Cellist Rachel Mercer: A Contemporary Classic

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Rachel Mercer (Photo by Jinwon Kim)

Rachel Mercer
(Photo by Jinwon Kim)

If you never expected to hear Petrach interpreted by Franz Liszt, then head straight to Harbourfront Centre tonight. Art of Time Ensemble’s season opens with The Poem/The Song, inspired by the intersection of poetry and music, and which unites literary and musical luminaries. And as with every Art of Time Ensemble production, we can anticipate this re-imagination of poetry and music, the intersection of classic with novel, to blend into an unexpected yet harmonious marriage of the arts–transformed.

So what can you expect? Some highlights of The Poem/The Song include

  • Governor-General Award winning author Margaret Atwood reading her Thriller Suite of poems, accompanied by a newly-commissioned work by Canadian composer Dan Parr
  • Pianist and Ensemble Artistic Director Andrew Burashko playing Franz Liszt’s “Three Petrarch Sonnets”
  • Soprano Carla Huhtanen performing “Apparition” by composer George Crumb, inspired by Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
  • Musical-Theatre star Thom Allison singing “Macavity” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats inspired by the poetry of T. S. Eliot
  • Singer Gregory Hoskins performing songs by Leonard Cohen, rearranged by Gavin Bryars, Bryden Baird and Jim McGrath

As befitting this arts- and talent-rich program, the evening will also feature some of Canada’s foremost classical musicians, including acclaimed, award-winning cellist Rachel Mercer, who in addition to her numerous concert appearances, also teaches chamber music at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. Rachel spoke with SesayArts about playing in The Poem/the Song, to what she attributes her continued success and where we can expect to hear her next. In our conversation, she reveals herself to be not only an accomplished performer but also a warm and relatable person–an ideal combination to make classical music relevant and appealing to budding artists and music lovers, alike.

1. You began cello lessons at the age of three, when many children are pushed toward the piano or ballet. Why the cello for you? Was it love at first lesson?

I’m told the son of a family friend who was a little older than me played, and I thought it was really cool (as much as cool goes across at age 3!). And apparently, as a little young perfectionist, I could NOT be coaxed into playing in my first lessons. Everything had to be good the first time. I had a wonderful teacher then in Edmonton (Diana Nuttall) though, and she managed to get me going!

2. What are your thoughts and feelings about being a member of the upcoming Art of Time Ensemble The Poem/The Song, which unites musical and literary giants?

Working with Art of Time is always kind of surreal, getting to collaborate with all of these artists who are all so special and amazing at what they do. The way Andrew [Burashko] melds the ideas, personalities, work, all of it coming out in this way– that is not only fascinating, but also entertaining–constantly amazes me.

Rachel playing (photo by David Leyes)

Rachel playing
(photo by David Leyes)

3. I just read an article by Malcolm Gladwell where he says that there is no such thing as innate talent. People become great through practice. The more you practice, the greater you become. Writer David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene disagrees, saying that some people, like certain athletes, are born naturally talented. To what do you attribute your excellence?

I don’t know about excellence, but I think I had a lucky combination of parents who knew music, who are hard-working and excel at what they do, who never pushed in any way, and I grew up nurtured and loving playing. I know how lucky I am to have that. There is lots of hard work and practice involved, but at least for me I think I’ve evolved to where I am today pretty organically and at my own pace.

4. What would you like people to know about you outside of your music?

That’s hard. Music is my life.

5. What is one thing you can’t live without?

Family and loved ones.

6. Who is the last person you shared a laugh with? Where were you?

In a rehearsal with old friends. I’m lucky to play with people where there is so much good will. We’re doing this because we love, need, have to.

7. The last word…

I recently acquired the loan of the 1769 Joannes Guillami Filius cello from the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank. I will have this gorgeous Spanish cello for 1 year. Lots of concerts [are] coming up (including an Art of Time tour with Madeleine Peyroux), but a particularly special one is my first time playing the legendary Elgar Concerto November 30 in Toronto with the Sneak Peek Orchestra.

News You Can Use

Who: Rachel Mercer

What: The Poem/The Song by Art of Time Ensemble

Where: Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 31 Queens Quay West, Toronto, ON

When: November 7 and 8, 2014

Fyi: rachelmercercellist.com

©2014 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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