Living a musical life: JUNO nominee Philippe Sly explains why Schubert is a singer-songwriter

Philippe Sly

A few years back, the Ottawa-born bass-baritone Philippe Sly was studying in Austria and was deeply immersed in Schubert’s Winterreise.  He was working with a well-known leider expert named Robert Holl.

In Holl’s home there was a painting depicting the composer holding a guitar.

“Holl told me that Schubert didn’t have access to a piano all the time. He didn’t have one in the flat he was renting and he was always moving around Vienna, staying with friends. When he was alone he would compose on the guitar which I thought was fascinating.”

A short while later, with the memory of that painting in his mind, Sly was looking around for an idea to honour a four-album deal with the label Analekta when he was chatting with an old friend and musical colleague, the guitarist John Charles Britton. In moments like this a project can be born.

“We were talking about what Schubert lieder we would choose for a CD and we ended up combining better known works with less-well known pieces, songs that seemed more conducive for guitar.”

They wanted to recognize Schubert’s use of the guitar, “as well as bringing forward that aspect of history.” The two wanted to show that Schubert is part of this long line of singer-songwriters that originated with the minstrels of the Middle Ages and continues to this day.

The result is the recording the Schubert Sessions. And it is up for a JUNO award this year.

“You could also say the idea of finding a way of performing Schubert lieder with guitar was ideal because his music was often conceived in a very informal way in parties and private house concerts,” Sly said.

“That’s another part of why we wanted to work together … to make as much extreme dynamics and communication as possible. Performing with John I am sitting beside him turning pages and I’m less that a foot from his guitar.

“There are funny moments when we perform that I actually end up holding a note on the guitar to help John play all the notes. offering a helping hand needed.”

There is another element to the CD worth considering, he says.

Schubert set a lot of poetry by Goethe to music. Goethe, Sly says, was very influenced by a lengthy trip to Italy. For the baritone, the idea of performing lieder with guitar was transporting “geographically.”

This is the kind of multi-layered project that really appeals to Sly, who, since leaving Ottawa, has developed a varied career that ranges from Europe to North America in opera, recitals and concerts and in collaborations such as this piece with Britton.

The Schubert Sessions though is done and Sly is already on to other projects from his current home base in Montreal.

“I am working more in Europe than anywhere else these days. The Paris Opera, for one, has been really supportive. I do a lot of concert work in the U.S. but not a lot of opera there. I have developed a nice relationship with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, I was in Dallas recently and I’m going to Boston.

“Every year is kind of different. i wouldn’t say there is any kind of trend yet.”

And that’s OK because, for Sly, it’s really all about the right project.

“I teaches me a lot when I am in control of my own projects.”

The next one of those takes him back to Winterreise with a twist.

He has produced a semi-staged version of the work with a klesmer twist with an ensemble of four instrumentalists who play trombone, accordion, clarinet and violin. The music has been arranged by and for these players.

Sly and the band will be taking what’s called the Chimera Project on the road in July across Eastern Canada (including hopefully to his hometown, he says) before going to France with it.

He does enjoy all aspects of his musical playbook. He is keeping all his doors open but he doesn’t just want to do one thing.

“I have yet to find a balance I guess. Opera really helps my singing (for example). And if I was only doing lieder I would miss the animal side of the theatre that I can tap into. It’s about knowing how to integrate opera into the whole of what it is to be a performing singer.”

Sly’s prime directive is, at its heart, to create art.

“Once your hobby has become your career, you need to make sure that it stays the thing, that it maintains its status as an inspiring, uplifting and evolving sort of practice” that is never stuck in a rut.

“It’s such a wonderful feeling to start a project … to bring people together that you enjoy working with and that context to show you something you could not imagine. It’s addictive.

“I have a hierarchy of goals. My main goal at every moment is always to sing better. The first thing you realize when you embark on career is you will be a singer for the rest of your life. If you are not obsessed with singing you will go backwards. So my primary goal is to sing well and if that is not happening then I’m in a state.”

It has helped that he has been in a relationship for the past two years.

It keeps him grounded, he says, and, unlike many of his opera colleagues, at home for half the year.

“For me, if you have accepted to being an artist and making a career of it, you owe it to yourself to be well in that and not be working just to pay off a ridiculous lifestyle.”

The fact he’s got to relate to someone at home means, he says, he’s also working on not letting setbacks affect him too much.

“I’m trying to find that equanimity where I can actually put those concerns in a drawer and be present and not let the rest of my day suffer because didn’t have a great practice day.”

The Schubert Sessions CD is Sly’s first JUNO nomination and he says he’s honoured to be in a category that also includes another Ottawa-raised baritone, Gerald Finley, sopranos Barbara Hannigan and Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Trinity Choir conducted by yet another Ottawa native Daniel Taylor. Sly’s one wish … that there also be a JUNO category for choral works giving another opportunity to better recognize the range of Canadian classical music for voice.

Sly’s on his way to Vancouver where he will sing in a classical music showcase this weekend, hoping for the best but, whatever happens, very happy to be there.

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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.