5 Questions for Mireille Asselin & the Amici Chamber Ensemble Bo Huang (Amici Ensemble) & Matthew Fried (Mireille Asselin)

5 Questions for Mireille Asselin & the Amici Chamber Ensemble

Jenna Simeonov
On April 12th at Mazzoleni Concert Hall, you can catch soprano Mireille Asselin (just back from her Met debut as Poussette in Manon) in concert with the Amici Chamber Ensemble, namely cellist David Hetherington, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, and pianist Serouj Kradjian. Entitled “The Shepherd,” the program will feature music by Schubert, Mikhail Glinka, John Tavener, and André Previn; I have a feeling this concert is not to be missed (ticket info here). Mireille, David, and Serouj indulged some of my questions about their selection of music, and the intensity of collaborating as a chamber group.

1. All of you have experience working in a large scale (symphony orchestras, large opera houses). What changes when the ensemble becomes small, as with this concert?

Serouj: The process of making music is more intimate, more one-on-one and there are more possibilities to explore different interpretation of any given passage in the work.

Mireille: It is great fun to make music in a small group after performing in large venues and with large orchestras. You can be quite daring with your musical choices - singing and playing extremely softly, or using subtle colour and musical choices that might not normally be heard through the texture of a larger ensemble. As a singer, I find that the scale of the group and the performance space especially influences my approach to diction. I can “speak” more intimately to the audience, and temper consonants so that they sound more natural and balanced than what might be required over a gigantic orchestra in a huge space.

On a more basic level, you also get to explore a completely different world of repertoire! And it’s a real luxury to be able to do so with musicians of Joaquin, David, and Serouj’s caliber.

David: In a chamber ensemble we are free to interpret the music as we wish as we need no conductor. We can interact musically with one another on a much more personal level. We are also able to choose our own programmes and invite wonderful guests such as Mireille to join us.

2. Mireille, how do you make the transition between your large-scale work in opera, to a self-contained chamber group?

Mireille: I find that it’s simply a matter of listening more intently. Chamber music is a real team sport! Everyone is an equal partner and you feed off of each other’s musical ideas in a truly collaborative fashion. Of course, I’m not saying that I don’t listen to my colleagues in other settings (blasphemous words!!) - only that without a conductor at the helm holding everything together, we must each individually lead, follow, react, make decisions, inspire and be inspired in turn. That requires a real sensitivity to your colleagues’ choices and needs.

3. Amici, does the addition of a singer change anything among your ensemble?

Serouj: The human voice and the text of the song add a new dimension to our musical approach and enrich the expressiveness of each of our instruments.

David: With a singer we are able to perform an entirely different sort of repertoire which has everything to do with relating to the words and the subject matter of the piece. We have to be more flexible so that the singer can be free to express themselves and the meaning of the music.

4. Can you tell us about how you chose the repertoire for this concert? What does the title “The Shepherd” mean to the program?

Mireille: I will defer to Amici for this one! They simply sent me some rep ideas, which I loved, and we went with it. I was especially intrigued by the Tavener - they did a wonderful job constructing a diverse, challenging, and interesting program!

David: With the Shepherd on the Rock, Franz Schubert wrote one of the most beautiful and challenging of works for soprano in a chamber music setting. He has been an inspiration for all composers writing for the voice and we wanted to feature inspirational composers of the 20th century as well. John Tavener writes beautifully for the voice and his focus is often Russian liturgical music. Hence, the decision to devote half of the program to Russian composers.

Serouj: There is clearly a shortage of works which feature the voice in a chamber music setting. And what better way to honour the composer and the most renowned work for that setting then to name an entire program after it.

5. How do you find audiences in Toronto, in comparison with your experience in other major cities?

David: We have a very loyal and supportive audience in Toronto. We consider them all to be part of Amici and enjoy very much seeing them at all of our concerts. It used to be said that Toronto audiences didn’t appreciate local artists and preferred international musicians who had an established reputation. We find that has changed, as is demonstrated by the large number of local musicians who play chamber music in Toronto to great acclaim.

Serouj: Knowledgeable, and not stingy in showing their appreciation for a good performance.

Mireille: For me, singing in Toronto is like singing for my family - it is simultaneously the most comforting and the most terrifying place to perform! You always want to do well for those you love, and I love this city and the musicians and audiences in it. I “grew up” as a musician here. I sang my first year undergrad recital in Mazzoleni Hall where we will be performing on the 12th. In fact, I sang Shepherd on the Rock for the first time on that stage in 2005 - almost ten years ago exactly! I have grown and changed so much as a singer and as a person since then and am acutely aware that Toronto has seen me grow and change… and so I always want to make her, and her audiences, proud.

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