Martin MacDonald's classical studies | Music | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Martin MacDonald's classical studies

Symphony Nova Scotia's young Conductor-in-Residence hopes to fill seats through good-old-fashioned music education.

In a word, Martin MacDonald's new job as Symphony Nova Scotia's conductor-in-residence comes down to education.

"A big part of my job is going to be doing the education shows in the schools. That's really important work to be doing, especially as a young conductor," MacDonald says from his home in Hamilton, where he's wrapping up a job with the National Academy Orchestra of Canada. His last concert with "Canada's only professional training orchestra" takes place on August 21, then he starts four days later with SNS conductor Bernhard Gueller. "Soon as the concert is done, we pack up the car and the dog and we go."

The need for symphonies to adapt and the sense of urgency behind that need is not lost on the young conductor, who turns 31 this week. "In the next 10 years we're looking at severe turnovers in the audiences. As the audiences get older, we have to train thenew audiences coming up. We have to train their appreciation for music, classicalmusic especially."

To answer this challenge common to symphonies across Canada, MacDonald believes that once he gets in front of a class to talk about the music and to conduct concerts---even to students expected to dutifullylisten---he can "show them what has to offer."

MacDonald's optimism and confidence come in large part from the fact he's been a devoted music student since he was six, when he first started to play cello with the family Celtic band (Scumalash) in Ironville, outside Sydney, Cape Breton. The youngest of 12, he has three brothers who still make music professionally. MacDonald studied and played with the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra, too. As an undergrad, he studied cello at Memorial University in St. John's. (His fiancee is a violinist and school teacher from that city.) His graduate studies in conducting took place at McGill University in Montreal.

"Scores intrigue me so much. I'm constantly at the kitchen table or at my desk, studying and studying," he says. "Understanding how each line works with the other, what complements what, how this chord fits with that. When you get to that point where you grasp it, it's just 'oh!' A light goes off in your head. Then, at that point, you memorize it, internalize it."

He credits current boss, Boris Brott---founder of Hamilton's National Academy Orchestra of Canada---who hired MacDonald right after McGill---for instilling him with the belief in education as a way to build audiences. In Hamilton, MacDonald says, students are regularly offered $10 tickets to many concerts in the NAO's season. "We'd rather have people in the seats than empty seats."

Of course, ticket price is one thing; content is another. Again, MacDonald offers past experience, namely a night of opera works that were used in films. Throughout the evening's program, he says, "We linked every one with a movie."

The SNS residency provides a return home to where it all began. "My first big orchestral experience was with Symphony Nova Scotia, playing Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with Georg Tintner in 1992. I was the last cello in the back of the section---15 years old and playing my absolute heart out and nobody could hear me but it didn't matter. The principal cello back then is the principal cello now."

Despite age and stage of career, MacDonald expects no chafing with players, especially the veterans. These days, conductors and performers collaborate closely. "You can't be the ruler with the iron fist anymore," he says.

Plus, he's taking this as a golden opportunity to work with a Canadian symphony orchestra. "There's just not a lot of interest within Canadian orchestras to hire Canadians. There is in some places, don't get me wrong. But for most new conductors from Canada, they tend to go overseas or to the States."

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