Bronwyn Thies-Thompson’s musical highway

Bronwyn Thies-Thompson will be singing in Seventeen Voyces' performance of Jeptha. Photo: Colin Traquair

There’s more than cars travelling between Ottawa and Montreal every day on Highway 417. A lot of music travels up and down the corridor too.

Bronwyn Thies-Thompson is part of that musical journey. The soprano is a regular in concerts in both cities. In fact, on Feb. 28, she’ll be a soloist with the Seventeen Voices performance of Carissimi’s Jeptha, one of the earliest oratorios in the Italian Renaissance.

Her presence in both cities’ musical scene is proving beneficial. 

“In Montreal, there are more opportunities for professional ensemble singers. In Ottawa I have been fortunate to be able to come home and do more solo work.”

Her musical career combines professional ensemble work with solo appearances. It’s about a 60-40 split.

“It’s a nice mix. When I say ensemble work, it’s a balance of small groups and larger choral stuff.”

Her father David is currently a violist with the NAC Orchestra and her mother Jenifir is into vintage fashion at Thoroughly Modern Vintage. That’s come in handy as her mother has passed on some classy gowns which Bronwyn has used in shows.

“The family lore is that my mother took me in vitro to the NAC to hear my father play. Even when i was a baby I was intrigued by the orchestra. And from age two people would ask me if I was going to be a musician too. Apparently I responded adamantly that I would be a musician but not a violinist.”

It was all about the cello in those years. She played all through her youth. Singing happened in the Anglican cathedral choir which she joined at the urging of a neighbour Garth Hampson, who is a a singer and a member of the RCMP.

“He stood at the bottom of my parents’ driveway and said ‘You have a daughter and she’s joining the girl’s choir. He drove me every Thursday and Sunday for a number of years.”

The cello was followed by the French horn. It’s worth noting, she said, that both instruments have a singing quality.

One thing about the Anglican choral tradition is that it instills a strong sense of professionalism. When she was involved the Christ Church Cathedral Girls Choir was led by Tim Pyper and Matthew Larkin was the music director. She considers both to be important mentors in her musical life.

In that time, she said, the girls choir was doing less than the men and boys ensemble. “The balance has shifted now but at that time I was always bugging Matthew to sing with the men and boys.”

Two of her brothers joined the cathedral choir and they “benefited from the structure and singing opportunities that the men and boys choir experienced. Would I have loved to have some of those opportunities?  Definitely. But I don’t begrudge them.”

Still her persistence paid off because she did start leading services as a soloist, meanwhile she was reading Bach and Handel “for fun.”

She says there are a lot of changes happening now. There are more and more girls choirs and more access for young women.” After 1,000 years it’s probably about time.

Bronwyn attended Lisgar High School still not fully committed to a singing career. She was into sports and drama and music, playing the cello and French horn in the youth orchestra and singing. She took the bus to school every day from her home in Blackburn Hamlet.

She got more serious when the girls choir at the cathedral tackled Pergolese’s Stabet Mater and she was doing some solos.

“I wanted a coach. At time Gary Dahl was giving lessons at the cathedral. He was my first voice teacher.

“As a kid you just want someone to guide you on how to phonate so we spent 40 minutes every week just working on vowels. I was lucky to have Gary. He didn’t have an idea of how I should sound. which was helpful. He also didn’t try to make us sound more mature than we were.”

It had been clear from the beginning that she had an affinity for early music.

“I had always listened to early music. Mom was a huge fan of Emma Kirkby, (Ottawa’s Daniel Taylor and the Baltimore Consort. It was always in my ear, as was Saturday afternoon at the Opera, but I never imagined myself singing opera.”

The final conversion to a singing career happened when she was 16.

“It was rough patch for me because I had had a sports injury that created a moment of vulnerability. I had fractured one of my vertebrae.”

She was a rower and she suffered a stress fracture.

A month after her final fusion surgery, Matthew Larkin invited her to sing in the second choir of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Larkin Singers, his professional choir.

“It was a life-changing moment. I saw how powerful it was and decided I had to do this. Bach has special place in my life and making music with a mentor was hugely meaningful.”

Her father didn’t say much to her about the idea of a musical career “because I grew up around musicians, I knew what it was like.

“I don’t think he particularly wanted me to be one. You’d have to ask him. And to be fair through my early teen years I was pretty adamant wouldn’t be one. I wanted something else. I wanted to make music, but it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue as a career. i saw how it was.”

At the end of high school she was introduced to another important mentor, Daniel Taylor, who was teaching at uOttawa. He agreed to take her on as a student and she enrolled.

When he moved to teach at the University of Toronto, she followed.

But that didn’t work out.

“I didn’t quite fit in. They weren’t as ready for early music as I had hoped. In audition, they said somewhat sarcastically that I sounded like Emma Kirkby which I took as a compliment.”

She finished her year but then she returned home.

She was talking to James Wright, a music professor and composer about Carleton and he said she could finish her degree there and continue studying with Taylor.

Carleton offered the perfect mix of freedom and study. She was able to go to New York to study with and perform with the Tallis Scholars and to Germany to work with the Stuttgart Bach Academy.

She was also commuting between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal where she was picking up professional work with groups like SMAM, where Andrew McAnerney is music director. Coincidentally he’s the music director at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa.

After graduation she moved to Montreal full time.

These days she is up and down Highway 417 all the time.

“Ottawa and Montreal is really doable. I am very happy now exploring my own projects and doing more solo work as it comes.”

She does want to be more involved in projects that will allow her more creativity and artistic control. She does sing with Taylor’s group, The Theatre of Early Music and with Seventeen Voyces.

The music of Jeptha is a good fit for Bronwyn. It includes solos and small groupings throughout.

She is singing the role of the daughter of Jeptha, who is a king. He has to sacrifice his daughter and in the last moment of the piece she sings a lament for her impending death.

Then the oratorio concludes in a beautiful final chorus that is “one of most beautiful pieces of music I’ve every heard.

“One of the things I love most about performing this music is riding that line between being too affected by the music and when you are able to express that emotion on the edge of that choke moment. For me finding that tiny edge is the sweet spot.”

Seventeen Voyces presents Carissimi’s Jeptha
Where: St. Matthew’s Anglican Church
When: Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.