Cellist Rachel Mercer ends March plugged into “some universal vibration”

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

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

Rachel Mercer (photo by David Leyes)

Canadian Music Centre (CMC) presents cellist Rachel Mercer in a solo recital of all-Canadian music for cello and electronics. And this recital comes with a built-in conundrum. . . is it a solo if it includes a duet with herself?

Putting aside this mystery for a moment, the innovative combination of cello and electronics is a great reason to experience one of Canada’s foremost cellists. Ms Mercer plays in chamber groups of various sizes — among them the Mercer-Park Duo, AYR Trio and Ensemble Made In Canada — and she is Principal Cello of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (which performs at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall this week). Most know her as a classical musician…so does the addition of “electronics” imply that we should expect an Andrew Bird-like concert, complete with gadgets, boxes and pedals?

Not quite, explains Ms Mercer: “There will be a pre-recorded track heard through the sound system, with which I will be playing.” Sometimes the track starts before she plays, sometimes simultaneously, and sometimes at a select point during her playing. All this is “a strange kind of chamber music with one-sided interaction, all dreamed up by the composer!” she smiles.  Every piece is different, and so is the way she plays along with it. “Some parts are strictly written, and I have to make sure I stay with it – which can be very hard if there is silence or no markers on the track for a while — after all, adrenaline or just a different day can make me play at very different speeds!” Other parts allow considerable freedom, so she can immerse herself in the moment, interacting with the sounds that she hears. So yes, she is playing along . . . but Ms Mercer is neither accompanying nor being accompanied.

CMC concert attendees will experience the debut of this program, which includes works by Hunter Coblentz, Andrew Staniland and JUNO Award-winning composer Vivian Fung. Last November, Ms Mercer performed Ms Fung’s composition “Humanoid” at its West Coast premiere as part of a “consortium commission”, where the various artists and organizations that contributed toward the commission each premiered it in different parts of North America. “It was really the seed that grew this [CMC] program!” she enthuses. In “Humanoid”, Ms Fung explores the contemporary idea of man (or woman!) vs. machine/robot. In it, we hear “a baby’s voice, as well as rock-style drumming that lets me rock out!” enthuses Ms Mercer. “It also includes some really surreal-sounding floating moments where I can be free to soar over the track . . . which means every performance is different!” This concert will mark its Ontario premiere, with the Ottawa premiere set for WolfGANG: Session 11 on April 7.

Vivian Fung (photo by Charles Boudreau)

Prior to this, Ms Mercer will perform another piece by Ms Fung with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Earworms, commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Ms Mercer categorizes Ms Fung’s music as original and bold: “while it is definitely in her own personal language and aesthetic, Vivian’s music has wide appeal, and she is not afraid of using popular culture influences in her work.” The NACO, conducted by Music Director Alexander Shelley, will debut the world premiere of Earworms on March 22 and 23 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and on March 24 at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. A press release from the National Arts Centre describes Ms Fung’s new work as “fascinating and whimsical … inspired by the phenomenon of earworms – pieces of music that, for whatever reason, get stuck in your head.” According to Ms Fung, the piece reflects a world “in which music, sounds and media permeate our lives throughout their day.” Recurring phrases in the work include portions of Ravel’s La Valse, “The Wheels on the Bus” (a current earworm of Ms Fung’s 3-year-old son), and music from Lady Gaga!

The remainder of her CMC solo recital includes diverse pieces that Ms Mercer has come upon – or which have come to her – by various means. For instance, she performs a piece for cello duo which cellist and composer Hunter Coblentz composed for her, and which was released on her Naxos Canadian Classics album Sounds of Our Time.  Here is the answer to our conundrum: Ms Mercer has recorded one of the cello parts as the accompanying track . . . according her the unusual opportunity to play along with herself! “Melodrama and Flight” is by Philip McConnell (cello part) and Dennis Patrick (track) and came to Ms Mercer as a personal request. “Dennis is part of the U of T faculty and has been a huge support since I was a student there, giving me opportunities, as well as recording me a few times now. He and Philip approached me with this piece, and I was honoured to play it.”

Rebekah Cummings‘ “Forget” came to Ms Mercer in a similar fashion. “I happened to be in touch with Rebekah about a future commission, and found she has this piece ‘Forget’. I listened to her Soundcloud recording, and thought it would be a great addition!” Finally, she has worked with Andrew Staniland in various settings over the past few years, and he informed her about his piano trio “Still Turning” at the serendipitous time that she herself was looking into it as a possible addition!” Staniland wrote it for the great contemporary cellist Frances Marie-Utti – whose speciality is playing simultaneously with 2 bows. “Luckily,” she quips, “he rewrote the score, so us lowly 1-bow cellists can play it!”

Finally, two days after her CMC concert, Ms Mercer will be in Hamilton performing in the 5 at the First String Extravaganza VII, a “fun concert we’ve had going for 7 of our 8 seasons”, and which has become one of the best-attended concerts of the series. This is a sextet of old friends and colleagues who have known each for years. “We joke that we have the most relaxed rehearsals ever – but it’s true! There’s a huge amount of trust and good will, and it seems that our audience feels that and love it.” This year’s Extravaganza features Alastair Eng playing in place of regular cellist Rachel Desoer. Since Alastair is an old friend and colleague to all, it still feels “all in the family”! Ms Mercer delights in the series’ growing fanbase, with new people coming each year who “always seem to want to come back!”

Ms Mercer has long championed Canadian works, so each concert of the 5 at the First Chamber Music Series (of which she is Artistic Director) features at least one Canadian piece. And her award-winning quartet Ensemble Made in Canada will embark on the ambitious Mosaïque Project next season: a cross-Canada tour featuring commissions by 14 Canadian composers, as well as a website featuring original Canadian artwork by audience members. By design, her solo recital at CMC allows Ms Mercer to cultivate the creation of new music — especially by Canadian composers — for the entire program.

Cellist Rachel Mercer (photo by Nikki Wesley)

Typically, Ms Mercer’s commissions spring from the connection she feels with a composer’s music, which sparks the desire to request something specific. Then comes the practical matter of funding it . . . “Because I can’t understand at all how these incredible creators get their ideas and create this amazing pieces, I don’t think they can ever be paid enough! How does one put a price on that? A piece that will last forever?” she muses. “Sometimes I’ve been offered pieces, sometimes I’ve received grants, and sometimes I’ve been in a position to fund a work myself.” Each commission is negotiated to cover performance or recording exclusivity, as well as dedication and possibly publishing. “And this may sound cheesy,” she adds, “but to me, as a performer, as a person who doesn’t have kids, I feel that music is what I’m leaving in the world. And what better way than supporting new works that will hopefully live long lives?”

CMC is a significant contributor to this legacy. The organization is run by a small number of people who do the valuable work of supporting many artists. “It is amazing to have this national library of thousands of Canadian works, in print, digitally and in recording, plus a recording label, so available.” She is emphatic in her gratitude for the CMC’s ongoing personal support, which ranges from advice to active financial and artistic support for projects.

So clearly, the final week of March will be jam-packed for Ms Mercer. But she is not fazed, instead looking forward to incandescent moments when she can be one with her music. In the Strings Extravaganza, one such moment will be the Arensky Quartet for 2 cellos which has long been a “bucket list piece”. And in her CMC Presents recital, she anticipates “free-floating with the track, as well as if I manage to totally sync up with a driving rhythmic part of the track – both will feed that addictive feeling in performance of tapping into some universal vibration and magic of the moment where time and self disappears…!”

This week alone, we have multiple opportunities to tap into that vibration with Ms Mercer. Let’s all disappear!

News You Can Use

What: CMC Presents: Rachel Mercer
When: March 29, 2018, 5:30 PM
Where: Canadian Music Centre, 20 St. Joseph St, Toronto, ON M4Y 1J9
Info and Tickets: musiccentre.ca

What: Strings Extravaganza VII, part of the 5 at the First Chamber Music Series; featuring Yehonatan Berick & Csaba Koczo, violin; Caitlin Boyle & Theresa Rudolph, viola; Alastair Eng & Rachel Mercer, cello
When: March 31, 2018, 3 PM
Where: 170 Dundurn St S, Hamilton, ON L8P 4K3
Info and Tickets: 5atthefirst.com and universe.com

What: WolfGANG: Session 11, with members of the NACO: Carissa Klopoushak (violin); Paul Casey (viola); Rachel Mercer (cello), Julia MacLaine (cello), Joanna G’froerer (flute), Anna Petersen (oboe / English horn), Sean Rice (clarinet)
When: April 7, 2018, 8:00 PM
Where: Mercury Lounge, 55 Byward Market Square, Ottawa, ON
Info and Tickets: nac-cna.ca

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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