40th anniversary celebrations are starting to roll out for Wilfrid Laurier University’s music faculty where I studied from 1980 – 84. In late January there will be a new music festival and the Penderecki String Quartet are playing a short excerpt of my music! In April is the big show where the Laurier choirs and orchestras will play my choral symphony, Babel. (check out my upcoming events for details)

These events make me nostalgic for that simpler, student time, living sparsely in one room with a desk and a bed and a roommate; studying, practicing, practicing, practicing, discovering beer, practicing, practicing, and yet miraculously having time to have deep conversations with people who were passionate about things I cared about. It was a wild and wonderful time and I can say without reserve that Laurier shaped the musician and the person I became. I met people who opened up worlds I had not dreamed of, and people who reigned in my propensity to dream a little too much.

I probably did learn a few things about music, but what remains vivid are the experiences outside the classroom; the people, friends, colleagues and teachers. If I can single out two mentors, I’d like to thank them for giving me great pedagogical models, as I muddle through my own job as a professor at York University.

Michael Purves–Smith was my harpsichord teacher and led our Early Music ensemble. The model of a true Renaissance gentleman, he was well-read, widely travelled and interested in everything, with lots of hands-on professional performing. An accomplished harpsichordist, baroque oboist and conductor, he led large symphonic ensembles as well as teaching and composing. Michael went far beyond the call of duty with our little group of early music geeks. One Autumn we all bundled into his car and drove to New York City for a conference on medieval music where we witnessed first-hand the connection between scholarship and performance. Michael helped our ensemble “Katzenmusik” connect with local school groups, and we ran out our crumhorn-playing, renaissance-dancing shtick to the wilds of the Ontario countryside, teaching farm kids about renaissance culture and art. It was that boost to our confidence that led us to move our group into Toronto schools, and eventually to organize a three-week tour of the Maritime provinces. Unknowingly we were forging a business plan, providing a template for subsequent musical business ventures like “Arbor Oak Trio.”

I revered my organ teacher, Barrie Cabena, as a legend, even before I came to Laurier. I had already performed a number of his compositions, and I had heard him perform as an organ soloists. He worked us hard – you might call it “old school.” Our Chapel Choir rehearsed for two hours on Tuesdays, two hours on Thursdays, and sang the Eucharist in the Lutheran seminary every Wednesday with a full sung service. We toured Evensong to a downtown church every month, where we watched in awe as accomplished fourth year students played complex repertoire and conducted us. Cabena insisted on excellence, and we learned the best of the rich canon of sacred music repertoire in our four years. Our weekly lessons were enhanced by masterclass where our dozen organ students would perform for each other, fearfully awaiting feedback from the masters Cabena and Overduin. It was an immersive learning experience, and extremely valuable, since I made my living as a church musician for three subsequent decades. Despite his high expectations, Prof. Cabena was extremely generous with his students, involving us in his own performances as page-turners and sharing his wealth of stories from his own formative time in England. He helped many students who were struggling with personal problems, subtly converting lessons into therapy sessions.

I’m looking forward to returning to Laurier to celebrate 40 years. See you there!

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3 Responses to Alma Mater

  1. Richard Birney-Smith says:

    Michael and Barrie were special people.

    I spent much of the 1967 International Congress of Organists with Barrie and Gordon Atkinson. Michael played both modern and baroque oboe for me, as occasion demanded, in the Te Deum Orchestra.

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      Thanks for this Richard. It is a small world isn’t it? Hope you can make it up to Laurier for some of the 40th anniversary celebrations.

  2. Daria Salemka says:

    Indeed, Stephanie, those were awesome (in the literal meaning) years, as I shared the same time at WLU with you. I also have many fond memories of the Baroque Ensemble under Michael P-S, building a foundation for a love for that music that I still enjoy today. While I never had Barrie Cabena for a prof, I always enjoyed chapel choir’s singing and of course, I always admired his playing … and so he played for our wedding! Looking forward to hearing your “Babel” in April!

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