Smashing the brass ceiling
A few years ago Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko said something stupid. He suggested orchestras react better to a man in front of them and that “a cute girl” on a podium distracts musicians.
Roll over Beethoven! Things are changing.
Mélanie Léonard begins her second season as conductor with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra (SSO). She’s a young woman in an older man’s world, one of a few female conductors in Canada.
“I love it,” she says of her job as conductor and music director. “It has been what I have been wanted since I started learning conducting.”
She has a doctorate in orchestral conducting from the University of Montreal.
“It is a wonderful position I am in. My job is doing what I love. What makes me feel alive. I find it very empowering.”
For Léonard, who lives in Montreal, it is a long-distance love affair. The commute may be rough but worth it. She travels to Sudbury the week before a performance to rehearse with musicians who have been learning the scores under the baton of rehearsal conductor Jamie Arrowsmith.
“All women on top,” at the SSO, says executive director Jennifer McGillvrary, a spunky lady known for her quips. Léonard is the meastra, the board president is Claire McChesney. The first violin is Beth Schneider Guild and the second violin is Emily Chow.
For the 2017/18, the symphony will be performing concerts at a variety of venues in the city.
McGillvrary explains, “We are all over the place this year. We were not filling Glad Tidings (church),” which has 1,500 seats.
“Working in a space that is too large is hard on the audience, hard on the musicians and hard on the pocketbook. So we had to take a look at whether or not it was the best choice for the symphony.”
The annual holiday show and a special concert for children will be held at Glad Tidings with mid-sized main stage concerts taking place at Fraser Auditorium.
“It is a lot more intimate with 669 seats, so we hope to fill the hall. The Fraser also has a grand piano, so we can do a piano concertos which we haven’t done for 10 years.”
Other concerts will be held at First Nations Church. “The move to All Nations is something we wanted to do since the space was built. It has 500 seats and incredible acoustics. It is also one of most accessible spaces I have been in.”
The SSO has been homeless since it was incorporated in 1975. Despite a lot of wishing and hoping, Sudbury does not have a proper concert venue.
Earlier this year, McGillvrary showed support for a plan presented by True North Strong and Dario Zulich to convert Sudbury Arena into mid-size music venue.
“In a perfect world, the symphony wants a 1,000 soft seat auditorium with a stage, an acoustic shell and a piano,” says McGillvrary.
At one time there was a waiting list for SSO subscriptions and, after the move to Glad Tidings in the fall of 2007, the subscription list rose to 850. Over the past decade the number of subscribers dipped to 330.
“There was no impetrative to subscribe or purchase tickets in advance because they were always seats available at Glad Tidings,” says McGillvrary.
She is optimistic subscribers will be back this season because of limited seating at some venue.
SSO like many symphony orchestras are struggling to grow their audience and to attract younger patrons.
Single tickets for people are under 35 are $20 and there will be free child care available at all concerts this season. Members of SSO also perform pop-up concerts, present talks at the library and visit schools.
“There is a lot more diversity in this season’s program to respond to the changing of the audience. We have chamber music, opera, we are including music from ballets and we are doing the piano concerto.”
Despite the challenges, “the symphony had second break-even season in a row,” says McGillvrary.
Léonard lets McGillvrary worry about the dollars and cents. She concentrates on the music. She has just finished working on the 2018/19 season.
The season will have programming that is challenging for the orchestra and the audience. It is important for her to select music she enjoys because her passion inspires her performance.
Her passion for music and her style of conducting, described by some as moving like a dancer, charmed Sudbury audiences when she auditioned for the job which had belonged to Victor Sawa for more than a decade. Nearly 90 people applied for the job.
Does Léonard think she is a role model for girls? She says she hopes she is a role model for young women and young men. I hope I can be relevant to the Sudbury arts scene.”
“I think you become a role model by living your passion and always staying open to learning and new experiences and being humble about what you do.”
A year of living musically
For the first concert of the 2017/18 season, the Sudbury Symphony Chamber Ensemble is conducted by associate conductor Jamie Arrowsmith for a performance of Stravinsky’s Histoire de Soldat and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. This performance takes place at All Nations Church, 414 Raphael St. at 7:30 pm.
Mélanie Léonard and the SSO take the audience on a tour of Broadway from Golden Age classics to today’s hits with featured works by Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber at Glad Tidings on Regent St. at 7:30 pm.
The symphony presents its holiday family performance, Hansel and Gretel, at Glad Tidings Church at 2 pm. Peter MacGillivray and Jamie McLennan perform at this special opera performance.
A Chamber Exploration: An exciting performance of chamber favourites including Ravel’s seminal quartet in F major at All Nation’s Church 2:30 pm.
Immortal Beloved features some of the most romantic works of the 19th century including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and Schumann’s Clara Symphony at 7:30 pm at Fraser Auditorium.
From Russia with Love: Honen’s Piano Competition winner Lucca Barrotta performs Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No. 2. The romantic beauty of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and Stravinksy’s Firebird suite are also featured at this concert at the Fraser Auditorium at 7:30 pm.
The SSO is back at the Fraser May 5 with renowned violinist Marc Djokic from New York City. The concert, inspired by the cities and landscapes of North America, features a performance of Philip Glass’s contemporary masterpiece The Four Season and Dvôrak’s seminal Ninth Symphony, The New World.
The symphony and Sudbury Youth Orchestra present an afternoon of music for children and their families at Glad Tidings Church starting at 2 pm. Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of a symphony. The concert also includes a performance of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.