Liz Upchurch, pianist, collaborates with Jane Archibald at Music in the Afternoon on November 14, 2019. At a November 4 gala she received a “Ruby” award from Opera Canada for her outstanding contributions to the Canadian opera community. Here is her speech from that evening, sharing her life story, recently posted for Canadian Opera Company subscribers in Issue 13 of NOTES.

A CANADIAN MIRACLE by Liz Upchurch

It was Schubert lieder that lured me to the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the early ‘90s. It was there, in a summer program at the Banff Centre, that two truly remarkable things happened: I met a man who was to become my musical mentor, Martin Isepp. As he had done for so many artists before and after me, he seemed to hold the magical key to unlocking the secrets not only of art song but opera as well. Thanks to him, I was officially hooked on opera.That summer I also met a young Canadian woman, a brilliant theatre director, who was to become the love of my life. There was only one problem. She was Canadian and I was British. Where could we live? We spent the first few years trying to see each other whenever humanly or financially possible. After a while, it was clear that we wanted and needed to be in the same place. My newfound passion for opera seemed to offer my career extraordinary opportunities, whereas my love as an English person for a Canadian was filled with political obstacles too big to overcome. We tried finding ways to live together in my hometown of London, England. There I was establishing a career as a soloist, chamber musician and répétiteur. Unfortunately, British Immigration had other plans. They decided Jen absolutely had to leave the UK – without the possibility of return. Overnight we went from a world filled with hopes to the horrible realization that we didn’t have a country to live in that would accept us as a couple. What on earth were we going to do? Where would we go? We were given five weeks until Jen had to leave the UK. We were beyond distraught. The phone rang off the hook with wonderful people offering advice or even offers to come and live in their country, places like Holland and even Australia. This prospect was beyond daunting for both of us. We needed a small miracle. We had been sifting through any legal information we could find about our predicament. Then, when looking through the Stonewall legal aid booklet, we discovered a chapter marked “where to live in the world.” There were only four countries on that list and to our absolute amazement, a new country had just been added: Canada. It was 1998 and there were now five countries in the world that would sponsor same-sex couples. This was our miracle. We went running to the Canadian High Commission in London where the sweetest Canadian man named Mr. Rose asked how long Jen had left before needing to leave the UK. We had just over two weeks. He looked at me and promised that I would become a landed immigrant of Canada before Jen had to leave. Our miracle kept growing because he kept his word. My own country had firmly closed its doors, but Canada’s were wide open and welcoming. We could not have been more grateful. 

Liz and Jen

Jen and Liz

STARTING FRESH

Now, where should we live in Canada? It needed to be on the east coast so I could travel more easily to Europe. We asked advice from all the key people I had met in Banff. One of them was the iconic voice teacher and Canadian soprano, Mary Morrison. She said, “Oh my dear, you need to audition for Richard Bradshaw!” And the next thing I know, I was playing an audition for the Canadian Opera Company. Three weeks later, I was hired as a répétiteur at the company to work on Fidelio with Maestro Bradshaw conducting. Over the course of my contract, I kept coming across names like “Bayrakdarian,” “McHardy,” and “Westman” on the daily rehearsal schedule. I wasn’t sure who they were at first – they weren’t in my show and they weren’t understudies – so who were they? Then I realized that these were the COC’s young singers. It wasn’t an ensemble at all; it was a training program for operatic voices that happened to be called the Ensemble Studio. Halfway through my contract, Richard Bradshaw asked me if I wanted to run the Ensemble Studio fulltime. I was honestly taken aback. What on earth could I offer them? We were practically the same age and I felt like I didn’t have nearly enough experience for such an important job. But I just thought, “Well, I’m going to give it a go. It’s an amazing challenge. I will try it for a year.” Twenty years later, here we are. 

Liz Upchurch and her first Ensemble Studio cohort

Liz Upchurch (centre) with her first Ensemble Studio cohort:
(l-r) Andrew Tees (back), Alain Coulombe (front), Michael Colvin, Liz, Krisztina Szabó and Liesel Fedkenheuer

SHIFTING ROLES

In my first year as Head of the Ensemble Studio, I was blessed with some of the most wonderful human beings: artists like Krisztina Szabó, Alain Coulombe, Michael Colvin, and Steven Philcox – can you imagine what that was like? We were more like friends than colleagues. There was an amazing camaraderie between everyone. The training ran quietly alongside the shows.

My role now is almost unrecognizable to what it was. I came into the company as a répétiteur who looked after the Ensemble Studio. I played the shows and coached the Ensemble Studio alongside a handful of other trainers. Then a few years after I started, I began to lose the vision in my right eye, having already lost most of the vision in my left. I was now legally blind. I couldn’t follow a conductor anymore, I had to relearn how to read scores. My job as a répétiteur would not be possible. Unquestionably I would have to change everything I did and the way that I did it.

Moving away from mainstage productions actually worked out for the better. Under the old setup, I could easily miss working with Ensemble Studio singers for weeks if they weren’t cast in the show I was working on. This way, I could take a step back and oversee the nitty gritty of their day-to-day and more readily address their needs. By stepping into more of an oversight role, it became clearer to me what these young singers needed on a more regular basis. Without realizing it, I had become a common factor in their sessions with all the outside trainers – the glue, if you will. We would collaborate and when the outside trainers left, I could help the artists distill the information. This was a key element on how the Ensemble Studio’s training was to evolve. 

Liz at the piano

Playing on the Four Seasons Centre stage

THE ENSEMBLE STUDIO TODAY

I started to prioritize a collaborative approach to the training model a number of years ago, the goal being to help unify the training language used. There are so many different elements to singing, that we need a clear vocabulary to clarify the teaching goal. The body, the voice, the breath, the languages, the music, the drama: these elements all interact when you teach singers. These are often taught separately, but it seemed to make more sense when we worked together in the same room at the same time. As well as learning from each other’s craft, we could also problem-solve in a cohesive way.

I think most singers are quite shocked when they first join the program because they’re so used to having one teacher and then suddenly you have three or four trainers in the room at the same time. To my knowledge, this way of teaching singers as a team is truly unique. Once they start to trust the work, they also see the benefits. So do the trainers. We try to tailor the program to meet the needs of individual singers. In a program that moves at such a rapid pace, that’s incredibly important. We don’t work collaboratively all the time, only when we feel that this would be useful. So, we offer a menu of resources that singers are able to mix-and-match. Ultimately, we want to make sure that when our artists leave us, they have a sense of independence and all the tools and connections they need to succeed wherever they are in the world. And our singers really are all over the world.

If you had told me nearly 30 years ago that I would be living in Canada, running a prestigious operatic training program, and married to a woman, I’m fairly sure that I would have laughed long and hard. I wouldn’t have believed any of it.

In my 21st season at the COC, it amazes me that I have overseen an entire generation of young Canadian singers and pianists. It continues to be one of the most thrilling adventures of my career. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t learn something from these gifted artists and trainers, as well as the high-profile artists that perform on our mainstage. I am enormously proud of the program – our trainers work so hard to make sure that the teaching is at the highest level – and I have evolved as a person, a teacher, and an artist as a result. We have done some groundbreaking work here and (although it is not very Canadian to say this, I will anyway) there is much to be proud of.

19/20 Ensemble Studio

Liz with the 2019/2020 Ensemble Studio

Photo credits (top to bottom): Chris Hutcheson; courtesy of Liz Upchurch; courtesy of Krisztina Szabo; courtesy of Liz Upchurch; Gaetz Photography

An outreach version of Music in the Afternoon concert information. Download it here.

Ludwig van Montréal reports that the WMCT 2015 CDA winner has been honoured twice by the Quebec industry association ADISQ, for his Analekta recordings of the Chopin Piano Concertos with the OSM and Kent Nagano, and for his album of Beethoven Piano Sonatas 6, 7, and 8 with violinist Andrew Wan.

Walter Homburger, who died on July 25, at the age of 95, was a Patron of the WMCT, and an Honorary Advisor to the WMCT Foundation.  He assisted his wife Emmy, a former president of the Club, in coordinating the Centennial Celebration Concert, whose financial success resulted in the establishment of the Foundation. The WMCT and Foundation community join in sending Emmy, and her family, our deepest sincere condolences.

Mr Homburger’s first years in Canada (1940-41) were spent in internment camps in Quebec and New Brunswick, together with other European Jewish refugees who later made unprecedented contributions to Canadian life.  Musicians in this group included musicologist Helmut Blume, violinist Hymn Bress, historian Helmut Kallmann, CBC producer Franz Kraemer, and pianist (often heard at the WMCT) John Newmark.

He began his professions, of brilliant orchestra manager, consultant, impresario and artist manager, by borrowing enough money to bring Lotte Lehmann for three lieder recitals in Eaton Auditorium in January 1947.  He promoted a succession of extraordinary artists (including Glenn Gould, Victor Braun, and Jan Rubes), and his term as managing director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1962-1987) set new standards.  He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1984.

In 1993 he came out of retirement to manage the developing career of WMCT Career Development Award winner James Ehnes. In 1999 to mark his 75th birthday Ehnes and Yo Yo Ma performed a recital at Roy Thomson Hall.  He was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2002 and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2010.

For further obituary notices see:

When Mariam Batsashvili performed for the WMCT in April, many patrons were interested in purchasing a CD – but she hadn’t released a disc yet! Well, the waiting is over, and the first piece on her Music in the Afternoon concert is also the first piece on her debut with Warner ClassicsBénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.

The project, described in this Globe & Mail article, involves a newly commissioned suite of piano quartets by 14 Canadian composers, each inspired by a particular region of Canada, a national concert tour throughout the 2018-2020 season, and a specially designed website that showcases audience-generated artwork inspired by the musical commission.

Violinist Elissa Lee won the WMCT U of T Entrance Scholarship in 1993; cellist Rachel Mercer won the first WMCT Centennial Scholarship in 1997, and pianist Angela Park won in 2000. EMIC performed for Music in the Afternoon on May 7, 2015.

President of the WMCT 2001-2005, and chair of the 110th anniversary season celebrations, Danuta Buczysnki has received the Lieutenant Governor’s Distinguished Service Award as a ROM volunteer.

The Lieutenant Governor’s Distinguished Service Award is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a ROM volunteer. Danuta Buczynski has been a dedicated ROM volunteer since 1987. Over the past 30 years she has immersed herself in the life of the Museum, both as a DMV member and a member of the ROM Board of Trustees. Danuta served as President of the ROM Reproductions Association, Co-Chair of the ROM Governance Committee, and participated in numerous other committees, including the Collections, Engagement and Research Committee, the Bishop White Committee, the Textile Committee, and the DMV’s Centennial Fundraising Committee. She is also a long-time Royal Patrons Circle member and Currelly Legacy Society member.

WMCT supported cellist Fiona Robson as a Chamber Music Institute Fellow of the 2019 Toronto Summer Music Academy. WMCT Archivist Susan Johnston (left) attended one of her reGENERATION concerts performances.  Fiona was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada in 2016.

L’Atelier Grigorian, supporters of the WMCT Tuning Your Mind pre-concert lectures, will be leaving Yorkville in mid-June, continuing only as an on-line business at grigorian.com

From the Facebook page: ” From now until mid-June, our entire stock will be on sale and everything must go. Since most of our stock is a single copy of each item, these will be our last copies of thousands of rare, popular and otherwise unavailable titles.”

Review by Joseph So published on Ludwig-van

Her master class at UHS

The day before her Music in the Afternoon recital, Mariam gave a master class for advanced piano students at Unionville High School for the Arts. She listened to three young performers, then offered guidance and advice. One of them wrote:

“Learning under the tutelage of a great pianist is always a pleasure, but my master class with the fantastic Mariam Batsashvilli was an entirely different experience altogether. Her deep understanding of music and effortless charm made for not only one of the best lessons I’ve ever received, but also one of the most enjoyable. Her insights about my piece, Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, were profound and unbelievably helpful, whilst being delivered lightheartedly with both humility and a great sense of humor. My gratitude to Ms. Batsashvilli for coming and offering her expertise and both the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto and the Arts Unionville program for offering me this incredible opportunity is ineffable; it is truly an experience that I won’t forget.​”

The class attended Walter Hall on April 4, and offered some feedback:

“I am beyond grateful to have been given this opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed the programme and the musical nuances that Mariam brought to life – it was as if the audience was part of the story woven in her music. Her interpretation of Liszt is awe-inspiring, expressive and sensitive. Combined with her technical brilliance, it made for an unforgettable concert. Thank you for this amazing experience!”

“I enjoyed Mariam’s expression for each piece she played. She was able to capture the mood and feeling of a character… it felt like she was telling a story in her pieces. Her technique was so effortless, clean and smooth, I really liked the soft trills and the crisp turns from the impeccable articulation she used.”

Students from Unionville H.S. and Cawthra Park Secondary School were in the overflow audience.