Living a musical life: Margaret Maria honours heroines with new CD

Margaret Maria. Photo: Mark Maryanovich

Margaret Maria Tobolowska is a respected cellist, teacher and co-founder of Ottawa’s OrKidstra. Since leaving the National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2011, along with teaching, she has embarked on a flurry of different projects including composing music and recording CDs. Her latest is an homage to Canadian heroines from the arts, politics and everyday life called Heroines in Harmony. Before the virtual launch of her disc she answered questions from ARTSFILE. The following is an edited transcript.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about your life in music?

A. I started playing cello at age 12 at Bloorlea Public School in Etobicoke (they had a vibrant strings and orchestral program in schools back then) after hearing the school orchestra play for the incoming elementary kids. I saw the cello from far away being played by a girl who was using vibrato and I just knew that had to be me. By 13 I knew I wanted to be a professional cellist. By 16 I was at U of T in the Bachelor of Performance program.  At 19, I attended the Curtis Institute of Music and by 21 was one of the youngest members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 

Q. A few years ago, you decided to stop performing including with NACO? Why so?

A. I think there comes a time in one’s life where you ask, is that all there is?  Is this my life?  And I knew that I was starting to hear and produce new music that just had to be explored.  As a creator, I needed to give myself the space that allows for new music to come forth.  It also coincided with a dream I had.  I heard the most exquisite music in my life in a dream. It was magical, like nothing I had ever heard before. In some ways, I am seeking that music. 

Q. You are still involved in music, though. What are you doing?

A. A number of new projects: I am writing arias for the soprano Donna Brown to perform next season with the Ottawa Chamber Orchestra. Rage Angel is a production band that I formed with fellow composer Craig McConnell. It’s an intense cello and electronics hybrid that I love producing and is part of the APM Music Licensing Catalogue. Another kind of sound that I am excited about is Cinematic Steampunk that is co-created with veteran film composer John Massari in Los Angeles and is part of the A-List Trailer Production Music library in Los Angeles. I also create because I  need to release the emotional energy that builds up within me. I am at my best and happiest following my muse. 

Q. You also teach. Why?

A. I always need to feel like I am making some kind of difference in the world. I love teaching and it gives me a direct hit of doing something so positive and helping kids grow. 

Q. You are closely affiliated with Orkidstra. How did that happen?

A. Tina Fedeski, Gary McMillen and I co-founded OrKidstra in 2007 after seeing a film about El Sistema called Tochar y Luchar. Each of us had been transformed by music in our lives and we knew that in creating a musical community that empowers kids, their parents, their environment, and ultimately the world, we would be expanding on the vision of social justice through music of the founder of El Sistema, the late visionary Jose Antonio Abreu. OrKidstra is now thriving with more than 600 kids from underserved communities participating. We have Angela Hewitt (who I dedicated one of my Heroine tracks to) and Alexander Shelley as our ambassadors. It is life affirming to watch these kids grow through a life of making music together.

Q. Why composing?

A. This is a late-in-life skill that seemed to appear bit by bit.  After a traumatic relationship early in my life, I felt that I was left with nothing but what I could create from my own imagination. The music came from a very deep need to make something. It has grown stronger and the last three years there has been an intense amount of music coming through me in a very short period of time. Without any composition background, but many years of playing incredible music in orchestras and chamber music with renowned musicians, I now create what I hear is coming next in the classical music repertoire. Much of the time I nod to my musical heroes, Prokofiev (whom I adore for his wit and pure magical propulsion) and Shostakovich (for his breadth and musical weight), constantly striving to come up with motives and music that they would be perhaps be challenged by, in the same way that they challenge me. If I laugh out loud and say to them, ‘Hah … what do you think of that?’, then I know I am kind of on the right track. 

Q. Tell me abut your discography. 

A. I have nine albums in total. My first two were children’s storytelling albums (A Cello for Chelsea and Zara the Maggini) where I play and narrate stories for kids. The next three show my transition as a composer and really are my experiment of making music (Enchanten 2012, Enchanten Rising 2013 and Enchantress 2014).  My most recent album Carried by an Angel (2017) is my love story told through some of the most heavenly music I have written so far.  For me this music embodies what I do best, channelling emotion and coating it with musical notes and textures that mean something deeply personal to me.


Q. The newest is Heroines in Harmony. Why did you choose this subject matter?

A. This idea had been percolating for some time. The voices of women have been hidden, erased, dismissed, diminished within classical music and film music worlds. I had this urge to show that women can write and create some of the most exciting and vibrant kickass music on earth. Heroines in Harmony has given me the platform to do just that. 

The women I have chosen to honour with music have affected my own world. They are all Heroines for living their truth. In highlighting their achievements, I’m trying to contribute in a small way to making the world more aware of Herstory.

Q. Do you have one heroine that started this project? 

A. Margaret Atwood was the first I chose and the piece Chaos Reigns came from her words “The darkness is really out there.” This music channels the relentless evil that permeates the world right now. … I feel great fear and concern for the state of the world and the atrocities that we watch happen one after another. This music helps me express what I sense.

Q. You have dedicated one piece to Tina Fedeski, the executive director of Orkidsta. Why?

A. On the complete other end of the spectrum, this music is born of pure energy, joy, innocence, angels and peace.  Tina is the closest Heroine to me, and what she does for the children and the community is astounding. I wanted to embody her energy and life in this piece called Tiny Wings.  It will also become a song that OrKidstra and KidSingers will perform hopefully next year! 

Q. How long was this CD cooking?  

A. This album was a year in the making and came about through an Ontario Arts Council Music Recording Grant.

Q. It’s mostly solo cello, save for two pieces with Ron Korb. Who is he? Why him?

A. This album features two tracks co-written and performed by Grammy nominee, composer and flutist Ron Korb who is a good friend of mine. We were trying to find a project we could work on together. It was inspirational collaborating with Ron in honouring the life of Emily Carr through the piece Dream Painting. We also wanted to honour the lives of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada with a piece we titled, To What End. Making music with Ron was a great experience and it added a new timbre to my ‘cello-rchestra’ palette. I use my cello as orchestral instruments as well as creating percussive sounds. I am sure that I will write for full orchestra soon … it is just a matter of time.

Q. Where can I get the CD?

A. The CD will be available here (and on Spotify and iTunes) on April 4. There are ideas brewing for bringing some of my heroines on this album together with OrKidstra this upcoming year. I couldn’t have imagined this possible, but it’s an idea that would be incredible. The list includes: Buffy Sainte-Marie, Roberta Bondar, Lt.-Col.  Maryse Carmichael, Evelyn Hart, Emily Carr, Viola Desmond, Joannie Rochette, Elisapee Sheutiapik, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Honourable Louise Arbour, Margaret Atwood, Marguerite D’Roberval, Angela Hewitt and Tina Fedeski. 

Q. This is not an easy road. Why do you do it?

A. I seem to be caught in energy that is slightly mystifying and yet so real. You can hear it in the music.  Maybe I am trying to prove that there is more to us, more to life, more that what we can see, and it lives inside the music. 

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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.