Susie Napper is one of a handful of people who put Montréal on the map as an internationally recognized centre of musical excellence, in particular for early music. Add to this her imagination, sense of humour and entrepreneurial flair, and you have a recipe for a musical dynamo.
Cellist, gambist, and continuo player par excellence, Susie is among the world’s very best performers on the viola da gamba – a 17th-century instrument that superficially resembles the cello, but shares many characteristics with the guitar including its tuning, frets and number of strings. The viola da gamba can be bowed or strummed, and is known for its expressive range and plaintive, poignant sound.
Susie grew up in London in an artistic milieu and traces her life-long love affair with the viola da gamba back to her childhood, when she would accompany her parents to annual performances of Bach’s St. Mathew Passion during which she heard the inspiring viola da gamba obbligato. However, it was not until many years later that she inherited a beautiful old bass viol and immediately learned to play it. In the meantime she had left London to study in New York at the Julliard School of Music. Subsequent studies took her to the Paris Conservatoire, after which she moved to San Francisco where she co-founded and directed the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
Fast-forward to 1985, when together with her duo partner Margaret Little, Susie formed Les Voix humaines. A decade later, the duo became the first ensemble to be recorded on the newly-minted ATMA Classique label. Today Les Voix humaines expands from gamba duo to viol consort to mixed-instrument ensemble. They have toured all over the world and have more than 30 critically acclaimed recordings to their credit.
In 2002 Susie was named “Personality of the Year” by the Conseil Québecois de la Musique, and in 2003 found an ambitious creative outlet for her entrepreneurial spirit when she inaugurated Montréal Baroque, an annual festival that presents concerts by local and international musicians in innovative settings — ranging from manor houses to church crypts — in Old Montréal.
Susie’s latest coup involves giving a new voice to a set of 17th-century instruments known as the Hart House viols. This important collection was acquired in 1929 by Vincent Massey and was hidden from public view at the University of Toronto’s Hart House. Though the instruments were finally put on display in 1996, they had seldom been played together and fell into disrepair. In 2008 Susie organized the restoration to playing condition of all six instruments, and proposed the idea of a recording to ATMA president Johanne Goyette. The result is the first CD recording of the historic viols with Les Voix humaines performing Henry Purcell’s astonishingly beautiful Fantasias. After decades of silence for several instruments in the collection, Susie brought the sound of these viols back to life for contemporary listeners.
Anyone trolling the early music blogosphere will discover another endearing side of Susie: she is a master chef and baker. She has been known to turn up at recording sessions and rehearsals with cakes, cookies and other delicacies prepared for fellow musicians. Her culinary treats are also offered to journalists lucky enough to visit her at her home in downtown Montréal, and occasionally, even for audiences at her concerts.
Scottish keyboard player David McGuiness of Concerto Caledonia summed it up on his blog post about the ensemble’s 2004 visit to Montréal Baroque: “Chris, David G and I are staying in the ‘coach house’ at the back of Susie Napper’s house, so for the last couple of days we’ve only had to walk across the courtyard to get to rehearsals, stopping only to pick up wonderful home baking on the way through the kitchen. How does Susie have the energy to run a festival, play in several of its concerts, and still get up early to bake? Incredible.”
Incredible indeed. But Susie is philosophical about it, and draws a parallel between the kitchen and the concert hall: “Like music, good food takes time to prepare and is best shared with other people. Each communal experience is unique and passes by in matter of minutes, but the best ones are remembered for a lifetime.”
By Luisa Trisi