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Faculty tops in their field

(December 16, 1999, Gazette)

By Karen Shewbridge

Imaginary harmonies cleave to crystal melodies as the composer tries to capture the musical notes dancing through his mind. Students toting black gangster cases of all sizes fill the corridors as brightly-coloured tapestries of sound weave their way through the tiny cracks at the edges of practice room doors. This is a typical scene at the Memorial University School of Music.

Founded in 1975, the school has garnered a stellar reputation of excellence in performance and teaching in this province and across the country. Locally, the school is often referred to as a “jewel in the crown” of the university.

Dr. Maureen Volk is the outgoing director of the music school. She said part of the school’s success is due to the quality of its faculty.

“I think we’ve lucked out in being able to hire some really outstanding faculty. Because of our age it is also a young faculty so we have a lot of people who are really dynamic and keen about what they’re doing, getting themselves established, and getting out there and doing stuff.”
Many music faculty members are involved in professional projects. Paul Bendzsa and pianist Kristina Szutor both have a strong interest in new or contemporary music and have recorded CDs.

“They premiere a lot of new pieces and play some unusual 20th century works,” said Dr. Volk. “Kristina has played music where you play inside the piano, or prepared piano where you put things on the strings and it changes the sound of the instrument.”

Ms. Szutor recently recorded a solo CD for CBC, and earlier performed a selection on a CD of music from composer Michael Parker. Dr. Parker is a composer and Classics professor at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.

Paul Bendzsa plays classical and jazz clarinet and saxophone and has recorded at least one CD featuring a saxophone quintet where he plays with saxophonists from across the country. According to Dr. Volk, he was one of the first faculty members to record a CD.

Many professors concentrate on classical music. Violinist Dr. Nancy Dahn and pianist Tim Steeves display a more classical repertoire on their CD titled Duo Concertante.

Flutist Michelle Cheramy came first in the 1999 Canadian Concerto Competition sponsored by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s rESOund Festival of Contemporary Music. Ms. Cheramy claimed the first prize for her performance of Jacques Hétu’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. The prize was a $5,000 cash award and an invitation for a return engagement with the ESO.

A new voice professor in the music school is an accomplished professional performer in both opera and musical theatre. Caroline Schiller performed the principal role of Christine in Toronto’s stage hit Phantom of the Opera for almost two years.

Ethnomusicologist Kati Szego has received rave reviews for her cutting edge research in Hawaiian music. Musicologist Dr. Paul Rice transcribes old music scores for performance by orchestras internationally. Other music professors compose music.

Contemporary classical composer Dr. Clark Ross has recently won a Memorial University President’s Award for Outstanding Research. He has also received many commissions for his work, including several from the Newfoundland Arts Council and CBC. Kristina Szutor performs his Last Dance on her soon-to-be-released CD of solo piano music. CBC has recently commissioned him to compose a viola concerto for Rivka Golani and orchestra.

Unlike most music professors who choose music at the beginning of their university studies, Dr. Ross graduated with a humanities degree before he realized music was his passion.

“I was 20 and I thought you only live once and my burning ambition in life is to be a musician. All along I had been pleasing other people ... when what I really wanted was to be a musician.”

This passion for music in all its aspects is a strong component of the music school and is apparent when speaking with almost anyone connected with it. This is part of what makes the school and its instructors so successful.

Choosing the music path is not always easy. Dr. Ross did not begin formal music training at the University of Toronto until he had completed five years of rigorous study with composition instructor Dr. Sam Dolin at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Many of the music faculty members conduct groups of talented students at a myriad of performances throughout St. John’s and across Canada.

“When you have enough students, if you have enough flutists you can have a flute choir. We’ve had a trombone choir in the past and where there is repertoire for that combination and you have enough majors in that area, you can put together a good choir,” said Dr. Volk.

Dr. Donald Buell directs the trumpet choir, Dr. Nancy Dahn conducts the chamber orchestra, and Paul Bendzsa directs the jazz ensemble.

Dr. Douglas Dunsmore conducts the award-winning chamber choir. The choir has been chosen to perform at the biennial conference of the International Society of Music Education in Edmonton in July 2000. Prior to that they will be singing at the national conference of the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors.

Dr. Volk says during her time as director of the school she has seen a lot of support for the school from the community and from people within the university. Dr. Volk says she is looking forward to celebrating the music school’s 25th anniversary in 2000.

Celebrations will include concerts featuring alumni soloists. The gala event will take place on April 3 where Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner will perform a concert. Dr. Volk says the music school is sponsoring the concert by the tenor superstar who is now performing Wagnerian opera roles throughout the world, including a recent critically-acclaimed performance of Tristan in Tristan and Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Dr. Volk says one of the challenges facing the school in the future is developing a graduate program. There are 16 full-time and 10 part-time faculty members. She says it may be difficult to establish the program with the small school of 150 students but she is optimistic that, with such a talented assemblage, it will happen. It is only a matter of time.