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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Meet the 2021 Michael Measures Prize Winners

By Anya Wassenberg on August 18, 2021

(L-R) David Liam Roberts (Photo: Simeon Rusnak); Robert Conquer (Photo: Shayne Gray)
(L-R) David Liam Roberts (Photo: Simeon Rusnak); Robert Conquer (Photo: Shayne Gray)

In partnership with NYO Canada.

The Canada Council for the Arts 2021 Michael Measures Prize winners have been announced. David Liam Roberts has won first prize ($25,000) and the second prize winner is Robert Conquer ($15,000).

The award recognizes promising Canadian musicians between the ages of 16 and 24 enrolled in the National Youth Orchestra of Canada summer training program, which is sponsored this year by the RBC Foundation. First launched in 2011, Michael Measures Prize laureates include violinist Blake Pouliot (2013) and cellist Daniel Hass (2016).

We caught up with cellist David Liam Roberts, and trombonist Robert Conquer for a few questions about the competition, and their careers. Neither of them is a stranger to the winner’s podium. Roberts, with a different jury, took second prize in the Michael Measures Prize last year, and Conquer took first prize at the OSM 2020 Competition in the Brass category.

Having been in the NYO Canada Summer training program since 2019, how has the experience changed during the COVID pandemic? Was it a good way of staying connected with other young musicians?

RC: The qualities of the NYO Canada experience have changed, but the overall quality of the experience has remained consistently high since before the COVID pandemic began. Although what was once orchestra rehearsals being replaced with new seminars, I wouldn’t say it’s been any less of an experience — just different. The sessions hosted by NYO Canada have been very fulfilling and keep me looking forward to what can and will be going on in the music world going forward.

Becoming reconnected with other young Canadian musicians throughout the pandemic was invaluable for me, especially since I spend much of my year studying in the United States. Getting to meet, hear and learn from young Canadian musicians is especially inspiring and these connections will make me feel more at home even when I’m far away.

DLR: There is nothing like playing in an orchestra in person, but I thought that NYO did a great job programming the 2020 and 2021 online sessions. Orchestra members were offered several instrument-specific private lessons and masterclasses, as well as workshops by guest speakers on a variety of important topics such as digital marketing and mental health.

Additionally, it was great to all come together as a group for the online workshops and feel somewhat like a community and orchestra. I can’t wait until we actually come together as an orchestra in person though.

What was it like to audition virtually for the Michael Measures competition? How did you prepare for it — was anything different than it would have been in person?

RC: Preparing for the 2021 Michael Measures Prize audition was a unique experience in a very unique year!

On paper, it wasn’t much different than my prior applications for this award — we had to have multiple pieces recorded that exemplified our ability to play music from different time periods.

Due to the pandemic, though, many challenges were posed — how to get a recording space when there were many restrictions, how to rehearse safely with a pianist prior to recording, etc. In these categories, I must acknowledge those who supported me through it all: the folks at St. Andrew’s United Church in Toronto were extraordinary in helping provide space to rehearse and record in that met provincial guidelines and the amazing pianist Victor Cheng inspired me all the way through with his professionalism, patience, and musicianship.

DLR: The Michael Measures Prize is actually awarded based on an online application and audition, even in a non-pandemic year.

So, applying for the MM prize this year was no different than any other year! The only difference was of course not being able to play a concerto as soloist with the NYO during the summer.

On a similar note, how have you adapted to the COVID pandemic in general?

RC: Musically, I’ve adapted to the COVID pandemic by really taking advantage of this time to practice and record as much as I can. It’s been tough at times, but I’ve tried to keep my “eyes on the prize” as much as possible by focusing on my music, mental health, relationships, academics and work.

DLR: I think that moving back to my hometown of Winnipeg because of the pandemic was a circumstance that caused me to appreciate the Prairies more as “home”. It has been during the pandemic that I have delved deeper into my Red River Métis heritage and with the learning has come personal growth; I feel that I have discovered an important part of my identity and I have found this to be very humanizing.

I have been very thankful to have been able to perform throughout most of the pandemic, mainly through recorded concerts. In Fall 2020 (when Nova Scotia had almost zero cases and live concerts were possible), I performed a live recital presented by Cecilia Concerts in Halifax with my duo partner LaLa Lee. So far in 2021, I have performed recorded concerts in Winnipeg presented by Virtuosi Concerts and the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg, as well as a solo appearance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Daniel Raiskin.

Being able to perform concerts (albeit recorded) during the pandemic has made the past year and a half infinitely better.

What have you taken from the NYO Canada Summer training program and prize competition — if you could sum it up, what did you gain from the experience?

RC: During virtual NYO Canada, our schedules have been filled with great, accessible seminars that are relevant and valuable to 21st-century musicians, such as Denis Martin’s “Audio Capture and Postproduction” workshops. This kind of programming along with regular studio classes, lessons and general mentorship from the fantastic faculty at NYO Canada have helped make these abnormal times feel a lot more normal.

From the CCMM competition, I would say I’ve gained an even greater sense of appreciation for all of those who support me and my career — without their help, there is just no way any of this could’ve happened!

DLR: Being part of NYO in 2019 was one of the most life-changing experiences for me. I will never forget what it’s like to play Mahler’s 5th Symphony and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet Suite and feel that everyone in the orchestra (your friends and peers) are all feeling and expressing the same emotions, like we are truly unified but in a rich and diverse way. That summer I fell in love with orchestral music and how unbelievably moving it can be when conductor and musicians are all deeply inspired and committed to the music.

NYO has also given me invaluable leadership experience in an orchestra — a role I aspire to have in a professional orchestra in the future.

Do you anticipate the win might boost your career in the coming months as the world opens back up to live concerts?

RC: I do anticipate that this win might help boost my career in numerous ways, through a combination of increased publicity, performance opportunities, and the scholarship itself. I will be using these funds to help further my musical education and growth, and it will surely help down the road with any costs associated with travelling to and taking orchestral auditions as they begin to open.

DLR: I hope it will! It would be my dream to perform regularly in Canada (and abroad) and I think that the Michael Measures Prize has come to be recognized by many in Canada as a prestigious award considering the calibre of the previous winners (all of whom I have looked up to for years and still do!).

As someone who has had their fair share of success in music competitions recently, (and congratulations on that!) do you have any advice for anyone who might be thinking about entering in the future?

RC: Thank you so much! I certainly feel that a lot of my successes this past year came from my preparation stage by playing through my music for as many people as possible. The more opinions and the greater variety of approaches you can get, the better — once you have a stockpile of other people’s thoughts, you’re able to pick and choose which ones work best for you. This approach also worked for me as a trombone player, as just getting my reps in for each piece helped me build up the endurance to confidently record challenging works such as the Tomasi Concerto.

DLR: One thing I always remind myself is: don’t be afraid to show your personality. Show who you are as an artist and present yourself authentically and honestly.

As you start booking live concert appearances again, what’s it like getting back on stage in front of an audience after so long?

RC: Just recently, I played an outdoor trombone choir gig with the Weston Silver Band trombone section in front of a live audience, and I was beyond excited! It was such a familiar and exhilarating feeling to perform in front of an audience, compounded by the fact that I hadn’t experienced that feeling in well over a year. I can’t wait to get to perform alongside and for more people in the months to come!

DLR: It’s exhilarating! Performing for a living is my dream and passion. During my Cecilia Concerts recital in Halifax last November (which was the first live concert I had since February 2020), the excitement of everyone in the hall was palpable. Everyone was so hungry for live music and you could feel everyone’s genuine appreciation for the music and the satisfaction it brought. It was one of the most powerful artistic experiences I have had.

What inspires you as a musician?

RC: My personal inspiration comes from the many different musicians I get to meet in both Canada and the United States. I’m constantly inspired by their stories, their personalities, their playing, their work ethics, and their attention to details.

My professional inspiration comes from the great orchestral trombonists and soloists around the world, such as Joseph Alessi, Jörgen van Rijen, and my teachers Nitzan Haroz and Matthew Vaughn who manage to balance their busy orchestral jobs with fulfilling solo, chamber and educational careers.

DLR: Connecting with people through conversations, feeling an emotional connection to people — there’s nothing like it. I want to create a similar kind connection with each person in the audience every time I perform.

Watching other artists creating their own authentic music from an honest place. Being honest and authentic is to me paramount as a musician.

All of my teachers and mentors who have shaped who I am today, and particularly my beloved teachers at the Glenn Gould School, Hans Jørgen Jensen and Andrés Díaz, who always inspire me to work towards the highest standards.

What’s next? Do you have any other competitions or major projects on the horizon?

RC: Up next for me, I’m excited to be heading back down to Philadelphia soon to start my fourth year at Curtis! Looking way ahead, I really look forward to my performances as part of the NACO and OSM 2021/22 seasons, as well as my graduating recital in the Spring!

DLR: On September 18, I am performing in the Final Round of the Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition.

Besides this, I have many other exciting concerts coming up in the next few seasons that I’m not allowed to share yet!

Watch the premier of the Michael Measure Prize announcement [HERE]

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