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INTERVIEW | Composer Kevin Lau Talks About Ballet, Composition, And Kimiko’s Pearl

By Anya Wassenberg on April 3, 2024

Composer Kevin Lau (Photo: Alice Hong)
Composer Kevin Lau (Photo: Alice Hong)

Composer Kevin Lau’s score for Kimiko’s Pearl, a new ballet with choreography by Yosuke Mino (Royal Winnipeg Ballet) will see its world premiere in St. Catharines in June 2024. An orchestral suite based on the ballet music will be premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in their 2024/25 season.

That will follow the recent premiere of Lau’s choral piece Stained Glass Rainbows Through Cathedral by Toronto’s Cantabile Chamber Singers, and the release of his album Under A Veil Of Stars (on Leaf Music) last September.

We caught up with the busy composer to talk about Kimiko’s Pearl and other things.

Stained Glass Rainbows Through Cathedral Movement 2 by Dr Kevin Lau (premiered March 2, 2024 in Toronto with the Cantabile Chamber Singers):

Composer Kevin Lau: The Interview

A winner of the Canada Council’s Victor Martyn Lynn-Staunton Award in 2017, Kevin’s work often revolves around themes of the surreal, and finding connections in diverse elements. His music has been commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra, and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, among others, and has been performed internationally, and championed by artists like Jonathan Crow, Rachel Mercer, Scott. St. John, Angela Park, Marc Djokic, and others.

His six string quartets have been performed by the Viano, Tesla, Afiara, Dior, and Cecilia String Quartets, along with others, and two of the quartets were programmed in the Banff International String Quartet Competition. In 2023, his Third String Quartet was selected as the test piece for the Saint Paul String Quartet Competition in Minnesota.

His compositional output is diverse, including choral and orchestral works, ballets, and work such as the opera-film hybrid Bound, commissioned by Against the Grain Theatre, and performed by the TSO. Two previous releases showcasing his music have won JUNO award, including Detach (Redshift, with harpist Angela Schwarzkopf) and Mosaique by Ensemble Made in Canada.

Dancers Kyra Soo, Liam Saito, Rachel Gibbs, Nxin Liu, Yayoi Ban in Kimiko’s Pearl (Photo: Alex Heidbuechel)
Kyra Soo, Liam Saito, Rachel Gibbs, Yue Shi, Chenxin Liu, and Yayoi Ban in Kimiko’s Pearl (Photo: Alex Heidbuechel)

He was the Affiliate Composer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 2012 – 2015.

Kevin’s music could be called Neo-romantic in style, melodic and evocative, while still thoroughly contemporary.

“I think those stylistic categories definitely cross my mind,” Kevin says, adding, “I think composers aren’t the right people to ask about their own music.”

The emotions of a piece are usually on his mind. “I’m often thinking along the lines of expression.” Feedback tells him whether his instincts are right.

His influences range from romanticism to modernism to “things that range out of classical music,” he explains, such as heavy metal and jazz. “I see myself as being a bit eclectic. […] Intense lyricism tends to be a part of a lot of my music.”

Synthesizing different ideas and elements is another recurring preoccupation. “I’m interested in the convergence of different things in music,” he says. “It’s interesting when you combine things that don’t seem to go well together on the surface.”

The National Ballet’s premiere of Kevin Lau’s Le Petit Prince (2016):

Ballet & Kimiko’s Pearl

“I love ballet,” he says. It’s not something that he necessarily had in mind as a specific goal from the start. “I’ve felt very lucky to have the opportunity to be involved in the creation of ballet.”

He says the experience has helped him in general terms to work out the details of a large-scale project. Le Petit Prince with the National Ballet of Canada was his first. He calls the experience challenging but also very rewarding.

He’s since worked with choreographer Guillaume Cote again on Dark Angels, a shorter 30-minute ballet. Kimiko’s Pearl will be the third.

“It does share some aspects with the other ballets in terms of the long term narrative,” he explains.

The Canadian government dispossessed and displaced more than 22,000 Japanese Canadians during the infamous period of internment between 1942 and 1949. Kimiko’s Pearl tells the story of the Ayukawa family in Mission B.C. through four generations.

Dancer Kyra Soo in Kimiko’s Pearl (Photo: Rejean Brandt)
Kyra Soo in Kimiko’s Pearl (Photo: Rejean Brandt)

Based on the real story of the Japanese Canadian internment of WWII, the ballet revolves around themes of war, sacrifice and renewal. It was commissioned and produced by Bravo Niagara!, who intend on touring the production after its world premiere this year. The specific story is based on a piece by Emmy Award-winning writer Howard Reich, inspired by the family history of Bravo Niagara! co-founders Christine Mori and her daughter Alexis Spieldenner. The pair serve as co-creators and producers of the ballet.

Kevin’s involvement came through connections to Christine and Alexis. “They knew me principally through my association with Niagara Symphony,” he says. Kevin was a composer-in-residence with Niagara Symphony in 2018/19.

They approached him with the idea of working together, but the right project didn’t come along until just prior to the pandemic. “Christine had the idea to tell the story of her family’s experience with Japanese internment,” he explains.

The project was initially conceived of on a small scale, as a work of chamber music that could be accompanied by dance. Musicians Ron Korb (flute), Conrad Chow (violin), and Rachel Mercer (cello) will be performing the music, enriched by Aaron Tsang’s sound design. As the idea developed, it expanded to a full-length narrative of 70 minutes.

The creative team was assembled and, after the pause of the pandemic, is finally proceeding to the stage.

An excerpt from Kimiko’s Pearl:

Music, Social Relevance And Healing

Kimiko’s Pearl will be the first time that ballet and classical music have been used to convey the Canadian Japanese internment experience. The performing arts can be the most effective way to confront and deal with complex issues.

“I absolutely do [agree]”, he says. Music can play a key role role with issues that are very difficult to talk about. “It engages the emotions on a kind of level that is beyond the reach of language. It has occupied a very layered place in many cultures historically.”

In Western society, we tend to have relegated music to the realm of entertainment, but he doesn’t see it as an either/or choice.

“It was interesting to me that Christine and Alexis chose to tell this story in way that wasn’t verbal,” he says. It makes the story intense, moving and cathartic, without requiring a detailed essay to explain its background.

“When I see it work, and when I experience it myself […] it can create this exorcism of emotion,” he says. “It can be very profound.”

“My role, as much as possible, especially on a project such as this, is to tell their story,” he says, “to try to serve their story, and give something back.”

It’s a way of healing old wounds.

His recent album, a series of piano trios recorded by cellist Rachel Mercer (who’s also involved in Kimiko’s Pearl), with a piece dedicated to Mercer and her husband, violinist Yehonatan Berick, who passed away suddenly after recording part of the album. The album as a whole is dedicated to Berick’s memory.

“It was quite a cathartic process for me to put together that album.”

Kevin is currently working on a piece for this summer’s Ottawa Chamberfest, to be performed by the Ironwood Quartet with Philip Chiu

  • Find tickets and more information about the June 22 and 23 world premiere of Kimiko’s Pearl at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines [HERE].
  • You can check out Kevin’s release on Leaf Music [HERE].
  • Find tickets and more information about the world premiere of Kimiko’s Pearl Orchestral Suite with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra [HERE].

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