Turning Point Ensemble on Thirst, community, and the business of making a living in music

Jeremy Berkman. Photo: UBC Music

Jeremy Berkman. Photo: UBC Music

When trombonist and School of Music lecturer Jeremy Berkman formed Turning Point Ensemble (TPE) with a group of like-minded musicians in 2002, their ambition was to raise the profile of the music they loved.

“We were all busy in our lives professionally, but we were rarely being engaged to perform music of the 20th century that we thought important to play,” Berkman says.

As a large, nontraditional chamber orchestra dedicated to performing new and underappreciated works by the likes of Luciano Berio, Barbara Pentland, and Paul Hindemith, they knew that passion alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain them. They needed to take an entrepreneurial approach to their project.

“What's very important to realize as a student of musical performance,” Berkman says, “is that you are not only a potential employee, but also a future employer and entrepreneur and can create the work you wish for. That's what we did — we developed a business plan, attracted a Board of Directors, and created an organization that would support the musical activity we wished to engage in.”

Their approach has led to big things. The ensemble, whose members have included UBC faculty Brenda Fedoruk (flute), Vern Griffiths (percussion), Benjamin Kinsman (horn), Heidi Krutzen (harp), and Jim Littleford (trumpet) has released four albums, scored films and multimedia projects, and been recognized with a number of awards.

TPE's fourth album, Thirst, has been nominated for a Juno Award (Classical Composition of the Year). Image: Redshift Records

TPE's fourth album, Thirst, has been nominated for a Juno Award (Classical Composition of the Year). Image: Redshift Records

This year, TPE is nominated for a Juno Award (Classical Composition of the Year) for their recording of Ana Sokolović’s “And I need a room to receive five thousand people with raised glasses…or…what a glorious day, the birds are singing ‘halleluia.’” The song appears on the ensemble’s new album Thirst, a collaboration with the vocal chamber group musica intima and several different composers, released by Redshift Records.

“The success we've achieved has been beyond expectations — and yet what we had hoped for,” Berkman says.

Along the way TPE has helped build a community of musicians and collaborators across disciplines: “If musicians can be their best selves, I believe they are community service workers, enriching their resident community and by expansion, the community of listeners… making music that takes us as participants and listeners on a journey where we feel differently and more connected at the end,” he says.   

TPE is an ensemble-in-residence at the UBC School of Music, and in that role Berkman hopes to create “unique opportunities for UBC students as well as for TPE players to be part of the special UBC musical community. I welcome any input from readers as what they would like that to look like!”

JEREMY BERKMAN Q & A

How and when did Turning Point Ensemble form? There’s a strong UBC connection, isn’t there?

Turning Point Ensemble was formed by its musician members in 2002 with a curatorial mandate. We were all busy in our lives professionally, but we were rarely being engaged to perform music of the 20th century that we thought important to play. What's very important to realize as a student of musical performance is that you are not only a potential employee, but also a future employer and entrepreneur and can create the work you wish for. 

That's what we did — we developed a business plan, attracted a Board of Directors (an early President of our Board was Dr. Kurth [Director of UBC School of Music]!), and created an organization that would support the musical activity we wished to engage in, and help fill what we felt was a gap in the musical offerings in Vancouver. The success we've achieved has been beyond expectations — and yet what we had hoped for. 

 

 
 

"As a student of musical performance... you are not only a potential employee, but also a future employer and entrepreneur"

– Jeremy Berkman

 
 

Many of the TPE instrumentalists teach at UBC, so early on we asked whether we could develop a relationship with UBC as an Ensemble in Residence. Though TPE has held this title, what it means is frankly still under discussion, and as the Director of Education and Community Engagement (and a trombone instructor at UBC) I am hoping to move that discussion along in the next couple years to craft a partnership with UBC that is vital, that provides unique opportunities for UBC students as well as for TPE players to be part of the special UBC musical community. I welcome any input from readers as what they would like that to look like!

Your latest album, Thirst, is a collaboration with the choral group musica intima and two composers, Julia Wolfe and Ana Sokolović. How did the project come together?

Turning Point Ensemble is a chamber orchestra in a sense, but with one instrument on a part, we strive for a chamber music sensibility, which really means a different relationship with our conductor than might be traditional in a [more traditional] orchestral culture.  

A model for us early on was musica intima, a conductorless chamber vocal ensemble, and it only took us — what, 12 years? — to collaborate on a project! But we had talked about it for a while,  but it was the artistic management of the Chan Centre that actually inspired the realization of our desired collaboration when they were planning to host a series of "new music" concerts and asked three ensembles who had performed there to develop the programming — musica intima, Turning Point, and Nu:BC

The Telus Studio Theatre at the Chan Centre is a fantastic venue for music-making, and so when we imagined our concert, we began to also ponder how we could create a legacy of our collaboration. Ana Sokolović had composed an amazing piece for us, and musica intima asked her to revise a great vocal piece of hers, “Dring, dring...” We added a solo cello piece to almost create an entire program of Ana's wonderful music. But, wanting to share in the making of this album (a pretty innovative collaboration for a co-produced album of a professional choir andchamber orchestra), we decided we also wanted to include composer Julia Wolfe's “Thirst” — the title cut, so to speak.

Now who to produce it?  One of our favourite, award-winning producers, Karen Wilson, lives in Vancouver — she’s a UBC alumna — so we engaged her, and clearly she and engineer Will Howie worked their magic on the recorded sound, putting the music on the Juno radar.

Thirst has the fingerprints of UBC faculty and alumni all over the album, from the musicians to the producer and recording engineer. Can you talk about the role community plays in a project like this one?

 If musicians can be their best selves, I believe they are community service workers, enriching their resident community and by expansion, the community of listeners, with realizations of examples of what humanity does at its best — making music that takes us as participants and listeners on a journey where we feel differently and more connected at the end. That can't be done or effective without a supportive and welcoming community. In the case of this project,  a diverse set of stakeholders that share a desire to join forces to build something none of us could do ourselves alone. 

With that in mind, the communities we worked with on this project — composers, instrumentalists, vocalists, organization administrators, educators, record company managers, venue staff, government and foundation and individual financial supporters (Thirst could not have happened without support from the British Columbia Arts Council and the Chan and Martha Lou Henley Charitable Foundations) — all made it easier.

There's a great saying that it's amazing how much can get done if it doesn't matter who gets the credit — [Thirst] is yet another example of that saying's wisdom.

 What’s next for Turning Point?

 The ensemble will be performing two concerts as part of the Coastal Jazz and Blues Festival in late June. We're thrilled to perform music for a chamber orchestra informed by the language of jazz with premieres of new compositions, and a revised composition from Turning Point Ensemble clarinetist, Francois Houle. More information on these performances are on our website.

Turning Point is also heavily involved in educational programming, leading composition residencies in Surrey at L.A. Matheson Secondary, and this summer in Smithers, B.C., as part of Orchestra North and the Spirit of the North Festivals.
 

Banner photo: Chris Randle