Catching up on classical with Eric Friesen

Eric Friesen remains bullish on the future of classical music in Ottawa and beyond.

Eric Friesen was raised in a Mennonite home and at supper, the family would sing grace.

It was an introduction to music for Friesen; something that has been a guiding part of his life. He’s a broadcaster and has worked for the CBC and National Public Radio in the U.S. He hosted programs such as Studio Sparks, Onstage at Glenn Gould Studio and In Performance on CBC Radio. He has also made documentaries including The Concerto According to Pinchas and The Concerto According to Manny.

He was the first program director for Winnipeg’s classical and jazz station, Classic 107, and is a consultant for Radio New Zealand. He teaches at Victoria College University, Toronto and co-hosts a book club in the Collins Bay Institution in his current hometown of Kingston.

These days in Ottawa, he’s a regular at the Chamberfest and at the National Arts Centre talking about music with luminaries in public and on a regular podcast. This week at the NAC he was conversing with Peter Oundjian, conductor emeritus of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He’s on the board of Honens, which runs a major piano competition every year. And he’s involved with Angela Hewitt’s festival in Italy for many years. “That’s where I first met (Ottawa’s) Bryan and Silvie Cheng.”

Friesen arrived in the city in 1972 and has watched the classical music culture grow.

“Ottawa is between Toronto and Montreal and it’s a very unusual place because it is the national capital. It has an extraordinary classical music audience for a city its size, which I have always put down to the fact that the city is filled with highly educated civil servants, culturally ambitious, culturally interested. To me that is the first place to start when anyone asks the question why is Ottawa such a vibrant classical scene.

“The audience is there for choral music, orchestral music, chamber music,” he said he believes.

Another important strain, he said, in the city’s classical music development is the Anglican tradition. Friesen pointed to Angela Hewitt, whose father Godfrey was the music director at Christ Church Cathedral for many years, an to artists such as Gerald Finley and Daniel Taylor who was part of the music program at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church.

“These places were first class choral centres that reflected the English side of Ottawa.”

In 1967, there was a strong feeling that Canada’s capital needed something like the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

“It didn’t seem so outrageous then for a city like Ottawa to want to aspire to have an arts centre. Almost immediately after the NAC was built, you had an incredible response. I came to Ottawa in 1972. I started at the CBC. I remember when Mario Bernardi was the conductor and I was a child broadcaster. How exciting.

“The audience responded to the summer opera, the seats were filled. It was a vibrant place even though it had this fortress-like (look).” The centre provided a way of life that would help keep talented bureaucrats in the city, he believes.

What makes it successful today?

“In the end it comes down to leadership. Look at the people in charge now and recently. Peter Herrndorf literally (with a lot of help) was a real gifted leader. He remade the NAC and led it through some tough years. The Conservative weren’t exactly loving culture and he got them on side.”

Herrndorf retired after great success including the renovation of the centre and more and he’s replaced by Christopher Deacon.

“He many seem like the consummate inside bureaucrat, but he’s actually a very creative guy.”

There is strong creative leadership at Ottawa Chamberfest led by artistic director Roman Borys and his team, he said. And Music and Beyond’s Julian Armour continues to be a “brilliant programmer.”

“If you don’t have good leadership you are screwed. It’s just one stumble after another.”

The uOttawa music school, which is also celebrating 50 years, benefits from the presence of NAC musicians and its faculty. “Imagine having Chip Hamman teach you oboe, for example,” he said.

The music schools in Canada, including uOttawa, are churning out lots of new young talented performers, he said, such as Wallis Giunta, the Ottawa mezzo-soprano who is building an international career from her new home base on Britain. That continues to build the strength of the art form, he said.

Friesen isn’t naive. He knows that there has been failures such as the closing of Opera Lyra.

Still, “I am optimistic. I think it’s way too early and easy to say classical music is going down the tubes. It’s not at all. If you make the price attractive enough people will come and they do. The business has changed completely. The recording is like a business card.

“And if you have young attractive performers on stage, like (Calgary’s) Jan Lisiecki, you’ll bring in younger audiences.”

Friesen grew up in southern Manitoba where his father was a businessman. He was also a huge record collector.

“But when I think back to my first sound memory, I would be in bed as a little kid, my dad would be in his office in the house in Altona Manitoba working and he’d be listening to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing German lieder or Arthur Rubenstein playing the piano.

“Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, like Ben Heppner and Edith Wiens and Russell Braun and Tracy Dahl. For us music was choral music. At Sunday night dinners we would sing grace in four parts.

“That was our culture. The churches were pretty austere, but there was a richness in music and we all were taught to sing in parts.” He is a baritone and is a lapsed choir singer.

These days he says he is too peripatetic to join a choir. “I’m wired to work. I have been very lucky that I have forged a new life of projects. It’s rich in the satisfaction it gives me.”

In town: Eric Friesen will chat with Peter Oundjian at 7 p.m. in Peter Herrndorf Place just before Thursday night’s concert with Bryan Cheng.

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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.