Month: April 2014

Vivian Fung and Composing a Cross-Cultural Identity

Vivian Fung

Modern Classical Composer Vivian Fung

As a second generation Canadian, JUNO award winning composer Vivian Fung says that composing has helped her realize that she doesn’t need to identify with just one culture. Her music displays a powerful compositional voice while merging Western forms with non-western influences, including Chinese, Balinese and Javanese styles. While studying music at Juilliard, Fung was exposed to Western musical concepts and composers, but it was only after a meeting with a composer from China that Fung began to explore her cross-cultural heritage and immerse herself in Chinese history.

“This composer invited me to his home, and after going through a few pleasantries, he spent the next three hours providing me with all the should-haves and cold-haves of my skewed musical education. The school I chose was wrong for an Asian composer, he said. What is absolutely necessary for an Asian composer, especially a Chinese composer, is knowledge of your own heritage in addition to the Western heritage. I had to start over, he declared…Did I know anything about Chinese history? No. Confucian doctrine? Umm, no. The list grew longer as the evening went by. I left his house with my head spinning and my tail between my legs.”

While daunted by thousands of years to cover, she immersed herself in the material and in 2012 travelled to Southwest China for an ethno-musicological research trip. It was there that she identified with the isolation and apartness of minority nationalities in the Yunnan province and began to study their musical cultures, which became the foundation for her piece Yunnan Folk Songs. She has also developed a knowledge of Southeast Asian cultures through her travels and developed a penchant for the music of Vietnam, where both her parents spent their childhoods in a Chinese neighbourhood of Saigon.

The title of her piece in the What Next Festival, Birdsong, references the sounds and quick movements of birds. “The idea of overarching bird calls and melodies lends itself to an exotic atmosphere,” says Fung. Her work showcases the virtuosity of the piano and violin in intense rhythmic sections and an exploration of improvisational styles. Vivian Fung’s Birdsong is performed by HPO Concertmaster Stephen Sitarski on May 17 during the concert From the Eastern Gate: New Works Inspired by Chinese Heritage at Centenary United Church.

Vivian Fung describes how travelling to Bali inspired her work Dreamscapes:



Martin Beaver: Hamilton’s “Amadeus” of the Violin

Tokyo Sting Quartett Photo: Marco BorggreveBorn in Winnipeg and raised in Hamilton, Martin Beaver has never forgotten his Steel City roots. Martin attended Hillfield Strathallan College where he began to master his true gift: the violin. Martin later joined the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra under the guidance of Glenn Mallory, the founding director of the HPYO.

Glenn remembers that Martin displayed signs of being a very gifted person at the age of 12. “I always joked that he should be called Martin ‘Amadeus’ Beaver,” remarks Glenn.

It won’t be the first time that Martin plans to visit his former high school, Hillfield Strathallan College, to speak with members of the HPYO while staying in Hamilton. “Several years ago, I was rehearsing one Saturday morning with the HPYO and Martin just appeared at the rehearsal. He thought he would drop in and see how the kids were doing and wanted to encourage them. He has not forgotten his youth, what it was like to be a young boy loving music and wanting to learn,” says Glenn. “It’s an unusual combination for someone to be at the very top and be very, very humble and warm, as well.”

Martin went on to study at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music before going to Indiana University. The Tokyo String Quarter accepted 34 year old Martin as their first violinist for 10 years until the group dispersed last spring. Martin has taught violin at New York University and was the artist in resident at Yale Graduate School of Music. In the fall of 2013, Martin joined the faculty of the Colburn School in Los Angeles as co-director of the chamber music program.

Martin Beaver will be performing Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 at the HPO’s Pastorale this Saturday, April 26.
First Violinist Martin Beaver and the Tokyo String Quartet:

Breaking Down the “Squeaky Gate”

Modern classical music is often criticized as sounding like a “squeaky gate” compared to the comforting traditional pieces that have been celebrated for hundreds of years. Yet The Guardian’s classical music reporter Tom Service says “the ‘squeaky gate’ can actually be amazing to experience if you’re not afraid of it.”

abby sitting

HPO Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte

Despite musical stereotypes between traditional and modern classical music, HPO’s Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte remained undaunted in her decision to become a composer. Born in Oxford England and diagnosed as clinically deaf at the age of five, Abigail and her family moved to Calgary where the climate is notoriously dry. “They said ‘good luck’ when we finally got into Canada, but within six months I could hear perfectly,” says Abigail. She began piano lessons in high school with an eccentric teacher that had Yosemite Sam cowboy hat. Abigail remarks that “he taught me the survival skills of composition where he made me compose pieces for stories and commercials.”

Having begun courses in science at the University of Calgary, Abigail says she was struck by an academic lightning bolt and realized she needed to pursue a degree in composition. She practiced relentlessly for a year and successfully entered the classical composition program with renowned composer Allan Bell. “While in university, the melody is beaten out you,” says Abigail, “you learn to avoid simple and pretty things and develop your own way around loving beautiful music.” But it was a simple pretty finale to Abigail’s scholarly composition that won her the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers where her music was broadcast in 35 countries.

Although Abigail received her big break at an early age, becoming a recognized modern classical composer can be a heart-breaking experience. Eager composers often write compositions for competitions in the hopes of getting one step closer to critical acclaim. Sometimes composers unite with performers and an arts council to create an application to argue the importance of their project to secure funding for a commission. “The competition never goes away. Someone well respected who is 50 years old has an equally challenging time making their mark as someone who is 25,” remarks Abigail. “There are probably 10 composers working full time and I’m very lucky to be working with the HPO where I was recently commissioned a piece for the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s centennial year.”

William Blair Bruce (Canadian 1859–1906) Times of Tempest    c. 1900–1906. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo: Robert McNair

William Blair Bruce (Canadian 1859–1906)
Times of Tempest c. 1900–1906. Oil on canvas.
Art Gallery of Hamilton.
Photo: Robert McNair

Audiences need to understand the story, place or person behind modern compositions. The HPO’s What Next Festival surrounds the celebration of new classical music where Abigail takes the spotlight each year. A Canadian in Paris is inspired by Canadian born William Blair Bruce whose works were donated to the City of Hamilton in 1914 which were the foundation of the Art Gallery of Hamilton. “I want the audience to have the opportunity to get inside a piece of artwork through a different medium and, most of all, I want them to feel an emotional connection,” says Abigail. She read Bruce’s letters to home where he reminisces of Lake Ontario as he looks upon the east Baltic Sea. The composition is comprised of four movements, each of which is themed by one of Bruce’s paintings.

While Abigail invokes the art of storytelling through her compositions, modern music still carries a stigma for some traditional classical music lovers, but if audiences are prepared for the piece, they’ll understand it better. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot the first week of its premiere and received high praise in the second week of performances. Abigail believes that it is important to give audiences stories they can latch onto, as she says “I intend to take the listener on a journey, led by the musicians of the orchestra. I want the listener to get inside these paintings just as I had done when letting them inspire the music.”

Traditional music pieces remain at the top of playlists around the world, but modern composers are constantly developing new conceptual channels to tell a story. Audiences should be prepared to release inhibitions, let go and join the composer on their journey.

Abigail talks about the William Blair Bruce’s paintings in relation to her new composition A Canadian in Paris.

Learn the History Behind the Music


William Blair Bruce (Canadian 1859–1906) The Phantom Hunter    1888 oil on canvas 151.1 x 192.1 cm Art Gallery of Hamilton; Bruce Memorial, 1914 Photo: Robert McNair

William Blair Bruce (Canadian 1859–1906). The Phantom Hunter 1888. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Hamilton; Photo: Robert McNair

Music director candidate and guest conductor Gemma New brings you the inspiration behind the music for this Saturday’s Pastorale.

Gemma illuminates the background of Saint‐Saëns’ trembling Violin Concerto No. 3,  Beethoven’s depiction of the countryside in his Sixth Symphony, and works world premiere composition A Canadian in Paris by Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte.

Read the program notes here:

A glimpse of the second movement in Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto:

Throwback Thursday: What Next style

As we get ready for our 2014 What Next Festival of New Music in May, we’re reminiscing about some of our favourite moments from previous festivals.  Here are just a few that make our list…

Guests check out the prepared piano, used for various John Cage works during Music for a Gallery in April 2013

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Local artists create works live while guests engage with Adam Scime’s sound installation in What Does Music Look Like in April 2013

Adam Scime sounscape








The HPO strings perform Schnittke’s trio during Art Crawl in February 2011 at 118 James St. N. before it became the AGH Design Annex









Basia Bulat performs in the Molson Studio Theatre at Hamilton Place for a full house in February 2011





Brahms inspires poetry in Hamilton

muse-copy-184x300It’s always exciting when one art form inspires the creation of another.  Four years ago, author and journalist James Strecker attended an HPO performance and penned this ode to Brahms’ dramatic First Symphony.  We are honoured that he would choose his experience at our orchestral concert as fodder for this poignant and touching poem.  Enjoy it in its entirety below.

“We shall live again in the sanctity of love, for Brahms has been the voice of creation.” 
-James Strecker


        to the HPO 

The beginning sounds the heartbeat of destiny.

The players are now doubly become
the mouthpiece of a mountain
and the echo of one love yearning.

Fate allows no denial and speaks the endless
crags of destiny, but who reflects the eternal sky
and dances, heel and heel,
upon each star that sits heavenly?

It is man the maker who gilds
his courage with despair; he thus speaks love
for these players, compelled and impassioned
as they are, into sound.

A maestro’s hand gives purpose to the players’
will and ordains the shaping of resonance
and bends each voice into meaning
for one and many solitudes.

Now music, like a sage, considers the fate
that is given to a life; it confirms the hue of love
that is also a wound, accepts the gentle
heart’s resolution that itself knows only to be
answered and not to ask again what cannot be.

Who shall concede a love that masks the world
and gives resolute peace that too is destiny?
For love gives nothing in answer but love itself.

What should be love is sadness,
what should be love is denied and so music speaks,
wanders in hope, steps back,
and becomes more resolution.

Let us imagine colour then,
not grey of sorrow, but blue that cannot be sky
or green that knows not grass nor leaf,
or any hue that is man unfulfilled in love.

As if to descend and find their way, the players,
like mind in sonority, mindful of spirit carved
with hesitation, hear horn that summons order.
One hand for all spirits shapes a hymn-like
tranquility that denies not wisdom nor sorrow.

So imagine each one in his voice transformed and
made new. Or is each one anonymous in blessing
he or she gives, unknown to the wonder they do,
a part that knows no other part of unison sound.

Or is he who leads the players now transformed?
Does he find himself now a clarity of means
in prayer to beauty that Brahms provided,
for new life again, some lifetimes ago?

Who would not be inspired and incarnate
of hope that almost knows the world we live?

Should we not give voice in our hearts
to the hope we are also fated to sing, as we,
unknown to ourselves in pain and wonder,
give witness to this wounded declaration of love?
We shall live again in the sanctity of love,
for Brahms has been the voice of creation.

What more can music of destiny ask of him?