O, Canada! What are you doing right?

O, Canada! What are you doing right?


norman lebrecht

July 01, 2016

Twenty years ago, the world would have been hard-pressed to name a classical musician from Canada – apart from Glenn Gould, and he was dead.

Today, Canadians are topping the classical summits.

Yannick is king of Philadelphia and the Met.

The soprano Barbara Hannigan is challenging maestros with her dazzling podium flair.

barbara hannigan conducting


James Ehnes and Leila Josefowicz are major-league violinists.

The list of pianists is endless; Hewitt, Lisiecki, Fialkowska, Lortie, two Hamelins….

As for singers: Finley, Heppner, Lemieux, Schade, Brueggergosman… and on and on.

Canada is a nation of 35 million.

What is it doing right?


  • Jon H says:

    Same as in the U.S. it’s the abundance and quality of musicians coming out of the schools.

  • Emil Archambault says:

    Heppner’s retired. Also, Quebec has been fighting cuts in the Conservatoire system for several years now.

    • Mikey says:

      the Conservatoire isn’t the only source for good musicians.
      my 4th symphony was performed by a CEGEP orchestra (mostly 17-yr olds) and they did the work proud.

      Québec’s universities are putting out dozens and dozens of excellent, top-rate musicians every year.

      • Emil Archambault says:

        Yes, because most of them trained first in the conservatoires. Of course the main sources of musicians in Quebec are the Schulich School and the UdeM, but the Conservatoires form the backbone of the system.

        • Mikey says:

          actually no.
          there are many private music schools associated with colleges and universities.
          none of my studies were done via the conservatoire.
          I started at an early age at the Collège de Musique Sainte-Croix, which is affiliated with the CEGEP Saint-Laurent. When I exited high-school and entered CEGEP I knew all of my teachers already. I’d already been studying with them for 10 years. I even knew most of my classmates in advance, since they were mostly students of my teacher or of other teachers I knew.

          So the Conservatoire is a great place, but it doesn’t deserve all of the merit for Québec’s musical output. I think there is enough merit all around to share among the various preparatory music schools.

  • Larry says:

    Don’t forget the Parker family of pianists. (Jon Kimura, Ian, Edward, etc.)

    • Petros Linardos says:

      And no list of eminent Canadian classical musicians is complete without the great singers George London and Jon Vickers.

      • Steven Holloway says:

        And Maureen Forrester, Lois Marshall, Portia White. Violinist Steven Staryk. I’m not at all sure NL’s “Twenty years ago…” argument entirely holds up. If 20, 30, 40 years ago “the world” was hard-pressed to name a Canadian musician, it was not because they didn’t know any, but rather that they didn’t know they were Canadian.

        • MacroV says:

          Norman was focusing primarily on the present, but a fine list (Staryk is/was an amazing violinist, not unknown but not nearly as famous as he probably should have been).

          • James Manishen says:

            Was also Beecham’s RPO concertmaster in the late 50s (Sir Thomas’s Heldenleben recording) and concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony post-Reiner.

  • Sdpat says:

    Probably encouraging the arts and keeping music programs in the schools.

    • V.Lind says:

      Here and there, but not enough. But the outreach programmes from practically every classical (and non-classical — I know the Jazz people do this too) music organisation in the country range from good to excellent, and they are committed to introducing music to the young.

  • La Verita says:

    I don’t know about now, but in the 1970’s talented young Canadian musicians benefited from generous Canadian Arts Council grants, which made it possible for them to study where ever they wanted for years on end.

    • Catherine Motuz says:

      Yes, generous study grants still exist, both from the Canada Council and from provincial granting agencies, though how many and how generous they are go up and down depending on the governments in power. The new Liberal government has given a new infusion to the Canada Council, but for example, the province of Quebec has just cut arts funding.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Karina Gauvin, the Empress of Baroque Opera!

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Léopold Simoneau – an excellent singer and teacher.

  • M2N2K says:

    Including Leila Josefowicz among these Canadian musicians almost all of whom were educated fully or at least partly in Canada is rather misleading. Though she was indeed born in Canada, her family moved to US when she was still a young child, and consequently her entire musical education took place in the USofA only: over ten most crucial first years in Los Angeles and then the last few in Philadelphia.

  • Nancy Sturdevant says:

    By my count, only three of those stars are the product of the Quebec Conservatoire system.

    • Nancy Sturdevant says:

      My comment, written in haste in the wee hours of the morning, was not intended to disparage the excellent and increasingly underfunded conservatory system in Quebec, but to suggest that the great artists mentioned above come from a rich and varied background of musical education and opportunity throughout Canada. Great teaching and artistry is not centred in one province or major city centre, but is found from coast to coast in this large and varied country; from the Parkers (don’t forget Jamie) in the West to Measha Brueggergosman in the East.

  • Howard Dyck says:

    Countertenor Daniel Taylor, baritone Russell Braun, soprano Suzie Leblanc, mezzo Susan Platts, soprano Sondra Lear, bass baritone Gary Relyea…the list goes on and on.

  • Fernando says:

    Back to past decades, we can never forget the name of Teresa Stratas, a major name still among us.

  • Carole says:

    And Joel Quarrington, contrebassiste extraordinaire!

  • Howard Ng says:


  • Marg says:

    For a small country that continues to churn our top box singers, conductors, musicians, and composers check out Latvia. Never ceases to amaze me.

  • Tan-Trao Phi says:

    Among pianists, we should not fail to highlight the importance of immigrants to Canada’s cultural scene, including Anton Kuerti and Dang Thai Son.

    My own feeling, regarding Canadian-formed pianists, however, is that there is a distinct generation gap, between the those formed in the era of Marc-Andre Hamelin, Louis Lortie, Janina Fialkowska, Angela Hewitt, André Laplante, (most of whom received their higher-level training outside of Canada), and the new generation, represented notably by Jan Lisiecki. Is Canada really producing musicians of international caliber in a consistent and concerted manner, or are these musicians successful, predominantly on their own merits?

  • Heather Taves says:

    We had great music teachers during the 60s-80s who were supported by the CBC, Canada Council, and public universities. When we their students got grants to study outside Canada during the 70s and 80s, those teachers cheered us on to open up to the wider world. Abroad, we benefitted from legendary educators. When we came home during summers to the incredible Banff Centre, National Youth Orchestra, and festivals like Lanaudiere and Orford, our international teachers were invited back with us to teach workshops. This was the life calling of such outward-looking Canadian mentors of ours as Tom and Isobel Rolston and others. And then, when much of this infrastructure fell on hard times and Conservative rule, and our mentors had retired, many of us came home and rolled up our sleeves, resolving to make sure the legacy is carried on and making sure that means staying open to the world.

  • DCB says:

    Martin Beaver, soloist and first violinist of the now retired Tokyo String Quartet.

    Corey Cerovsek, a violinist with an international career

  • Catherine Motuz says:

    There is a lot of public support for the Arts here in Canada, and I think it is out of necessity—it’s essential to the kind of multicultural country we have.

    Having watched the Brexit referendum play out, I think it is no coincidence that places with strong support for the arts (in particular London and Scotland—in different ways) are also those that show the least xenophobia, and that voted to remain inside the EU. Having a strong cultural identity through the arts (and also sports) makes any population feel more comfortable with the contributions of those coming from the outside. Look at Germany for example—a country that welcomed over half a million Syrians and still feels comfortable in its identity, in part thanks to a rich musical heritage (and also a kick-ass soccer team).

    The Arts have been essential to Canada both for knitting together a population from many cultural backgrounds across a huge expanse of land and for reinforcing our sense of identity as something distinct from our neighbour. We do have a funny mix of protectionist and non-protectionist arts policies: broadcasting is subject to Canadian content (CanCon) regulations, meaning that a certain percentage music and drama coming over Canadian radio and television channels must have some kind of Canadian connection. With live music, we are a lot less protectionist than our neighbours to the south, welcoming visits from and collaborations with other musicians from around the world with very limited visa requirements, while the USA charges musicians (even Canadians) a hefty visa fee to perform even a single concert on its soil.

    So, I would say that a mix of public support and contant cross-fertilization are what make the Canadian music scene what it is, and that part of the support comes from an acknowledgment (stronger in the 70s than it was now) that the arts are something essential to keeping our country together and giving us a collective identity.