Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
That adage “the family that plays together, stays together” certainly holds true of the Mercer sisters. Cellist Rachel Mercer and violinist Akemi Mercer-Niewöhner live an ocean apart: Mercer is a Principal Cello of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and one quarter of Ensemble Made in Canada, and younger sister Mercer-Niewöhner is Assistant Principal Second Violin of the hr-Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt. But on April 13, they will raise their bows together once again at a 5 at the First chamber music concert, which, as it happens, is where they performed some of their first concerts as a duo. “That is how the series actually started!” Mercer enthuses. Reunited, the Mercer Duo will perform “Music of Canadian Women,” a program featuring the compositions of six Canadian women.
In keeping with Mercer’s mandate to promote and perform works by contemporary Canadian composers, the program will include the world premieres of several new commissions: “Our Strength, Our Song” by Rebekah Cummings, “Serpentine Paths” by Jocelyn Morlock and “Kagura Fantasy” by Alice Ho. Violet Archer’s “Four Duos for violin and cello”, Jean Coulthard’s “Sonata for violin and cello”, and Barbara Monk Feldman’s “Pour un nuage violet” round out the varied program.
In exploring violin/cello duo repertoire with a focus on Canadian works, Mercer came upon pieces by the first really well-known Canadian woman composers Violet Archer and Jean Coulthard. “It turns out they had barely been played!” Mercer marvels. She found one more by a living composer, Barbara Monk Feldman, before deciding that she wanted to commission some pieces. Having played several pieces by Jocelyn Morlock, Mercer knew she wanted to work with her. And having previously worked with Alice Ho, she felt confident that Ho would compose something “exciting and specific” for the duo. Finally, David Jaeger, a composer/producer in Toronto who has been a mentor to Mercer on past projects, introduced her to Rebekah Cummings, who would provide the final commission. “The result is a really interesting mix of music that in many ways is completely different, yet unified by the interplay of violin and cello and the two performers.”
In addition to being a musician, Mercer is also the Artistic Director of the 5 at the First Series, which she co-operates with Executive Director Michelle Corbeil. Artistically, this concert is a “really personal dream program” that synthesizes many aspects of her growing musicianship over the years. It brings together chamber music, violin and cello duos, Canadian music, collaboration with her sister in multiple formations, the commissioning of new works, research into lesser-known music, and the exploration of what it means to be a woman in the music world: “I always have projects on the go, but I wanted to do something that was really my own, and also an excuse to work with (and see!) my sister, who is an amazing violinist and musician.”
The idea of a duet program by two sisters is compelling (frankly, an ideal parenting coup). Recalling their childhood music lessons, Mercer maintains that neither the sisters nor their parents expected that both would become professional musicians. “Music lessons and classes were just part of our childhood, as well as sometimes (but not often) playing together,” Mercer observes. They took different paths to different cities and countries, then later, in their 20s and 30s, they began performing together more often. Now that they live and work on different continents, playing together is a “rare but immense pleasure”: “we have huge respect for each other, both musically and as people. I’ve said this before, but she is one of the only people I trust 100% to tell me how I am sounding, or to ask advice about anything, while being incredibly supportive, as she knows exactly what I am going for.”
In addition to this welcome opportunity to hear the Mercer Duo, “Music of Canadian Women” affords a rare chance to hear classical compositions by Canadian women in one concert. And a 5 at the First concert is possibly the most friendly atmosphere in which to experience live classical music at any time. “Our Strength, Our Song”, which Rebekah Cummings composed for the sisters and which they will debut, will be particularly poignant, since Cummings passed away from cancer in late March. “She was around our age, had been studying at the University of Toronto, and we commissioned her before she even knew she was ill,” Mercer notes sadly. Cummings finished the piece in December, not knowing if she would ever hear it performed. “Even two weeks ago, we were in contact, as she had listened to a recording of our first play-through of her piece that I had sent her.” The sisters will record all of the works that they will be performing, and title the album “Our Strength, Our Song”. “Its inspiration comes from the strength of women and especially the sisterly bond – she was also very close to her sister,” states Mercer. “We will dedicate our performance to her, and be thinking of her and her family.”
Given that the 5 at the First concerts are meant for all ages, how might young attendees engage with the program? Mercer suggests imagining each piece as a story told by a different author: “Each author has a different style and uses language differently, so you just have to imagine that you’re being told a story in a different voice, and see if you can make your own story in your head as the music plays!” Even as an adult who studies music everyday, she allows her mind to wander when listening to music or a concert . . . and just sees where it goes. “With a duo, especially violin and cello, and even more, two sisters, it’s really fun to imagine that the two people and instruments are talking to each other, and try to imagine what they are saying . . . if they are agreeing or singing together, or bickering a little, or going on a journey together!”
Wherever that journey takes them, loyal 5 at the First audiences will no doubt be happy to join the Mercer Duo for the ride, which Mercer anticipates will be “a celebration” of women, music, family and sisters. “We are looking forward to sharing it all with our audience”.
Two Sisters, Two Answers
SesayArts: If you could give your younger selves the benefit of your experience, what would you say is the most rewarding aspect of being a professional musician – and also, what is the most challenging?
Akemi: There are many rewarding aspects of my profession which is mainly as an orchestral musician. First to have wonderful colleagues who I love to collaborate with, and every week having new inspirations, whether from a great conductor, soloist or interesting programme. I love to play repertoire that I already know, because the it allows you to dive deeper into understanding the music, and I also love playing pieces for the first time and discovering what makes them special.
I think one challenging aspect of being a performer is that your work and your capabilities are always completely on display. If you have an off day, your colleagues will hear it or if the kids woke you up five times in the night, you still have to go to rehearsal in the morning and give your best.
Rachel: That’s a really interesting question – what I would tell my younger self – and as I think about it, I realize how lucky I was to never have been pushed, yet having my own inner drive and ambition to seek out and go for opportunities. There have been (and will be) countless failures and embarrassing moments, but I have grown and learned from all of them – they didn’t break me; they made me stronger! And the best thing to tell that younger person would be “it’s going to be ok”, but I am so blessed to have the most incredible family who have always been supportive, and who have always given me that feeling of “it’s going to be ok”, no matter what.
And for me what is most rewarding is also the most challenging; that music and performing for an audience continues to give and fills you up, but it is also all-consuming. It is a privilege to have a life full of music, but you can always give more, want more, do more. It’s up to the individual to decide what balance they would like in their life.
News You Can Use
What: “Music of Canadian Women” presented by 5 at the First Chamber Music Series
Executive Director: Michele Corbeil; Artistic Director: Rachel Mercer
Performed by Rachel Mercer (cello) and Akemi Mercer-Niewöhner (violin)
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: Saturday, April 13, 2019, 3 PM
Where: The First Unitarian Church, Hamilton, 170 Dundurn St S, Hamilton ON
Info and tickets: 5atthefirst.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2019