Susan Dyer Knight is an extraordinary interview subject.
Lively, engaging and eminently quotable, she leans almost clear across the desk and holds your gaze as she drives home her thoughts with intensity and an almost unnerving eloquence.
Even the briefest encounter leaves you uplifted. There is little doubt in your mind as to why she has accomplished so much, so quickly and in spite of such odds.
The woman personifies passion.
It was this striking energy and presence, the stuff of legends in local music and education circles, that led her to form her internationally acclaimed Newfoundland Symphony Youth Choir (NSYC) in 1992.
The choir was intended as a one-time affair, an accompaniment to a performance by the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra. But with Knight at the helm, the project soon took on a life of its own.
This "singing community" has since undertaken three international tours. In 1994 they were chosen to perform at the World Conference of the International Society for Music Education (ISME) in Tampa, Florida. In 1996 they traveled southern England in the Voices Across the Atlantic Tour. And in 1999 the group performed at the prestigious International Choral SYMPAATTI in Finland.
They have performed throughout Quebec and Ottawa as part of a cultural exchange with La Choral des Enfants de la Rive-Sud of Montréal. They were chosen as one of 38 participants in the international choral festival in Powell River, British Columbia, in 1997. This year, they opened the Podium 2000 Conference of the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors (ACCC) and again attended ISME, both in Edmonton, Alberta.
The awards and accolades have followed. This year the NSYC were national finalists in the CBC Radio National Competition for Amateur Choirs. They have won the East Coast Music Association Award for Best Classical Recording, the Newfoundland and Labrador Cultural Tourism Award, the Matheison National Trophy and the Kiwanis Rose Bowl.
They also found time to record and release three critically acclaimed CDs (two more are in the offing).
A passionate pride of place But even with the success of her choir, Knight was unsure if staying in Newfoundland was a viable option. In 1994, with her children grown and her beloved parents no longer living, Knight and her husband, Dennis, found themselves contemplating their future.
They formed a think tank with a group of friends, and organized weekly chats to drum up ideas to inject new life into a province just beginning to feel the effects of a newly imposed cod moratorium.
"We decided that if we stayed, we'd stay with a vengeance," says Knight.
And so she spearheaded the concept of Festival 500 Sharing the Voices, a recurring international choral festival and symposium. She envisioned it not only as a choral showcase, but also as a tool to "promote the place for spin-off effects for tourism and investments," by attracting visitors who wouldn't otherwise come to Newfoundland. It became a hallmark of the Cabot 500 celebrations, opened by Queen Elizabeth II and attracting 1,200 choral delegates from 12 countries. It also won the Outstanding Choral Event for 1997 from the Association of Choral Conductors.
In July 1999 Festival 500 again welcomed international choirs, conductors, scholars, and choral enthusiasts to its festival and symposium. It is now established as a biennial event. "It would have to be something pretty devastating that would make me not stay here til the end of my days, working until the last minute I could work," Knight decided.
She has been true to her word, working tirelessly to put Newfoundland on the international music map.
Educator, ambassador, advocate In 1995 Knight initiated a precedent-setting cultural exchange which brought Professor Erkki Pohjola of Finland, the leading global expert in youth choirs to St. John's for a month with the NSYC. The model has since been adopted in Australia, following Knight's visit there to the World Symposium for Choral Educators.
In 1996, she introduced a course, "I Have Always Wanted to Sing," to a class of adults for Memorial University's School of Continuing Education, boosting the confidence and skill of aspiring vocalists of all ages and skill levels. It was so well received that it will be a regular feature of future Festival 500 events.
This year she unveiled the Full Circle Youth Project, a work composed by Stephen Hatfield to honour the Viking landfall. It was performed in St. John's and L'Anse aux Meadows, and featured the NSYC, an Icelandic choir and the S'et A'newey Mi'kmaq Choir from Conne River.
Currently in the works is "Making Waves," a satellite-linked performance with English and Newfoundland choirs to celebrate the Marconi anniversary. She is also commissioning ideas for a cultural project involving Iceland, Ireland and Newfoundland, as well as campaigning to secure funds to bring a resident composer on board for the NSYC.
She has a passion for research, and hopes to "forge a bridge between research and practice" in the field of music. She continues to teach and lead school choirs at St. Mary's School in St. John's. And somehow she is finding time to work on her doctorate from Roehampton Institute, London, U.K.
A Voice for the generations In conversation, Knight is at her most vibrant, her most alive, when asked what it is that motivates her to invest so much of her life into her teaching, her choirs and her numerous side projects.
"I am a person of this place, " she proclaims, her hand at her heart. It is a refrain that pops up again and again as she speaks, a refrain that, for Knight, handily dispels any question of how or why she does what she does.
She becomes emotional as she recalls growing up in a house full of Newfoundland history, how her father taught her all four verses of The Ode to Newfoundland as he walked her around the circular driveway of their summer home.
She grows heated when attacking the recent dismantling of regional television programming across the nation, an insult and a threat, as she sees it, to the very essence of Canada and of Newfoundland.
She positively beams when discussing the accomplishments of the NSYC, which, she is the first to admit, is "a tour de force, one of the finest youth choirs in the world."
And she vows to do "anything that I can do to ensure the valuing of this place in its own people and beyond here, to make sure that it's here for other generations."
Memories of MemorialFor Susan Knight, a big part of "this place" involves her connection to Memorial University of Newfoundland. Even with a decade's worth of accolades already behind her, being named the first Alumna of the Year of the new millennium seems to hold a special resonance for this fiery, personable 54-year-old.
She candidly admits to being "bowled over" and "a little bit overwhelmed" at the honour, in part, perhaps, because her own ties to the institution are so strong.
Husband Dennis is also a graduate of Memorial, and Knight credits the school with allowing him to become "the first university graduate in his family's history". Her brother Gwynne Dyer, a noted journalist and historian, was himself a Memorial Alumnus of the Year, in 1984.
Knight's years at the School of Music were not easy ones. At the time, she was a young mother of two small children and could pursue her degree only two or three courses at a time. Then, when her mother became ill with cancer, it seemed likely that she might have to abandon her studies altogether.
But the faculty, staff and her fellow students made "all sorts of arrangements" to help her through the rough patch, and she ultimately graduated with two University Medals for Academic Excellence - in music and music education.
Memorial has also been "wonderfully supportive in any endeavor" she has undertaken since.
In fact, to hear Susan Dyer Knight tell it, Newfoundland and Memorial are often synonymous for "home." And home is her greatest passion of all.
© Copyright 2002 Memorial University of Newfoundland