The secret to the Glenn Gould School: 'Brilliance always works'
As the acclaimed Toronto music school celebrates 20 years, staff describe their experiences with five accomplished alumni
'The people who come here, they get it," says Peter Simon, president of the Royal Conservatory of Music. "It's a very special place."
Simon is speaking of the Glenn Gould School, the conservatory's acclaimed centre for training in musical performance that is celebrating its 20th anniversary. After launching the school in 1997, Simon spearheaded the building of the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, which houses the school and Koerner Hall, an elite international venue.
Sitting in his office (which is big enough to easily accommodate an ornate 1911 Steinway grand known as the Lady Eaton Piano), Simon and the school's dean, James Anagnoson, talk about a small, potent school with a hand-picked faculty and superb facilities that attract international artists, such as the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to teach master classes. "We're narrow, but we're deep," Anagnoson says.
"Brilliance," Simon sums up, "always works."
Of course, the proof of the program is in the alumni. Here's a look at five highly successful graduates of the Glenn Gould School.
Benjamin Bowman, an American-Canadian violinist, recently appointed concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. He completed the Glenn Gould graduate program in 2003. "Everybody knew he was special, and he knew he was special," Simon says. "But he wasn't getting a breakthrough. He worked hard, but he went for about three years where he wasn't catching the train. I told him, 'Look, it's going to happen. Relax. You're a great player.' And then he goes and plays with [Metropolitan Opera music director] James Levine, and it's done. You're never going to impress a James Levine, because he's seen it all. But Ben clicked with him, and there it is."
Jan Lisiecki, a Canadian piano soloist of Polish descent who made his debut in the main auditorium at New York's Carnegie Hall at the age of 20 in 2016. He completed a four-year undergraduate program (Performance Diploma) in 2015. "We knew Jan as he was growing up," Anagnoson says. "He was clearly one of the top kids in Canada – and, frankly, outside of Canada too. He came to our prep academy for a year, and then he got discovered by Deutsche Grammophon. He'd hit the big time, and he was 16. He told us, though, that he wasn't ready to leave school and play 80 concerts a year. He asked me if I could find a way for him to do an undergraduate program while he toured. I told him that if I couldn't do that, they should fire me."
Afendi Yusuf, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He came to Canada at the age of 11 and is currently principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He completed the two-year graduate program (Artist Diploma) in 2013. "When he first applied here, I saw something in him, but I didn't accept him into the program," says Joaquin Valdepenas, resident conductor of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and principal clarinetist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. "He just wasn't ready. He applied again the next year, and again I didn't accept him. Perhaps I should have, but my gut told me, 'Just wait.' The next year, he was accepted. By the time he left, he played beautifully. He's the sweetest, nicest, most respectful person I think I have ever taught. There's not a mean bone in his body. He has a unique sound, in the tradition of Robert Marcellus, who left the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1970s."
Wallis Giunta, a Canadian mezzo-soprano who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, Oper Frankfurt, Oper Leipzig and L'Opéra de Montréal. She completed the undergraduate program in 2007 and the graduate program in 2009. "My initial impression of her was that she was a very passionate and dedicated student," says Jean MacPhail, a distinguished educator responsible for the voice program at Glenn Gould. "She had a lovely voice, but we are so often confronted, fortunately, with lovely voices. But she sang everything, and had a terrific interest in things. She has a wonderful musical intelligence, which is different from taking a PhD in something. It's an intrinsic, organic thing that she has. She can sing in and out of things in a way that not only has flash but real depth."
Rolston String Quartet, comprised of violist Hezekiah Leung, cellist Jonathan Lo and violinists Luri Lee and Jeffrey Dyrda, all Glenn Gould alumni. The quartet was first-prize winner of the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition and is the current Graduate Quartet-in-Residence at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music in Houston. "Our obligation to the Rolston String Quartet was to have the members as well-trained as possible, to provide knowledge on how to avoid major pitfalls and to introduce them to the people who would provide them with the best opportunities," says Barry Shiffman, co-founder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and currently associate dean and director of the Glenn Gould School's chamber-music program. "So we teamed them up with the Art of Time Ensemble, where they got to see the amazing work of one of our graduates, Andrew Burashko. The secret to young, talented musicians like the Rolston String Quartet is to keep them busy with opportunities. There's nothing more detrimental to a young artist than to have them with two or three months with nothing on the calendar."