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FEATURE | Pondering The Direction Of Canadian Classical Music

By Jennifer Liu on February 4, 2017

150 Years of History, Another Good 150 of Innovation: A commemoration of classical music in Canada.

As we usher in another 150 years of positive change in Canada, there is a question of how classical music fits into the picture? We will look into the track records of well-loved Canadian artists who have recently made their mark on global audiences, drawing inspiration and ideas from their initiatives for classical music’s next chapter.

Jamie Parker is the enduring face of classical piano music throughout Canada, and enjoys bringing its joys to audiences around the world. He is a man of many hats, and at the time of publication, he will be in the middle of a whirlwind tour around the globe for the venerable Cliburn Competition, serving on the jury for screening auditions. Ever faithful to his Canadian followers, he records his activities here and abroad on the Parker News Network, delivering a spin on contemporary events while often paralyzing his Facebook followers with laughter.

At the confluence of past and present, Jamie cannot stress enough that he is a product of the resources available to him during his formative years, leading to degrees from the Juilliard School. During his student days, Jamie’s talent took him down the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s red carpet of exposure: from winning the CBC Talent Festival, to being broadcast live on CBC radio on ensuing concert tours, Jamie and his peers received significant career development opportunities on Canadian airwaves.

There remains potential for exposure today, but musicians today do not have access to the same resources in a comparatively austere climate. Jamie does not shy away from vocalizing that opportunities of his generation have been withdrawn by media outlets, so that alternate platforms must be sought out to broadcast new talent. Does this shift in media focus reflect changing artistic tastes among the public, difficult financial circumstances, or corporate reshuffling to optimize resources? The result, either way, is that media outlets are less supportive of young talent, and in Jamie’s words, “that’s the big problem.”

In 2015, CBC launched their annual Piano Hero competition: integrating technology with musical material, the competitors are evaluated based uniquely on their pre-recorded presentation. With basic computer knowledge, competitors effectively become their own recording engineer: participants record their audition video, prepare the desired portions and publish their own product to the world, which then votes the top ten into the judgment round where one winner is crowned by a jury panel. Thus, a new clientele is initiated to classical music. It’s a win-win situation where the audience has a direct hand in promoting the next classical stars, while organizers will attract a wider demographic down the road.

It is hard to argue against advancement for a nation 150 years young as we work with today’s technology and a culture of innovation to put the world within our reach. As much as Jamie is tech-savvy, he maintains that music is most influential when heard live: the energy is unmatched when transmitted in real-time between a performer and their responsive audience; in comparison, a digital platform dilutes the delivery, thus diminishing the emotional impact on the listener. Not to mention the compromised audio quality: listening to top performers on computer speakers is “convenient but crap.”

Media institutions are in a hard place. On the one hand, they must embrace emerging technologies or be left behind by the people they aim to serve. But as Jamie points out, “they cannot be too quick to wholesale dump tradition,” for barometers of industry standards like him will be sure to call them out. As Jamie laments that institutions such as the Banff Centre and Mount Royal University have made drastic cuts to their music programs over the last year the “golden age” of CBC producers from the 1980s is also petering out, with no replacements who can rival their expertise in classical music recording. Elsewhere in North America, the symphony orchestras of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Fort Worth all saw their musicians walk off the job in September 2016 in protest of imposed concessions by orchestra executives. As the Washington Post views it, that makes three strikes for the classical music community whose very viability is in choppy waters. Jamie muses that it’s not a question of quality but rather of relevancy control: boards of directors are not doing an adequate job to either raise funds or to keep audiences engaged in their outreach initiatives. “Musicians are all playing well, if there are enough starving artists, then only the best are going to get jobs today.”

Jamie is in a pensive mood during our chat, and all this talk of music makes him philosophical for its future place. “We need art in the world; the world is just going to shit! What we do is one of the salvations of humankind… You don’t go into [music] for the money. Generally, [musicians] love it and they HAVE to do this.” But is the “golden age” of classical piano over? “Not to say that there are not loads of terrific musicians, but with our combination of musicians and our public […] North America never really nurtured a golden age, and the Baby Boomers have not migrated to classical music.”

So how are our brightest talents managing in today’s cultural climate? I spoke with Tony Yike Yang, the youngest prizewinner in the history of the International Chopin Piano Competition, an event recognized as the Olympics of classical talent. Having recently turned 18, he is soaking in the surroundings on the Harvard University and New England Conservatory campuses, where he is a freshman in the schools’ dual track program. Exploring campus life and balancing his workload with regular piano practice, he enjoys his time very much in the program. For him, Harvard provides an invaluable platform for discovery: meeting experts and people who are passionate about their fields promotes a free exchange of ideas. In such a liberal environment, themes like classical music are freely discussed, and Tony is comfortably in his element.

Ivy League shenanigans aside, Tony maintains a soft spot for his Canadian roots: “I like being Canadian, I’ve been very proud representing Canada, everyone looks up to Canada right now! I’ll definitely always keep my citizenship.” And what about his Chinese roots? While he considered representing his country of birth, he prefers Canada for all the right reasons: “I like the people here, the air here is cleaner, I like how peaceful it is, everything!”

Who could question his patriotism given the positive press he has been receiving following his competition wins. Tony’s international successes have put him on the Canadian classical music map: he is the featured clinician on CBC Music’s piano tutorial series on YouTube, and audiences are highly appreciative of his performances whether in Ontario, in Quebec, on YouTube, or in the world’s great concert halls. Tony notes that musicians must also strive to connect with listeners: “Reaching out to people is very, very necessary. It’s what a good person would do out of respect and courtesy [for the audience], there’s always much to learn from others.” To further connect with his audiences, Tony enjoys integrating such dialogue into his performances through pre- concert chats. His hope is to educate the listeners in manageable portions to contextualize the music.

It takes time to cultivate an appreciation for classical music, but it will be worth it to future audiences — the challenge is to work within the confines of materialism, less resources, shorter attention spans and the immediacy of results. Where there is dialogue, Tony will continue weaving them into stories on stages around the world.

Step into the future, and we see pianist Darren Creech stepping on stage in tropical short shorts, glittery hair and a big grin on his face. But in fact, as his audiences from Montreal to Toronto have witnessed, Darren has already pulled off the dress code to rave reviews, including for his Master’s graduation recital (to which a jury panelist gushed “LOVE those legs!”) How does Darren project his many identities through music — from his Mennonite heritage, to identifying as queer, to experiences from his eclectic childhood on three continents?

Darren was born in Ottawa before his family went on the move — first to Texas, then to France, then to Dakar, Senegal. There on the African continent, Darren sought out a local piano teacher who had studied with the venerable pedagogue Alfred Cortot. Thus Darren gained his entry into the authentic classical tradition: through his teachers in Dakar and eventually in Canada, he is the direct heir to the musical lineages of Chopin and Beethoven. But how does a disciple carry out their legacy for today’s audiences, whether in Africa or in North America? Here Darren counters with a question: “Why perpetuate classical music in the context of social disparity. What is its relevance?” That was the probing sentiment that instilled his spirit to search for answers — and self-made opportunities. Darren ran his own in-home concerts, cobbling together a community that was curious about this exotic music. In this environment of solidarity, Darren developed a knack for presentation, which has become an integral aspect of his performances.

Darren returned to his homeland for piano studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. For the native Canadian, this proved to be a culture shock on his pianistic upbringing. Where the institutionalized approach had been unheard of in Africa, he entered a world where hundreds of students were brought up within the Royal Conservatory of Music exams system which centred more around technique. As a versatile musician, Darren shifted his focus from sharing his craft to building up his resources, emerging with his Bachelor’s in Music. Following graduation, he took two years away from school to think about his musical career before beginning a Master’s Degree in piano performance from the University of Montreal. With that now under his belt, Darren has relocated to Toronto in pursuit of opportunities to put his performance philosophy to work.

Sure enough, Darren made his immediate mark on Toronto, collecting the “Best Artist” prize at last year’s Nuit Rose Festival of Queer Art and Performance. Even if the musical program may not have been the most accessible to passers-by, the premise to “queer the classical stage” resounded loudly with the crowds in his tribute presentation to the Orlando shooting victims — all were unified whether or not they were members of the LGBTQ population or arts workers.

In today’s context, the elephant in the room is the centuries-old influence of “The Institution” on classical music’s evolution: its proponents defy the shift to accessible platforms and simplified content. In a field that underscores disciplined preparation according to instructions passed down like biblical scripture, this aging business model does not adequately embrace modern possibilities that could keep classical music fresh and relevant for years to come. There should be no need to justify the course that proponents such as Darren are charting, as audiences and promoters increasingly jump on board with a more relevant vision for classical music.

Darren actively challenges stodgy conventions of classical music performance, compelling audiences to think outside the box. These performances are tour-de-forces, propelled by a powerful narrative which puts audiences in touch with their emotional and spiritual cores. No matter what the medium, an engaging concert cannot ride on a single-dimensional display of dazzling technique: “People are incredible players today, the best ever. But they often isolate music into its absolute form.” For Darren, music is merely a single element of contextualizing the storyline within a complete sensory experience: for example, statement fashion and choreography can be adapted from pop shows, which enhance classical music’s appeal. He acts to lessen the discrepancy between pop and classical forms: “society values the emotional contributions of pop artists, [while] classical artists aren’t innovating as competitively to offer as meaningful an experience” in concert. Without necessarily surpassing pop concert dimensions, all performances should generate some form of excitement. All audiences should demand a concert experience where they feel connected with the performer and moved to the soul.

So long as borders are imposed upon populations, Darren affirms that human activities will be politically motivated —  individual preferences and social ranks are inherent in cultures around the world. Like Tony, he agrees that Canada is a welcoming space for all backgrounds, where our collective strength is drawn from responding favourably to diversity. Where googling “queer classical pianists” didn’t turn up search results in the past, today he has cornered the market as his name appears atop the search results: “If it’s not there, you have to become or make that.” As his activities garner him more page views, institutions are also tuning into his cause: McGill University has engaged him as the Keynote Performer for their Music Graduate Symposium on March 10th, thus forging new alliances between a diversified consumer base and Institution-type authorities. In this culture of inclusivity, Darren is “very optimistic and excited to see where this will go, and to continue thinking and to question […] myself, what’s best and what I want.”

In an increasingly interconnected world, Jamie, Tony, and Darren are proud ambassadors of Canadian classical music who have respectively left their mark on its past, present, future legacy. The winning formula for its continuity seems simple: pitch a comprehensive story to connect with audiences on many levels, and get the word out through mixed media. We need classical music that keeps pace with us as we look to celebrate Canadian culture for another 150 birthdays!


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