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Composer Malcolm Forsyth: Out of crisis, a musical creation

Edmonton composer Malcolm Forsyth took on a big challenge when he accepted a commission from Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra to write an "iconically Canadian" work for chorus and orchestra.

For his title, he came up with A Ballad of Canada. And for his text, he settled on poems by four Canadian poets - Ralph Gustafson, John McCrae, E.J. Pratt and Carl Hare - and set about writing a five-movement work. The outer movements he subtitled "The Land," invoking the Yukon and Newfoundland, respectively. The three central movements deal with "Canada in Times of Trial."

But in a darkly ironic twist, it wasn't long before the 75-year-old composer found himself in his own time of trial. Last October, while still working on the last movement of his new work, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A Ballad of Canada could well be Forsyth's last composition.

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"In October, the doctors said he had two months to live," says his daughter, Amanda Forsyth, principal cellist of the NAC Orchestra and wife of the NACO's music director, Pinchas Zukerman. She will be playing in the orchestra when the piece is premiered in Ottawa on Thursday. "He finished the piece in the hospital and at home. He told me that he got some ideas for the last movement while he was in the hospital."

Amanda thinks the task of composing A Ballad of Canada is at least partly the reason why her father has outlived his doctors' prognosis.

"This premiere is the most important thing for him right now," she says. "It has kept his strength up, and his brain occupied - and has given him something to look forward to."

As recently as a few days ago, there was some doubt as to whether the elder Forsyth would be well enough to attend the premiere. But with caregivers and oxygen tanks, he's made the trip from Edmonton, and will be on hand to take a bow tonight. (Also in attendance will be Hare, the only living poet Forsyth chose for his new work.)

Forsyth has taken on an elusive challenge.

While Canadian composers have made valiant attempts to portray this nation in music, efforts to compose a great symphonic work that accomplishes that aim haven't yet produced anything definitive. We don't have a classical composer who has been widely hailed as truly Canadian, in the way that Dvorak is Czech, Debussy is French or Copland is American.

Nevertheless, the idea remains inspiring. And like many immigrants to this country, Forsyth (who was born in South Africa), has always been deeply impressed by the sheer size of Canada. He set out to write a work that would reflect the expansiveness of the landscape, and the struggles Canadians have faced.

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"I had to define what was meant by 'iconically Canadian,' " the composer says of his new work from an Ottawa hotel. "It could mean so many things, because Canada is not an easy thing to define, in terms of symbols or emblems. I did a lot of research into Canadian poets, to find poetry which spoke to me and spoke to Canada, and was singable."

With Zukerman conducting, the NACO will collaborate for the performance of the work with a cluster of local choirs: the Ottawa Choral Society, the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, the Ewashko Singers and the Ottawa Festival Chorus. According to Amanda, A Ballad of Canada places the chorus front and centre, in the role of a "soloist" with the orchestra.

"My dad wanted the music to be accessible, and not jarring. And there's a beautiful setting of [McCrae's] In Flanders Fields in one of the movements. I would certainly recognize it as my dad's work, if I wasn't told."

She should know - she's been playing his music since she was 6. His largest work written for her was Electra Rising: Concerto for Violoncello and Chamber Orchestra, which was premiered by the Calgary Philharmonic, and won a Juno Award in 1998 when it was recorded by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

Since Forsyth's arrival in Canada in 1968, he has been prolific, composing many works for orchestra, voice and chamber ensembles. He also put in an 11-year stint as a bass trombonist in the Edmonton Symphony. In 2003, he was named to the Order of Canada.

In Thursday's concert in Ottawa, Forsyth's new work will be paired with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - which seems entirely appropriate to Amanda.

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"It's a perfect match. The two works are contrasting, but they both utilize the chorus in a magnificent way."

The National Arts Centre Orchestra performs the Forsyth and Beethoven program Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., at the NAC in Ottawa.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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