10 Questions for Douglas McNabney

Born and raised in Toronto, violist  Douglas McNabney is one of Canada’s most distinguished chamber musicians.  He has enjoyed an international performing career with appearances in Holland, Belgium, France, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, Switzerland, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, as well as performances throughout Canada and the U.S.A. He has recorded for, among others, BRT (Brussels), Radio Bremen, RTE (Dublin), Finnish Broadcasting (Helsinki), Sudwestdeutscher Rundfunk (Karlsruhe), Norwegian Radio (Oslo), Radio Sweden (Stockholm), NPR (USA), and the CBC. His recording on the Oxingale label of the Mozart Divertimento with Jonathan Crow and Matt Haimovitz was nominated for a Juno in 2007 and his Dorian recording of Mahler with the Smithsonian Chamber Players was nominated for a Grammy in 2008. He has recorded for Dorian, Amberola, Marquis, Oxingale, and CBC Enterprises labels.

As one of Canada’s most active chamber musicians, he has appeared as guest artist with the leading chamber music groups and societies across Canada. His chamber music partners include Canadians Marc-André Hamelin, Louis Lortie, André Laplante, Anton Kuerti, James Ehnes and internationally renowned soloists Menachem Pressler, Steven Isserlis, Jamie Buswell, William Preucil, Miriam Fried, among many others. He has performed with the SuperNova Quartet, the Crow-Haimovitz-McNabney Trio, the Orfordto.org/”; Quartet, the Penderecki Quartet, the Alcan Quartet, the Smithsonian Chamber Players, the St Lawrence Quartet, Sante Fe Pro Musica, Millennium, the Gryphon Trio, the Allegri String Quartet, le Quatuor Artur Leblanc, Amici, New Music Concerts (Toronto), the Toronto Chamber Players, Amadeus Ensemble, Scotia Chamber Players, the Acadia Chamber Players, the Winnipeg Chamber Music Society, Musica Camerata de Montréal, and Les Chambristes de Montréal. He has appeared in most of the major festivals in Canada including le Festival international du Domaine Forget, le Festival international de Lanaudière, Orford; International Festival, Galway International Festival (Ireland), Music at Speedside, Festival du Bic, the Scotia Festival, Kammermusikfest Kloster Kamp, Linfort (Germany), Festival of the Sound, the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, BargeMusic, (New York), Festival Canada, Music at Blair Atholl (Scotland), Festival de musique de chambre de Montréal, le Club musical de Québec, and many others.

Also renowned as an arts administrator, Douglas McNabney was Artistic Director of the Domaine Forget Music Festival and Academy from 2001 until 2005. He was Chair of the Department of Performance of McGill University from 2004 to 2008 during a period of extensive renewal and growth of the Faculty. In 2009, Douglas McNabney was responsible for the artistic direction of the Haydn 2009 project at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal where the complete cycle of all 68 String Quartets was performed in one week. The event featured guest quartets from across North America and Europe and renowned Haydn scholars in conference with a total public attendance in excess of 6,000 entries.
Douglas McNabney is currently Professor of Chamber Music at the Schulich School of Music of McGill. He also pursues a busy schedule of appearances as soloist and guest artist in festivals and with chamber music societies and ensembles across Canada and Europe. He was appointed Artistic Director of Toronto Summer Music in August 2010.

As we approach the opening of the 2013 Toronto Summer Music Festival on July 16th I ask McNabney 10 questions: five about himself and five more about the TSM.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Violist – teacher – administrator Doulas McNabney

Neither…. (Although my wife might have a different opinion!) I was very much the black sheep of the family, and although our family was a large one, there was no background in music or the arts and no role models. If pressed, I would say I have my father’s sensitivity and my mother’s stubbornness, in equal measure.

I think I am not alone among musicians who wonder where the consuming passion for their art comes from. It defines us and sets us apart, on occasion, even from our families. Unless it is a family of musicians – like my wife’s! Both of her parents are musicians and they have four children, all musicians who married other musicians. And now my two children are musicians! My daughter is a harpsichordist, like her mother, and grandmother before her. Third generation of harpsichordists… It’s like the Bach family – but, sign of the times, all women!

My son is a wonderful double bass player. As a family, when we have occasion to all play together, (it is rare – not a lot of repertoire for harpsichord, viola and double bass!) – we are no longer parent and child, we are three musicians. Music is what knits my family together.

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being Artistic Director of an annual music festival?

After struggling all year with the logistics and the constant preoccupation of funding to bring the artists, the music and the public together, the best part is unquestionably witnessing the moment of the creative act – a performance. Watching and listening to a musician, whether seasoned pro or young artist, discover on the spur of the moment, a new sound, turn of phrase, timing or significance to the unfolding of the music, is a thrill. And it’s equally satisfying to see the audience appreciate that moment. The lives of the artists and the audience are immeasurable enriched by the experience. As musicians, we all live for those moments; as audience we’re touched by a grace that takes us out of our more ordinary lives…. That’s a bit heavy, but true!

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I hardly watch tv. When I have the chance, I will try to watch a good film (which excludes most Hollywood fare!)

The act of listening to music is not something I can do casually. I’m drawn in and cannot do or think about anything else when there’s music being played. So I don’t listen to music when I sit back and relax. I hope this doesn’t shock people – but I prefer silence! When I’m too tired to do anything productive, I’ll watch Mad Men on itunes. It’s a sixties thing, a world I grew up in and there’s something very subversive about it that appeals to me. I feel like layers of significance to all kinds of inexplicable things of my childhood are being revealed.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Sometimes I wish I was a better singer. But then, maybe I would not have become a string player? I think I’ve reached the stage in life where I feel there’s nothing to be gained nor lost by pretending to be anything other than what I am, deficiencies included!

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite
thing to do?

I would say my other passion in life, apart from family, food, and fine wine, is architecture. I like to study buildings and read about the people who designed them. I also like to design and build things myself. I’m finishing a summer house at the moment that I designed from the ground up. I like the sense of completion in construction and renovation. Once a room is painted, it’s done, finished. I never get that sense of completion in my professional life. There’s always more music to practise, another festival season to plan, etc. It’s endless. Which is also a good thing of course, because there’s always an excellent reason to get up in the morning and get going!

Douglas McNabney (photo: Bo Huang)

Douglas McNabney (photo: Bo Huang)


Five more concerning Douglas McNabney’s ongoing commitment to Toronto Summer Music Festival as their Artistic Director

1) Please talk about how you reconcile the disparate aspects of your life: as a performer, a teacher and academic, and as an administrator & impresario.

It’s interesting. I feel all the various roles I’m fortunate to play are complementary, not incompatible. Being a teacher helps me reflect upon what I do as a performer. Being an academic at a university like McGill has made me a more efficient administrator, etc. And the various tasks require a different energy. After a day full of rehearsing and practicing, I can turn to writing or reading and email feeling quite fresh. I could never do another 4 or 5 hours of rehearsing, but easily manage to do that in administrative tasks. And vice-versa.

2) what do you love about programming a Festival such as TSM?

Programming the TSM Festival is a tremendously satisfying challenge to meet every year. I can draw upon years of experience from every facet of my career. A degree in Musicology from U of Toronto, my performing career as a chamber musician, my administrative career at McGill and 10 years in the Artistic Direction at Domaine Forget in Charlevoix, QC, – every one of those roles and that collective experience informs my choices. I have also had the good fortune to meet and perform with some incredibly gifted colleagues. Bringing these musicians to Toronto for the first time and sharing their particular genius with the public is very rewarding.

I also love following the trail of an idea through the research it inspires and discovery of repertoire that I’ve never come across. There is so much great music out there and programming repertoire that is new to me is one of the most gratifying aspects of planning a season.

I am by nature very curious. I’m always looking for ‘why did this happen?’, ‘where did this come from?’ and ‘what was the inspiration behind this?’ No artist works in a vacuum! There is a context – historical, social, political, and cultural – for every great work of art. Discovering connections and threads of commonality in works of art is, to me, endlessly fascinating. I try to encourage our public to share that sense of discovery and I hope the programming inspires a curiosity to find connections of their own.

3) Do you have a favourite program in the Festival?

Apart from the obvious answer that a parent can have no favourite children, I am particularly proud that we were able to manage to produce the concert with Katia and Marielle Labèque on August 1st entitled The Minimalist Dream House project.

Katia et Marielle Labèque (photo by Brigitte Lacombe): click on photo and then click “The Labèques’ Minimalist Dream House” for more information

This is perhaps the most daring programming we have ever presented at TSM. The MDH project is a retrospective of Minimalism in music– a style many love to hate but that had undeniable impact on music of the last half of the 20th century. It is a unique, intelligent and multi-genre presentation that traces minimalism in music from its origins in the music of Satie, through Cage, Glass and Reich to Arvo Pärt. The program will be a marathon in three parts. The first features the Labèque sisters performing Satie, Glass, Cage and Pärt. They are fabulous performers. In the second and third parts of the program, they will be joined by their band from Paris and will trace the influence of minimalism even through popular genres including rock music. Yes, the music of Radiohead and Sonic Youth with a rock band onstage backing up the Labèque sisters will be part of this year’s TSM Festival! I hope our traditional audience will forgive me – but I am a long-time fan of Radiohead. Having their music as part of the TSM Festival represents a personal triumph of sorts…

(One of many Radiohead transcriptions for piano one can find on youtube)

4) How do you relate to the world of classical music as a modern man?            

I suspect I relate to classical music the way people always have and always will! I refuse to despair that it is a dying art. To paraphrase Charles Rosen, the death of classical music is perhaps one of its longest continuing traditions! There are chamber music festivals springing up in every corner of the continent. There are clearly difficulties and we are in a period of transition and upheaval, especially for the corporate/business model of ‘delivering the product’(!) And yet, despite the omnipresence of music everywhere in our lives today (elevators, Loblaws, and hospital corridors), people still crave the intimacy and connection to a performer that only comes from live performance.

Not long ago I came across an amazing anecdote (not yet verified!), that of the 25 billion songs downloaded from the itunes store as of February 2013, 15% were classical. I believe people intuitively can recognize a great work of art and can distinguish between a performance of great quality and something that is fake or false, regardless of genre. Classical music will never have mass appeal (it never did!) but great works of art will continue to be presented to an appreciative audience. We have to ensure the ‘opportunity of exposure’ is offered to those susceptible to forming the audience of tomorrow.

Bruno Giuranna

5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?

My teachers and coaches are the formative influences. From the very first violin lesson at age 16! They only encouraged me to pursue my dream – although in retrospect, they probably had their doubts! Then there are the musicians that I met in masterclasses: Bruno Giuranna in Sienna and England, William Primrose for successive summers in Banff; the great conductors I played under when I was Principal Viola of the Quebec Symphony. It is no secret, the musicians I engage for the TSM Festival, many of them good friends and colleagues, are the musicians I admire the most. Come join us at the 2013 festival, and you’ll see why!


Toronto Summer Music runs July 16th until August 3rd.  For further information click here.

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3 Responses to 10 Questions for Douglas McNabney

  1. Pingback: The Geneology of Minimalism | barczablog

  2. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

  3. Pingback: Toronto Summer Music: Passing the Torch | barczablog

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