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Music's future sounds good
Donald McLean was halfway out the door when he was asked to give some serious thought to becoming McGill's next dean of music.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
"I had some offers and I was really thinking about leaving Montreal," McLean recalls. "I never expected to do this kind of administrative work. It can be a very frustrating job, no question about it."
So what made him stay? A stint as associate dean (academic) gave him a clear view as to how the faculty was faring and while there were problems aplenty -- millions needed to be raised for the new music building, retiring professors, some of them key to the faculty's reputation, had to be replaced -- there was also an esprit de corps that he found touching.
The faculty's students and teachers, despite shoestring budgets, consistently put together dazzling opera productions and critically acclaimed musical performances. The professoriate and support staff, determined that McGill not lose its position as perhaps Canada's finest music school, shrugged off their outdated facilities and carried on.
And, thanks in part to McLean's own efforts, the picture was beginning to brighten.
After a brief, bleak period when it seemed like the Quebec government's support for a new McGill music building was fading, the government firmly pledged $17.5 million of the $41 million price tag. A Canada Foundation for Innovation grant, coupled with further funding from Quebec City and other sources, resulted in another $6.5 million to support the efforts of the faculty's new Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT). Nine new professors were being added, among them respected conductor Alexis Hauser.
"The faculty was developing a certain momentum," says McLean. "Setting goals, seeing people working together to make them happen, there is something very rewarding in that." So he stayed and began his term as dean in June.
"The rest of Canada and Quebec looks to McGill for leadership in music," McLean says. "In terms of performance, we rank among the top half-dozen universities or conservatories in North America. In terms of music research and scholarship, we would rank about the same.
"Performance-wise, our strength is in our ensembles in the classical and jazz areas and in early music," McLean adds. "The goal here isn't really to turn out the big solo star. We train first-rate ensemble musicians. There are McGill graduates on every major orchestral ensemble in this country."
The key to maintaining McGill's position in the music world, says McLean, is to finally turn the long-planned new building into a reality.
The building has been in the planning stages for well over 10 years now. "We've been talking about it for so long, it's becoming mythical to people," says McLean with a rueful edge to his voice. "The goal is to break ground in 2002." McLean has been busy raising funds for the project and while there is still plenty of work to be done on that front, he is pleased at the progress made so far. "We are three-quarters of the way there."
McLean has been part of the planning effort for the new building for some time as a member of committees and as associate dean. He says the building being planned today is a far cry from the one that people first started thinking about in the late '80s.
"When we began talking about what the design would be, the Internet was something new that a few odd people worked on in their basements. Now you have grandmothers downloading MP3 files. It's a different world."
One of the new factors that has altered the planning for the building is the CIRMMT. "It's really going to change the profile of this faculty." As music is produced, performed and transmitted using increasingly sophisticated technologies, CIRMMT members will be examining the implications. Members of the centre are drawn, not just from the faculty, but from the faculties of engineering, science and medicine. McLean says CIRMMT is unique in that similar centres elsewhere typically don't involve musicians or creative performers who can view the technologies from their perspectives, "or they involve some creative types who dabble in technology on the side. To have the different types of expertise involved in this that we have isn't something you usually see."
But CIRMMT needs a home. "It's a 'virtual' research centre with several satellite labs," explains McLean. The plan is to locate CIRMMT in the new building and to equip the centre with the latest music-oriented technologies. That poses challenges in and of its own.
As recording technologies become more potent, older studios can't keep up. McLean related the tale of one British studio that had to close shop because the ultra-sensitive equipment kept picking up the sounds of a nearby subway station. "The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has to go north of Montreal and close down a town when it wants to record."
An ultra-modern symphony and multimedia hall that can function as a sound recording studio, a multimedia performance venue and an acoustic research studio will be "the jewel" of the new building and will accommodate the needs of the CIRMMT, the faculty's widely respected sound recording program and others in the faculty.
"There will be no other facility like this outside of Hollywood. We will position ourselves as world leaders."
As associate dean, McLean was involved in a very thorough screening process of the new hires. "It took two years," he relates. To find a replacement for Timothy Vernon, the highly regarded former conductor of the McGill Symphony Orchestra, candidates were invited to guest conduct the orchestra for two weeks each, while showcasing their teaching abilities in master classes. Of all McLean's new hires, Hauser will be the most scrutinized.
"We wanted somebody with an outstanding command of music, excellent teaching skills and an international reputation. Alexis has interests in opera, symphonic music, contemporary music. He has an interest in areas that Timothy didn't."
McLean acknowledges that the government, during its recent contrat de performance negotiations with the University, expressed its displeasure with the faculty's graduation rate.
About 60 per cent of music students complete their studies. "That's the best rate in Quebec and one of the best in Canada, but it appears deplorable to the government and to the rest of the University," McLean says.
Many students, gifted in music but not gifted enough to make it their life's work, end up switching disciplines, he says. Others are so talented, the jobs come to them before they've completed all their courses. "In this business, you don't have to be certified, you just have to do well at the audition."
McLean says that he wants to do all he can to encourage students to stay but he doesn't think it's a tragedy if students "exit either as professional musicians or as someone who goes on to do well in arts or science and who has a really solid musical background. There are a lot of talented people out there who will tell you they studied at McGill but they don't have degrees."
One of McLean's priorities is to give his students good service. As associate dean, he began meeting regularly with student representatives.
He has doubled the number of staff who handle admissions, hired a recruitment officer to specialize in his faculty on a part-time basis and hired an alumni relations officer to keep in better touch with graduates.
He says his students are at the core of what makes his faculty special.
"Our [top] jazz band was probably one of the five best groups of its kind in the world. The fact that we do this with students is amazing."
Not only do they perform exceptionally well, they care about McGill. "We've started working with our students to use them to help recruit new students -- they go back to their high schools to talk about the faculty. They've been to Scotland, to Saskatchewan... They've even paid part of the costs themselves.
"Our students are wonderful ambassadors, not just for the faculty, but for all of McGill." He says that's especially true when the jazz band performs at a jazz festival in Ireland or the McGill Symphony Orchestra plays Carnegie Hall in New York.
It's why one of his priorities is to fund more scholarships and travel bursaries for students.
He marvels at their ability to learn their craft while delivering public performances that earn raves. "Imagine writing your physics exam in public with the audience responding to how you answer every question."