etc.
My mom used to put on recordings of music at 6:15am, then bring hot chocolate up to our rooms at 6:30 to get all of the kids up to practise before school. My sister and I often produced recitals, complete with programs, for our dolls. We all played or sang at church and sometimes under great duress played for guests that came to the house. My siblings and I would often raid our parents’ record collection and dance around the living room. Favourites were Mini-Pops, Grease and Jascha Heifetz playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto …
What can you remember about a first music teacher? One of my first music teachers used to cut my fingernails with these horrible rabbit scissors with beady red ruby eyes. They were so short they hurt and I would cry. She wasn't a warm person either and I complained a lot. My mom one day said, "Do you want to quit?" I looked at her in surprise “Of course not! Why would I want to quit?" Instead she found a wonderful teacher (Ellen) who suited me a lot more, and became one of the biggest influences in my life.
A first experience of making music with other people? I went to group classes when I started violin and often played with family members at home. A particularly vivid memory of an early chamber music experience is of a friend and I playing a little piece called After you, My Dear Gaston. It was a little jazzy and I loved it. I don't remember my first time playing in an orchestra - it feels like I have always played in them! I do remember a spectacular blue spring coat that I received as a celebratory gift for playing in the music festival when I was about eight.
Where did you attend high school? And right after high school, what happened next? After high school (Holy Cross High School, in Saskatoon), I took a few months off until my former violin teacher decided I needed to get off my butt (she was right!) so she helped organize a move to London, Ontario. I lived with her family and babysat to help pay rent, and enrolled as at music student at the University of Western Ontario. Ellen is like a second mom. She kicked my butt in university and opened her home and heart to me when my family was falling apart and my parents were separating. She is still one of the most treasured people in my life.
Do you remember the point at which you began to think of yourself as a career musician? I think I was about six, watching a Saskatoon Symphony concert, thinking "That's what I'm going to do!"
Did you ever think you would do something else? Sometimes I think about what else I would do... It would probably involve education or psychology, but I can't imagine not making music every day. It's the only thing I am happy to do even when I am sick or completely exhausted. I am not sure how I could survive without my daily sojourns to the magical world of music where real life fades away...
Where does music fit into your personal/family life at home today? I don't listen to a lot of music at home because I play so many hours every day - I like to have some quiet time at the end of a day. I find it difficult not to give any music my full concentration. I don't really like background music - it's very distracting!
I do a lot of singing with Oskar, my two-year-old friend who lives upstairs, and we also like to dance and play avant garde recorder duos.
If you were driving or showering (and all by yourself) and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose? I am terrible at remembering words, and I play so much music it's a bit of a "love the one you're with" kind of a situation....I sing the music that is in my head at the moment! I always sing whatever I am trying to memorize! Right now a lot of Bach for Tafelmusik’s “Circle of Creation” program that goes on tour to the USA February 28. During I Furiosi weeks I am inevitably singing our encores...I would say the biggest ear worms have been songs by Coldplay, Adele, Prince and Kurt Cobain. I often sing walking to the subway...I don't drive!
Please mention engagements you’re excited about coming up in Toronto, in Southern Ontario and elsewhere in the next few months
~ March 18: Biber with Lucas Harris and Toronto Chamber Choir. I love Biber and this will be my first time getting to play some of his choral music – I can’t wait!
~ March 20: my beloved Bach Project at Gallery 345. I love this project! It’s a six-year cycle of producing the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas once a year with six different violinists, and each year we rotate and learn a new (super difficult) piece, so that at the end of six years we will have learned all of them. It is an incredible, character-building, humbling, inspiring journey!
Also – concerts coming up with I Furiosi (April 21), Eybler Quartet (April 27), Tafelmusik - lots of concerts here and on tour, Opera Atelier (April 22-29 in Toronto, May 19-21 at Versailles) , Toronto Consort (May 12-14)
The first week of May I will be doing something a little out of the ordinary… I get to travel to London, England to be guest concertmaster with Academy of Ancient Music in a program of Mozart and Haydn piano concertos with Richard Egarr.
Any new or recent recordings, DVD or film projects?
We just finished the final edits on a new Eybler Quartet Vanhal CD! It will be available at our April 27 concert at the Heliconian Club. I can’t wait for people to hear it! This music is so happy and beautiful and deserves a voice! We are also working on the edits for our upcoming Beethoven Op,18 Quartets CD which will be coming out next year.
Edits are also underway for the release next year of Tafelmusik’s incredible Tale of Two Cities: Leipzig and Damascus CD/DVD. I just saw some video extras the other day and it is going to be beautiful!
It’s a busy spring!
- Written by mj Buell
- Category: We Are ALL Music's Children
The always-entertaining Ori Dagan is a jazz singer, concert promoter/producer and jazz journalist, now in his ninth season writing for The WholeNote. Dagan was born in Haifa, Israel where his father was a mechanical engineer and his mother a copywriter. In 1989 he moved with his family to Toronto. All the rest is Googleable but here are a bit more details.
After earning Bachelor of Fine Arts from York University with a focus on jazz vocals and classical voice Dagan studied performance, songwriting and improvisation at Humber College and began working steadily in Toronto’s live music venues. Recent awards: Bronze Medal Winner of the 2016 Global Music Award for Best Male Vocalist; Best Jazz Vocals at the 2015 Toronto Independent Music Awards. In 2016 his single and music video Clap on the 2 and the 4 won Best Children's Song at the Hollywood Songwriting Contest and Best Jazz Song at the Poland International Film Festival. The video has been screened at over a dozen film festivals worldwide including the Cayman Islands International Film Festival, Los Angeles CineFest, Montana International Children's Film Festival, Boston International Kids Film Festival, San Diego International Kids Film Festival and the Toronto Independent Film Festival.
Suppose a friendly fellow traveller asks what you do for a living? Blessed to be a musician! I’m living the dream, and to keep it alive, most of what I do revolves around music. Aside from playing gigs, writing songs, recording and releasing music, I proudly pen Jazz Stories for The WholeNote, book live music for the venue 120 Diner, co-produce the Kensington Market Jazz Festival and teach jazz singing. At this point the fellow traveller usually says “WOW! That’s so exciting!” and I am reminded that indeed, it is.
What would you like to say to that younger Ori? Don’t be so shy!
Your earliest musical memory? My mom singing an Israeli nursery rhyme to me: “Yonatan Ha Katan.”
Musicians in your family? There are no musicians in my family that I know of. My dad is tone-deaf and rhythm-deaf (sorry, dad!). I know it comes from my mom’s side – her grandfather was a cantor. My brother dabbled in guitar and introduced me to some of my favourite music growing up
Where did hearing music fit into your childhood? I grew up listening to Israeli music and classical music. I remember cassettes of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert around the house. My favourite vinyl was Rumpelstiltskin the musical, which in Hebrew was translated into "Ootz-Li Gootz-Li." It featured some of Israel’s biggest stars including Ofra Haza and Tzipi Shavit, and I played it every single day – my first real musical obsession. To this day I have albums that I am obsessed with and can sing start to finish.
First recollections of making music? My mom says I kicked to the Bee Gees Staying Alive in the womb. At three I asked my parents for music lessons and I started at four - my first instrument was the xylophone. I remember being so delighted the first time I heard it. We learned to sing the major scale (Do-Re-Mi) while using sign language to represent each note. But I never thought of myself as a singer because I was so shy. We got a piano when I was six.
What do you remember about a first music teacher? Before I started classical piano lessons, I had a music teacher for a bit over a year with whom I took group lessons on the xylophone. I remember thinking she was old and sweet and kind. I had quite a few music teachers growing up; one of the ones I really remember is Irina Krasny, with whom I studied piano for a few years. She inspired me with her passionate playing and got me into Chopin who became one of my favourite composers.
First experiences of making music with other people? Growing up as a solo pianist, this did not really happen very often – although I did perform a duet for two pianos with a fellow student for a piano competition. We won first place, but were the only entrants in that category!
High school and right after? Singing in a high school production of David Warrack’s musical Deco Beach (at Newtonbrook Secondary School, Toronto) was transformative – I’d had no idea that I could ever be an entertainer. But I gravitated towards creative writing, especially poetry, and I won the English Award. I was particularly inspired by Emily Dickinson and Margaret Atwood. Unsure that I’d be a successful poet I “settled” on the idea of getting a PhD in English Literature at U of T.
I was miserable at U of T. I had no interest in reading Tom Jones and The Canterbury Tales, let alone writing essays about these works. In my second year at U of T I auditioned for Jesus Christ Superstar and got the role of Caiaphas (Fun fact: I also learned the story of Christ through this musical). And around this time I discovered jazz.
Two live albums changed my life: Ella Fitzgerald: Live in Berlin (1960) and Dinah Jams (1954) featuring Dinah Washington and an all-star band including Clifford Brown, Harold Land and Max Roach. I started singing along to those recordings and it wasn’t long before I was hooked. This music really captured my heart and since then I have never looked back.
I left U of T to pursue jazz at York U for five years, continued with improvisation and songwriting at Humber College for two years, embarking on my career as a jazz singer and songwriter. As much I treasure the education I was blessed to receive, I believe strongly that in jazz you learn the most by seeing and hearing the music in action, sitting in at jam sessions and playing gigs. I learn something new from every performance.
If you were driving ALONE and could sing along to ANYTHING, what would you choose? I’m going to go with Nina Simone sounding her very happiest! Little Liza Jane from Nina at Newport is musical joy at its most infectious.
There are a couple of dates to be announced in the spring that are exciting…meanwhile this month I’m performing in the intimate back room of the Free Times Café on Friday February 17 from 8 to11pm with guitarist extraordinaire Nathan Hiltz.
Any new or recent recordings, DVD or film projects you are involved in? YES! Stay tuned for a very exciting project in tribute to Nat King Cole. Updates on Facebook, instagram, twitter and at www.oridagan.com where readers can sign up to my newsletter.
- Written by mj Buell
- Category: We Are ALL Music's Children
Ambur Braid grew up in Terrace, BC, and graduated from Claremont High School in Victoria, where she worked for a year at the Italian Bakery “to gear up for my move to Toronto and my undergrad at the Glenn Gould School.” A graduate of the GGS, Royal Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she was a member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio during which time you may have seen her in the title role of Semele, as Adele in Die Fledermaus and Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito. With Opera Atelier you may have seen her as Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.
Braid recently debuted at Lisbon’s Teatro de São Carlos as Anne Truelove in a new production of The Rake’s Progress and made her UK debut as the Queen of the Night, to all accounts formidable, at the English National Opera, a role which she then sang for Opera Calgary. After a change of pace as Dalinda in the COC’s recent Ariodante, Braid will return to sing the Queen of the Night in all 12 performances of their upcoming January 2017 Magic Flute.
Apparently undaunted by her demanding opera schedule, this coloratura without borders also has time and energy to prepare and sing collaborative concerts like “The Living Spectacle: Songs by Erik Ross and Libby Larsen” with the Canadian Art Song Project and solo recitals with titles that range from “La Favorita: Verdi, Mozart and Puccini Arias” to “Rachmaninoff and Ribs with a Side of Sibelius”
Soprano Ambur Braid is a Torontonian who goes to Athens whenever possible. She has a poodle and a partner who both travel the world with her and for that she is incredibly grateful. Beyond music, some of her other pastimes and pleasures include cleaning, reading, eating, shopping and hosting dinner parties.
Suppose a friendly fellow asks what you do for a living? I’m an opera singer. You’re right, I’m not fat, but here are my Viking horns.
If you were driving alone and could sing along to any recording, what would you choose? Always David Bowie.
About that childhood photo…? My smile hasn’t really changed, but my attire has.
Your absolute earliest memory of music? My brother singing along to Billy Idol. He was super into it.
Musicians in your childhood family? Everyone appreciated music in my family, and music was always playing in our house! My mother (a social worker) would sing to me after each bath (I still love baths), and my father (a notary public) attempted to sing in church. It wasn’t amazing. My older brothers played a lot of Bon Jovi, Billy Idol, Tiffany and the Georgia Satellites. And my eldest brother had a blues band.
A first recollection of making music? My debut, singing Jesus Loves Me in French and English, was as a three-year-old in church. Then singing Keep Your Hands to Yourself with my brother’s band as a five–year-old. There’s a video of it and it’s pretty great.
A first instrument? Tambourine, drums, recorder and then, reluctantly, the piano.
Early experiences of making music with other people? Choir tours and musical theatre camp – so much fun!
What experiences helped form your appetite for staged works? Going to London and NYC with my parents to see musicals – I just stared at the conductor. I guess I still do!
When did you begin to think of yourself as a career musician? I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as a career musician. I did dabble in floristry and event planning, though.
Does teaching/mentoring figure in your life? Only in an organic way. There are some young singers who stay in contact with me for guidance. Yikes. That’s terrifying when you think about it!
Where does music fit into life at home? I’ve been known to dance along to my favourite overtures in the morning. Everyone needs a good dance party once in a while.
RECENT / UPCOMING
Dalinda in Ariodante | The Canadian Opera Company | Oct/Nov 2016
Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute | Oper Frankfurt (debut)| Dec 2016
Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute | The Canadian Opera Company | Jan/Feb 2017
Oksana in Oksana G. | Tapestry Opera (premiere) | May 2017
- Written by mj Buell
- Category: We Are ALL Music's Children
For more than 30 years Robert Cooper brought a wealth of music to listeners across the country as CBC Radio’s executive producer of opera and choral music and as producer of the program Choral Concert from 1980 to 2008. This is one shining thread in the extraordinarily rich fabric of an active career which continues to include conducting, teaching and mentoring. Cooper is currently artistic director of the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, and the Ontario Male Chorus. As conductor of Chorus Niagara for 27 years: he’ll conduct his fourth Elijah with them on November 5, followed by Messiah in December. His association with VOICEBOX/Opera in Concert goes back almost 40 years. He created the OIC chorus alongside founding producer/artistic director Stuart Hamilton and continues to prepare the chorus and conduct every opera since then, other than when a guest orchestra and conductor are involved.
In addition to leading the National Youth Choir of Canada the Ontario Youth Choir, and numerous prize-winning choirs at competitions and festivals, Cooper is frequently engaged as guest conductor of choirs and operas and leader of choral clinics across the country. He has taught at the U of T Faculty of Music and has mentored music-loving young people in the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir, Orpheus Choir Sidgwick Scholars program and Chorus Niagara’s Choral Scholars program. A regular member of the jury for the international choral competition Let the Peoples Sing, he has also adjudicated the World Choral Games in Shaoxing China, Cincinnati and most recently in Sochi, Russia.
Cooper is a recipient of several distinguished awards and honours, including the Order of Canada.
Robert Cooper lives in Toronto’s Bloor West Village with his wife Megan – a school principal and singer – along with an effervescent Brittany Spaniel, Sadie. Beyond music…”what little time I have after score study, rehearsals and seemingly endless governance administrivia with choir boards, my down time seems to be filled with reading historical fiction, the loathsome but necessary gym time, walking Sadie and catching up on mindless PVR’d series of PBS dramas.”
Your thoughts about that childhood photo? I vaguely recall it was in Grade 1 when our Ottawa public school rhythm band brought home the coveted first prize in the Ottawa Kiwanis Music Festival. Life has an uncanny way of fulfilling destinies you never even imagined as a possibility at the time. Not that I am a percussionist ...but my path found its way to a life in music.
Where were you born, and what did your parents do for a living? I am a “herring choker”…born in Fredericton, New Brunswick. My father was in the RCMP and my mother a nurse…disciplined professions and disciplined people. My brother Roger also went on to a career in the RCMP.
While my father was frequently transferred from one city to another, I was lucky that I landed in Ottawa for the majority of my schooling. In those days Ottawa had an active community music scene and I was so fortunate to be involved in superb school music programs which I supplemented with singing as a treble and then tenor in various Anglican church choirs, ending up at the Cathedral with Godfrey Hewitt, father of the renowned pianist, Angela. What wonderful musical experiences and education…free! In fact I even received a monthly honorarium. There were no musicians in my family, but my creative urges were tolerated and eventually encouraged.
Your absolute earliest memories of hearing music? Oh gosh…was it the Reader’s Digest box set of Great Orchestral Favourites? I think it was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March...it stirred my young soul with such enthusiasm. But curiously I was always singing and that ephemeral quality of massed voices just hooked me.
We did have a fabulous stereo system and I would listen for hours to those treasured Reader’s Digest box sets of operetta, orchestral fav’s, and Broadway shows. But Ottawa was a hotbed of singing. The high schools every year mounted a magnificent Thousand Voice Choir with special guest conductors “from Toronto.” Of course there were also all the special carol services and state occasions at which I sang as a member of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir. Then, to top it all off, the many celebrations in Ottawa to herald in Centennial Year (1967) produced so many exciting performance opportunities…gala concerts on Parliament Hill, amateur musical theatre shows and fledging opera productions. Heady times!
And of making music? Well, putting my tambourine debut aside in the rhythm band, I recall being trotted about from one classroom to another to sing duets with a pupil friend. Not sure why…but I guess we must have been ok.
What was your first instrument, if any, other than your own voice? Trombone for a while and then piano. Sadly, I was not encouraged to begin piano studies until high school and have always regretted that this skill was not developed at an earlier age.
Do you remember your early experiences of making music with other people? Too many to mention! Without a doubt it was that collaborative and collegial experience of making music with others, of being part of that total immersive and rich musical encounter with others. This was my safe harbour!
Do you remember when first performed for an audience? I suppose it was in Grade 7 where we put on G&S productions. It was Pirates of Penzance and I was the Major-General and had to learn that lengthy patter song. I had no clue what “the square of the hypotenuse” meant, but I memorized all the verses and sang the role with panache (I think!) and to this day still recall those darn lyrics!
And a first important music teacher? My high school music teacher, Mrs. Bernice Oak…a force of nature! Ebullient, vibrant, supportive, encouraging. Her passion and zeal were palpable. She was my sole inspiration to pursue this odd and uncontrollable yearning I had in me to somehow live a life in music.
And right after high school, what happened next? I headed to the University of Western Ontario where I stayed for both my Bachelor and Master’s degrees. Looking back it was a fortuitous choice. The Music Faculty was in its infancy. Opportunities abounded and I found myself immersed in musicology, performance, theatre, acting and eventually conducting. After UWO I realized there was much yet to be learned about the craft of conducting and I headed to Germany and the Nordwestdeutsche Musikakademie along with extended periods with Helmuth Rilling in Stuttgart, when he was just at the beginning of his stellar international career.
When and how did conducting become part of the picture? One of my UWO professors, Wesanne McKellar, saw something in me I did not see in myself. While I was taking conducting courses, most of my time as an undergraduate was spent on the stage. She asked me if I might replace her (can hardly believe it as I write this) as music director for the UWO theatre club, Purple Patches, and conduct the next season’s production of the musical My Fair Lady. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Other experiences from your childhood or teen years that helped you form an appetite for staged works? In elementary school I was enrolled in drama classes…and was hooked! From then on I was performing in everything from amateur musicals and plays in parks to an eventual stint as a professional actor. But I knew somehow this was not the final path. The dark theatre all day and dark bar all night were not for me. I needed a different kind of artistic connection and the fascination of making music with others, moulding your ideas with others and realizing a creative result started to take hold.
Do you remember the point at which you began to think of yourself as a career musician? I had the opportunity as a young teenager to live in London, England, and for a year attended, by myself, many unbelievable concerts and opera productions. When I recall lining up for a concert at Royal Albert Hall with scads of choirs …not realizing until it had started, that I was now hearing my first Mahler Eighth Symphony, I can’t believe I was able to take advantage of those memorable firsts! I was completely absorbed and knew that on my return to Ottawa there was no turning back. What the future might hold I had no idea…much to my parents dismay…all I knew was that I had to be surrounded by music.
Curiously, someone recently showed me my Grade 13 year book (remember Grade 13?) in which I wrote that I hoped for a career in radio and television arts. Little did I realize that almost eight years later I would begin a career as an executive producer for CBC Radio Music, where I stayed for 31 years, while still conducting choirs and opera.
Did you ever think you would do something else? Other than music? The arts? No. I knew this is where I had to be in some capacity.
Where does making/hearing music fit into your current personal family life at home? Since leaving CBC, making music (and all that that entails with programming, endless organizational tasks, personal preparation, rehearsals) is a 24/7 occupation. I know it sounds a bit crazy, but one of my biggest pleasures is opening that new score, marking it, studying it, listening, and beginning that journey of discovery.
If you were driving ALONE and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose? Bach Mass in B Minor!
Robert Cooper: UPCOMING
October 29 and 30, with the Orpheus Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra: “Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton;”
October 30, with the Opera in Concert Chorus: “Shakespeare 400;”
November 5, with Chorus Niagara: Elijah (Mendelssohn);
November 19, with the Orpheus Choir: “Stories: Myths and Mysteries” – music of Paul Mealor, Eriks Eśenvalds, Jakko Mantyjärvi, Sergey Khvoshchinsky, Paul Halley;
November 20, with Opera in Concert: I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini);
December 10 with Chorus Niagara: Messiah (Handel);
December 13 with the Orpheus Choir: “Traditions: Welcome Christmas!” – seasonal music with guests Jackie Richardson and the Hannaford Street Silver Band.