Alumni Profile: Stewart Grant

Oboist, conductor, and composer Stewart Grant graduated from McGill University with a Licentiate of Music (1969) and a Bachelor of Music (1971). With a wide-ranging career already under his belt, he recently launched a new chamber orchestra based in the West Island, the Sinfonia de l'Ouest.

After graduating from McGill University in 1971, Stewart Grant taught oboe and theory at the school, before joining the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the orchestras of both the Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet. He also spent 16 years as Music Director of the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra in Alberta, for which he received the Heinz Unger Award for conductors, and 18 years as Artistic Director of the West Island Youth Symphony Orchestra, for which he was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Alongside this career in performance, he has also been a very active composer, accepting commissions from organizations including the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Canadian Chamber Choir, Banff International String Quartet Competition, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Les Jeunesses Musicales du Canada

We asked him some questions about his memories from his time at McGill University, as well as his recent venture with the Sinfonia de l'Ouest and his advice to those pursuing wide-ranging careers in music:

Your new Sinfonia de l'Ouest is about to start its second season: What was your main motivation for launching a new chamber orchestra?

My main goal in starting the Sinfonia de l’Ouest was simply to create a situation in which I could make music at a very high level with other accomplished, likeminded musicians. It also allows us to share music of this quality with my home community, where I grew up and have lived and worked very happily for the past twenty-four years.

These were my goals when I first conceived of the Sinfonia back in 1999, when I had been back in the West Island for four years. I wanted to create something new for myself and for the community, but I was then hired to direct the West Island Youth Symphony Orchestra. It was only once I had retired, after eighteen very fruitful years with that organization, that I came back to the idea of the Sinfonia, but with the added motivation of providing an opportunity to young musicians who were finishing their formal studies and needed an outlet for their skills and a way to help launch their careers.

What have been some of the main challenges and rewards from the process so far?

My biggest challenge in launching the Sinfonia has been the administrative side of running the orchestra. During my sixteen years of directing the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra, I was involved in just about every aspect of the organization, but with the Sinfonia, all of the various non-musical tasks of putting on concerts, recruiting musicians, dealing with various levels of government, bringing in revenue and balancing the books have been primarily my responsibility. I am learning to be a businessman - an entrepreneur in the spirit of Handel and Vivaldi, who became an opera impresario late in his career. Fortunately, I have had considerable help from my wife (and Sinfonia co-principal cellist), Joanne, and I have been able to call upon the support and expertise of our small but dedicated Board of Directors - especially our President, Ivan Reede, with his years of experience in running his own company and his years of involvement in various musical organizations.

The rewards have been the positive attitude of our musicians and the quality of the music we are able to produce together. When we finally get together to rehearse and perform, all of the effort leading up to that point feels more than worthwhile.

Your career has included a combination of conducting, performance, and composition — what advice would you give music students who are currently working to develop a similarly wide-ranging skillset?

Coming from a musical family, I decided at age thirteen that I wanted to compose, conduct and play the oboe. However, when I was eighteen, I decided to put aside composition and focus on performing — following the advice of my long-time oboe teacher, Melvin Berman, with whom I was studying at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec at the same time as I was studying at McGill. He felt that being a skilled performer would provide me with practical knowledge and experience that would enhance my composing if I eventually returned to it, at the same time as providing a means for me to earn a living as a musician. His reasoning turned out to be right on, and by the time I was twenty, I was earning my living playing with l’Orchestre de Radio-Canada and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and playing frequently as an extra player with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.

Being able to compose, play and direct an orchestra was, of course, normal back in the days of Bach, Haydn and Mozart—as is still the case for jazz and pop musicians—and it makes for a very healthy mix of skills that can cross-fertilize one another. It means that you can bring a composer’s insight to analyzing and shaping a work that you are performing, and you can bring to a work that you are composing an understanding of how to shape a beautiful phrase or shape an entire piece, gleaned from your experience of studying and performing great masterpieces. It means that you can bring to your composing a first-hand knowledge of how different orchestral instruments work and how to effectively write for them, and the experience of knowing what it means to bring music to life and share it with an audience in a way that makes it meaningful to them.

The main advice I would offer to young musicians who are interested in pursuing a varied career—or perhaps even more to those who intend to specialize in either composing, conducting or performing—is that they should do whatever they can to fully develop their fundamental musicianship and their understanding of different aspects of music. That way, they can produce music that is truly satisfying to themselves and to those they share it with, using whatever means is available to them. And by having a varied skillset, they will likely have many more opportunities to do so.

It is possible to have a rich and fulfilling musical life without becoming the Music Director or principal oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, and this is especially true if you have more than one arrow in your quiver. 

You spent almost 20 years as Artistic Director of the West Island Youth Symphony – how did you see music education change and develop during that period of time?

During my eighteen years directing the West Island Youth Symphony Orchestra, there were two things I was especially aware of in the music education system. One was the extent to which high school music programs vary from school to school, according to the skill and dedication of the teachers and the support and resources available to them. The other was the large number of talented young people who would like to pursue a career in music but have little hope in being able to do so because of the dearth of professional opportunities available to them.

It was partly because of this latter situation that we started the Sinfonia, so that we could offer a least a few of these musicians an opportunity to perform in a high calibre ensemble and earn a little bit of income in doing so.

Do you have any specific lasting memories from your time as a student at Schulich?

The McGill Faculty of Music, as it was called in my years there as a student, was very different from the Schulich School of Music today. The CEGEP system did not yet exist, so I entered McGill at age sixteen — and our first-year class doubled the Faculty’s enrolment to a total of 140 students. It was located in two houses at the top of Redpath Street, and the practice rooms were in an ancient building on McTavish Street that was literally condemned. The McGill Symphony Orchestra had some very good players, but it was tiny and very limited in what it could do in terms of instrumentation. I remember one rehearsal where there were no cellists and Albert Devito played the running eighth notes in the last movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony on his trombone.

The great advantage was that the students could receive lots of individual attention, and I was treated with great flexibility. Because I had arrived at the Faculty with more musical background than most of my classmates, I ended up completing a number of courses by doing special projects through monthly private meetings with professors such as Marvin Duchow. In my second year, John Hawkins, Alec Tilley and I had a special dictation class with Bruce Mather in which we were doing music by Webern, Bartok and Messiaen.

Stewart Grant composing at the piano in 1982.

Most importantly, in my third and fourth years at the Faculty, we were able to create and run a chamber orchestra, which I directed, so as to supplement the experience and training we were getting from the McGill Symphony Orchestra. Interestingly enough, this orchestra was in many ways similar to the Sinfonia de l’Ouest in terms of instrumentation and repertoire, and the fact that the Sinfonia includes some key players who are current or past McGill students makes the connection between the two orchestras all the more interesting.

At the end of my fourth year at McGill, I ended up completing just my Licentiate of Music diploma—along with my Premier Prix in oboe from the Conservatoire—largely because of the time I had been putting into running the Collegium Musicum and attending meetings as a student representative on various Faculty committees. Because Melvin Berman was under exclusive contract to the Conservatoire, I was then hired by the Faculty as oboe instructor. I didn’t have a lot of students, but being oboe instructor meant that I performed in faculty recitals. I particularly remember performing the Britten Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio with Otto Armin, Steve Kondaks and Ed Culbreath.

I certainly remember my graduation recital, which took place in Redpath Hall after I had finally completed the course requirements for my Bachelor of Music degree. My assisting artists included Kelsey Jones on harpsichord, OSM pianist Art Maiste, and OSM principal flutist and principal bassoonist Jeanne Baxtresser and David Carroll, who both went on to play in the New York Philharmonic.

Once I completed my degree in oboe performance, I was hired by the Theory Department to teach first and second year theory and harmony, and Charles Palmer, Alan Heard and I decided to take a new approach which involved having the students compose their own music from the very outset. One thing that I learned very quickly was that each student, no matter how limited their background, had their own musical personality and way of going about writing. Another was that if I had each of my thirty students write three melodies as an assignment, I would have ninety melodies to comment on and correct!

The most memorable event for the Faculty of Music that school year was that we moved into what is now the Strathcona Music Building. It had been Royal Victoria College, the women’s dormitory, and it had been a rule that all female students attending McGill who were not living with their families were required to live there. But that year, this rule was abolished and the dormitory was suddenly virtually empty. The main building was given to the Faculty of Music as of the Christmas break and we finally had a proper building of our own. One perk was that the cafeteria was still functioning, so we had wonderful lunches without having to leave the building and brave the winter cold. Alas, the cafeteria is no longer there. In its place, we now have Pollack Hall.

At the end of that school year, I expected that I would return in the fall and continue teaching at the Faculty - possibly for the rest of my career. That summer, however, I joined the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and my musical journey westward began.

What are some highlights for you this coming year?

The main highlights I am looking forward to in the coming season are simply our Sinfonia performances. It’s always a joy to make music of this quality with our musicians. This very much includes pianist Ludwig Sémerjian, a McGill graduate and Mozart specialist with whom we have already collaborated on a number of occasions. I’m particularly looking forward to performing some favourite repertoire, including the Schubert Symphony no. 5 and the Dvořák Serenade for Strings, and we are also planning to do some beautiful older Canadian works.

Find out more about Stewart Grant and listen to selected compositions on his website.

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