THE REJUVENATION OF THE CANADIAN MUSIC CENTRE: AN INTERVIEW WITH BC REGIONAL DIRECTOR SEAN BICKERTON
The Canadian Music Centre (CMC) has been a most valuable resource for Canadian composers, musicians, and educators ever since it formed in 1959. It has archived scores and recordings of Canada’s finest compositional efforts, and (since 1981) documented these through its ‘Centrediscs’ recordings, which now total just under 200 releases. While the content of these is wide ranging, their core is the Canadian Composer Portrait series, in which historically-important names such as Oscar Morawetz, Harry Somers, Barbara Pentland, Harry Freedman, Jacques Hetu, Robert Turner, among others, appear. A notable new release is the 2015 UBC production of Stephen Chatman’s chamber opera Choir Practice which certainly shows CMC’s desire to capture the diversity in contemporary currents.
With the vagaries of public funding over the past decades, many organizations like CMC have had to operate ‘defensively’ – preserving what they have but being handicapped in pushing out much further. It is therefore a cause for celebration that the local CMC-BC has moved forward proactively this year by opening a 40-seat concert hall in downtown Vancouver – the Murray Adaskin Salon – and presenting a four-concert season. The organization has also furthered educational initiatives and located another B.C. ‘Creative Hub’ in Victoria.
This year’s concert series celebrates four revered Canadian composers of the immediate past who have a local connection: Murray Adaskin, Barbara Pentland, Jean Coulthard, and Elliot Weisgarber. Adaskin and Pentland were celebrated in the fall; the Jean Coulthard concert takes place February 10 in the Adaskin Salon. One of the exciting dimensions of each concert is a documentary film premiere on the composer by award-winning director John Bolton.
All of this is very adventurous, so it seemed worthwhile to sit down with British Columbia Director Sean Bickerton and find out where all the new ‘fire’ came from, what vision is now in place, how it was all made possible, and how it is progressing so far.
1. IS THIS NEW CMC INSPIRATION LOCAL TO BC, OR PART OF A NATIONWIDE PROGRAM?
The answer is both, really. We’re building on work initiated by my two predecessors: Colin Miles, who moved the CMC to our location on Davie Street in downtown Vancouver, and Bob Baker, who had already worked on opening up space for informal performance by smaller ‘new music’ groups. And, yes, we’re responding to a new national mission for CMC to be the catalyst that connects everyone to the ever-evolving world of Canadian musical creation, through performance, education and promotion.
2. WHAT GOT THE BC PROJECTS OFF THE GROUND?
I think it was a shared understanding of where CMC-BC stands in its life-cycle. It was evident that we needed to move purposefully into a growth phase. BC also seems to be a particularly vibrant region of the country for Canadian composers these days: maybe, we’re just doing a good job of tapping into that energy.
3. HOW DOES PRESENTING YOUR OWN CONCERT SEASON SERVE IN A NEW VISION FOR CMC?
I think concerts have a unique role to play, creating immersive experiences that leave vivid portraits in the minds of our patrons. It brings them much closer to what we are doing. So far, we have sold out the first two concerts in the new series and we’re close to selling out the next two.
4. ARE YOU RECORDING ANY OF THESE CONCERTS FOR THE CMC ARCHIVE?
No, we pay union scale, rendering recording costs prohibitive, but we are definitely attempting to document the works of this year’s featured composers. We have made our very first recording of Barbara Pentland’s landmark opera The Lake in partnership with Turning Point Ensemble and AstroLabe Productions. It will be released later this year, along with five documentary films, most of which feature recorded live performances.
5. DID YOU PICK THE COMPOSERS FOR THIS SEASON’S CONCERTS BY QUITE STRICT CRITERIA? ARE YOU EVENTUALLY GOING TO MOVE TO YOUNGER (LIVING) COMPOSERS AS WELL?
Our shared dream for this season was to celebrate the very first generation of composers to write concert music on the West Coast of Canada. It was a very particular focus. Next season, we will be moving a little closer in time, presenting the next generation after them. But we’re also asking these composers to invite one younger, emerging composer to contribute a work to their programme. In this way, we will be presenting the future of new music at the same time as we’re celebrating these established composers at their peak.
6. HOW EXACTLY DID THE IDEA FOR THE NEW CONCERT VENUE ARISE?
The main floor of the Vancouver Creative Hub had been used before as an informal performance space, so in many ways we have just helped realize its natural destiny. I also wanted to create a ‘legacy’ for each of the composers we’re celebrating this season, either through infrastructure or programming. As the space already contained Murray Adaskin’s piano, a gorgeous Heintzman Salon Grand, the naming of the venue as the Murray Adaskin Salon just seemed like a natural progression.
7. ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH IT ACOUSTICALLY?
The Adaskin Salon is an urban, street-level, black-box theatre right on Davie Street, so we are immersed (possibly appropriately) in all the noises of the city. Patrons can hear buses and sirens going by, and passers-by talking on the street. At one concert, there was a group of about seven young people with faces pressed up to the glass audibly debating whether one of the instruments they were watching was a trombone or bassoon. But the fact we’d engaged them made me very happy, and confirmed for me that we are doing our job. Public visibility and accessibility for new music is so important, and even the most informal acquaintance counts. As for the acoustic environment, I would call it attractive, but not pristine. Nevertheless, it offers an intimate experience that audiences seem to love. The venue has a bright sound – but not over-bright – and the music, whether loud or soft, creates a very immediate aural experience.
8. TWO OF THE COMPOSERS FEATURED IN CONCERTS THIS YEAR WERE FORMERLY UBC MUSIC FACULTY. DID YOU COLLABORATE WITH UBC AT ALL ON THESE PROJECTS?
Not specifically, but our goal is to work collaboratively with the most creative composers, musicians and writers in the city. This means we are always working with best people from UBC, SFU, VAM, the VSO, and other organizations here in Vancouver and around the province.
9. HOW DO YOU THINK HAVING A SECOND ‘CREATIVE HUB’ IN VICTORIA WILL AFFECT THE SYNERGY OF NEW MUSIC THERE?
I think the new Victoria hub is really tapping into what’s already going on in Victoria, and has been for a long time. In many ways, the city is a hotbed of new music. I even recall from my days as concertmaster of the University of Victoria Symphony, playing in the Victoria Symphony, and being the leader of a new music ensemble there, what a vibrant music scene exists in the city. Of course, today there’s a whole new generation of composers that are doing remarkable work. We just want to connect with them and support what they’re doing. And we’re really excited about our partnership with the Victoria Conservatory of Music.
10. SO, A FINAL BIG QUESTION: WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR FIRST TWO CONCERTS? ARE THERE FURTHER IDEAS YOU NOW HAVE?
The most important thing is we now know that there’s a strong audience for this kind of immersive concert experience, so much so that we plan to expand our series next year. One of the things I’m also very excited about is our new Pentland Prize, an annual province-wide composition competition, with ten $100 awards for grade school students, two undergrad awards of $500 each and a $1000 award for graduate students. Another inspired project that we’re hoping to announce later this spring is the Jean Coulthard String Quartet Readings – a biannual workshop for emerging composers with the Borealis Quartet. Then, there’s the new First Flight Festival being launched this June in Kelowna, billed as ‘A Perfect Pairing of Canadian Music and Wine’. As we speak, we have just given two ‘Awards of Excellence’, to the Turning Point Ensemble and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, at the close of the latter’s 2017 New Music Festival. We're moving deliberately forward across the province and are really excited about what’s next!
© Geoffrey Newman 2017