emma lancaster

Engineering’s loss is music’s gain

Photo: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Photo: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Kathleen Allan (BMus ‘11) talks about her love of singing, conducting, and writing music; the three-headed monster that is her career; and her return to the West Coast.
 

By Emma Lancaster

Math and science whiz Kathleen Allan was anticipating a career in engineering when she stumbled across the composition program at the UBC School of Music. “I had all but accepted a full scholarship to Waterloo for electrical engineering,” she says, but decided to apply to UBC and “get music out of my system for four years. Yeah… That didn’t work at all.” The busy grad is an in-demand singer, conductor, and composer, with a growing reputation throughout North America.

“UBC was fantastic, in that it allowed me the flexibility to do a lot of different things.” Bruce Pullan was an early choral mentor, and when he retired Graeme Langager proved a wonderful teacher and mentor. Studying composition with Stephen Chatman, whose music Allan performed growing up in Newfoundland, was very exciting for her. Later, Dorothy Chang supervised her first orchestral compositions. “It was a place that allowed me to do it all. It really gave me the platform to do what I wanted to do,” she says.

After UBC, she attended Yale University for her MMus in Conducting, and then relocated to Toronto, where she was managing a busy career. But then she got a call from the Vancouver Academy of Music with a unique opportunity: the position of Director of Choral Studies and Associate Conductor of Orchestras. Allan jumped at the chance to run the new, privately endowed choral program. “I’m really looking forward to having a set of ensembles of my own, to working on creating my sound as a conductor with the same group on a regular basis; really exploring that relationship,” she enthused.

In addition to her duties at the Academy, Allan maintains a thriving career as a soloist and choral singer, and manages numerous commissions as a composer. “It sort of works itself out,” she says of balancing singing, writing, and conducting. “I enjoy all three, and I feel that each provides a respite from and informs the other. When I conduct I like to put myself in the composer’s shoes and think about why the composer may have written certain things, and likewise as a conductor and singer I get to study all these incredible works that have been written and allow that to influence, either subconsciously or consciously, the works that I compose.”

Upcoming for Allan is the premiere of a piece by the Vancouver Cantata Singers, commissioned by Redshift Music. This concert takes place at the Planetarium, which Allan is very excited about. “They’ll actually fire up the projectors and have an exploration of outer space during the concert in the observatory. The theme of the concert is otherworldly ideas, and my piece is a setting of the Ave Maris Stella, which is a very ancient Latin prayer. It is based on the chant melody and is written in six parts, so the choir will ideally be spread around the auditorium and surrounding the audience. I think it will be really cool.”

Allan will not be able to attend the concert, as it is during her tenure as Apprentice Conductor with the National Youth Choir in May. She is also off to Austin, Texas with Arkora, the new music ensemble she co-directs with her husband Benton Roark (DMA’13). Allan is also conducting her first full length opera, The Barber of Seville, and serving as Assistant Conductor of the Bach Choir. She is busy, and she would not have it any other way.

Music is the furnace of your being

Photo: Brian Hawkes

Photo: Brian Hawkes

High Notes talks to Dr. Richard Kurth, Director of UBC School of Music, about music, music education, and society at large.
 

By Emma Lancaster

In a world where technology and science are moving forward at an incredible pace, and education is increasingly focused on employment skills, studying music can seem like an anachronistic choice. But not for Richard Kurth. “For me, the definition of music would be: coordinating the body, the mind, the imagination and expression into a single activity that can draw on all of them. That’s why we love music. We are charging our whole being–physically, intellectually, emotionally–using music as a way of getting everything fired up as intensely as possible. Music is like the furnace of your being.”

The way our culture experiences music has definitely been affected by technology-driven changes. “It’s actually hard to grasp how much the whole musical culture has changed in the last few decades. In many ways the changes are extraordinarily positive because we have now access to much more music and a greater diversity of musical traditions than we ever had, or could have had, in the past,” he says. “We have music of other cultures available to us; we can revisit the music of the past with a few keystrokes. Music used to be very hard to acquire, now it’s easy.”

That ease of acquisition paradoxically makes Kurth uneasy. “In the past, music was something you did, by singing or playing. Now for many people it’s something you own.” That slippery slope inspires Kurth in his work at UBC. “I think it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that music remains a participatory culture–not just something we surround ourselves with, but something we do.” He includes running to music, dancing to it, playing a guitar alone, and listening to great jazz in a club as ways that people can engage actively and keep their own furnace burning, in addition to the obvious activities of performing and studying that take place at the School.

Students of all faculties can reap the benefits of this participatory philosophy. Ensembles from the UBC African, Balinese, and Korean music ensembles to the many choirs, jazz ensembles, orchestra, and others are open to students from outside the School of Music. And there are almost daily opportunities for the public to hear students and faculty perform.

“We want the school to be diverse in terms of where people are coming from; and diverse in the types of music that we make–music of different cultures, but also music from all of the long and multicultural Western tradition as diversely as possible, across history and cultural geography; because all the countless forms of music are different manifestations of human experience, and we learn from them all,” he says.

Despite, or perhaps because of this diversity, Kurth celebrates the School’s unity of purpose and dedicated teachers. “We all want to listen really closely to what we’re hearing, no matter what kind of music it may be. We all believe that music is very deep in nuance; we engage by contemplating it, and focusing on it, imagining it anew, and performing it.”

Music surrounds us in contemporary culture, and Kurth sees contemporary talent shows like American Idol as important in that they are very public–they make people excited to see the process and hard work behind every performance. He’s hopeful that the individual stardom these types of shows celebrate is secondary to the sharing of music that’s the backbone of his own philosophy. “It’s got to be for everybody. Young people who are training to be artists need to focus on acquiring skills and confidence to be ready to get up on stage; but once they’re there, it has to be to give to other people. It can’t be only about the performer–it’s got to be for everybody else. Talent is called a gift, because you are called to share it.”

The concert experience is also an opportunity for participation. “When our students perform on stage, they’re demonstrating their commitment. They’re showing human nature in one of its really productive and positive forms. Going to concerts should give you a feeling, as a listener, that you’ve participated with others in something really exciting and moving, a celebration of creative energy and human spirit. And you listen better at a concert because other people are listening with you.”

As listeners, our personal experiences of music are constantly changing or filling in; allowing us to see the same world in a different light, or reinterpret familiar knowledge. As we re-experience favourite pieces or hear new ones, our world grows richer and more nuanced, and our creative fires are kept stoked. Kurth believes that’s an opportunity that music and all the arts afford us. “They nourish us,” he says simply.