Music For A While with Lisette Canton:
ATMA chats with musicians about their lives in the time of coronavirus.
Part of our ongoing series of interviews with musicians during the pandemic: a conversation with choral conductor and artistic director of the Ottawa Bach Choir, Lisette Canton. The choir’s most recent ATMA recording Handel, Bach et Schütz won a 2020 JUNO Award for Classical Album of the Year – Vocal or Choral Performance, and was named Outstanding Choral Recording at the 2020 National Choral Awards. We spoke to Lisette Canton in early June 2020.
1. What was your last live public performance before the lockdown began?
My last public performance was on Saturday, March 7, with the Ottawa Bach Choir (OBC). We performed The Genius of Josquin, and were preparing to go to the JUNO 2020 Awards later that week; the OBC was nominated for Best Album of the Year in the Vocal or Choral category for our album, Handel Dixit Dominus; Bach & Schütz Motets, on the ATMA label. The lockdown occurred while several of us were already en route or preparing to leave for Saskatoon. After that, it was just a cascade of cancellations – our May pre-tour concert had to be cancelled because our tour to Bachfest Leipzig and Bach Pilgrimage Tour in Germany was cancelled in June – but thankfully only postponed to 2022. We were also supposed to perform in China at the China International Chorus Festival in July, but that, of course, was cancelled as well. After receiving so much good news in 2020 and looking forward to so many wonderful upcoming tours and performances, this situation has just been devastating.
2. How has your daily routine changed during the pandemic?
I was paralyzed for the first part of the lockdown, hoping that things would be able to resume fairly quickly afterwards. When it became clear that this wasn’t going to be resolved as easily as we all had hoped, the OBC began to produce a number of virtual videos, initially at Bachfest Leipzig’s request as we were asked to sing in their Good Friday performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. After that, we began producing various virtual videos (and continue to do so), some of which have been sent by our Governor General to frontline healthcare workers across the nation and Canadian embassies worldwide in order to provide comfort and strength. These videos have allowed the choir to continue to make music together, just in a different way. Like everyone, however, my normal day-to-day activities have changed quite drastically, but I am doing my best to maintain a positive mindset.
3. What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of this new reality?
It’s been extremely difficult to have to refrain from music-making in person, and to find creative ways to support colleagues during this difficult time. I also normally travel quite a lot and have been going a bit stir-crazy having to stay put in one place! In addition, it’s been frustrating finding reliable information on how and when we might be able to resume our work. This applies not only to professional performance, but also to teaching. As Head of Choral Music at York University, I have had to conceive of new ways to deliver choral ensembles and conducting courses online for the Fall term. On the other hand, the lockdown has given me time to step back from my normally very busy schedule, renew close relationships and consider alternative ways of implementing a new vision.
4. How have you been keeping busy since live concerts were suspended?
Once it became clear that a lot of what we do as ensembles would have to be moved online, at least in the short term, I went into high gear in updating and preparing for this new way of performance and dissemination. I think we’ve all had to quickly become adept at learning to use the breadth of available technology to assimilate into the digital world. It’s been a big learning curve, but one at which I’ve gradually been improving. I have also been planning future projects under various scenarios for when we will be able to resume normal operations. It’s been challenging to stay as active I used to be before the lockdown – I moved my workout routine online and have been practicing piano and voice, as well as cooking and reading quite a bit.
5. What music do you find yourself turning to most frequently since the pandemic hit?
I have always turned to Bach at various points in my life as his music meets us on so many different levels – musically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. His music has also provided much comfort and peace at this difficult time. And with all of our pre-tour preparations, we had so much Bach that we were getting ready to perform on tour! But I’ve also turned to a lot of other Baroque music performed by various colleagues to help support them and to provide a sense of clarity during this chaotic time.
6. Have there been any silver linings/unexpected benefits for you resulting from this time in isolation?
In trying to get a sense of how to move forward, I’ve had so many Zoom meetings with colleagues from around Canada and the world! It’s been fantastic to stay in touch and also meet new friends, too! I have felt a real sense of community since we are all in the same boat, so to speak. We have had to navigate some very murky waters as a unified voice, providing leadership especially in the Canadian choral world. I hope this continues even as we come out of the initial stage of the pandemic! The OBC was also gifted with an award from Choral Canada for Outstanding Choral Recording of 2020 for our same JUNO-nominated album, which really helped to lift our spirits!
7. Any words of advice as we try to get through this?
I’ve gone through a roller coaster ride of emotions during this challenging time, but have tried to maintain an overwhelming sense of hope and optimism – and love of what I do – as guiding principles in moving forward. Also, I’ve attempted to read everything I can on the pandemic, from several countries and in as many languages as possible, which has helped me to understand its impact on the arts and what other countries and organizations are doing to move out of it. I hope that as we emerge from this, we’ll be stronger, more resilient and supportive of each other as a result.
Luisa Trisi, Big Picture Communications