Living a musical life: Roland Graham turns Southminster Church into a hub for music in Ottawa South

Roland Graham is making music happen in Old Ottawa South.

A few years ago, Roland Graham, the music director of Southminster United Church, acquired a venerable but still very viable Heintzman grand piano.

He raised the funds to restore the inner workings of the instrument and, once that was completed, he started the Master Piano Recital Series.

Graham seems to start concert series on a regular basis. He now programs three out of the church located in Old Ottawa South at 15 Aylmer Ave. The other two are the Doors Open for Music series of pay what you can noon-hour concerts and the Concerts by the Canal.

Just programming one series would seem like a lot especially when you consider his other duties as the music director of an active church such as conducting a choir and playing the organ during Sunday services and on festival days.

The largest is Doors Open which sees about 40 concerts a year from September to June on Wednesdays. The first concert in Doors Open this fall is on Sept. 6 and features the young pianist Daniel Tselyakov. Also on the list are Ottawa harpist Caroline Leonardelli and jazz master Brian Browne.

Doors Open started small.

“The very first thing that happened was in 2013 when I proposed running a noon-hour series of six concerts through Lent at Southminster as a musical offering.

“Basically I was testing the waters to see what the response would be. I took it on as part of my job.”

Graham had done something similar in Verdun in an Anglican church. The idea is to present predominantly emerging artists. As a graduate of music from uOttawa and the University of Montreal he has contacts. Often young artists are searching for places to play in front of an audience and hone their skills.

He is trying to connect them to a public “that is generally only to happy to go to concerts.”

The free will offering resonates well at the community level, he believes, by making the music accessible.

But, “I’ve been trying to encourage people to not think of the concerts as being free … but at the same time I do not want any barriers to people who legitimately want to go to a concert.

He pitched the idea to the church and they agreed, with a caveat: under no circumstances could the series lose money. To put a floor under the project he found a few private donors and raised about $1,000 which intended to cover costs such as piano tunings, posters, the basics. The performers would be paid a percentage based on the take at the door.

“The concerts did so well right off bat, I didn’t need the donated money and was able to save that for the future.”

It was, he says, immediately obvious that the series was viable. So he got permission to extend it past Easter into June, and then into the following fall. It’s been growing ever since.

Southminster is blessed with a great location in an accepting neighbourhood that includes Carleton University. And the concert series is blessed with a supportive institution that is interested in community building, something Graham also believes in strongly.

“When I was a child if somebody asked me of what I thought I might be doing I would never have thought of that. But it is one of the reasons I have gravitated towards that kind of work starting in the Verdun days. Being a music director in a church is very much a community building role.

“And being one of leaders of a church community carries that kind of responsibility.

“I guess I have always seen the power of music as a force for connecting people. If I had to boil my noon hour project series in particular but really all of them, down to one thing: it’s connecting the artists who want to pay music with an audience that wants to hear them.”

The second series to start was the piano recital series in the fall 0f 2013. This is a project of Graham’s alone.

“I am a pianist. My advanced training is on the piano and I know loads and loads of pianists. It was an obvious thing for me to do.

“The piano is something that a lot of people have a connection too. And there are a lot of young pianists with only so many opportunities to play in public.”

The piano series has brought in younger performers including a young Charles Richard-Hamelin at the beginning of his rise to international prominence. It has also featured the internationally respected Vietnamese star Dang Thai Son, George Lee, who won the second prize in the annual Tchaikovsky competition and the New York-based Simone Dinnerstein. Hamelin will be back this fall in in a Concert by the Canal.

MPRS continues this year with four concerts. It will open with a performance by the Canadian Jeanne Amiele who made the 30 under 30 list last year. She is followed by the Montrealer Richard Raymond.

“One of things I like about these young artists is that they are really at the top of their game. They are working hard, practicing hard to succeed in their careers.

As a result, you get shows that are really polished. It’s not that great pianists don’t do the same thing but when you are established and one of the stops is a series in Ottawa … is that going to be one of the big shows of your year, probably not.

“Whereas for the young artists who play in MPRS, this is a big deal.”

There is, Graham says, a lot of music making going on in Ottawa.

“Another thing I have observed is there is an incredible number of young people training in music and the standard that is set is incredibly high. We are seeing that across the board, not just in classical world.

“For the emerging artists coming on the scene now the level is as high as it has ever been,” he says.

The final series, Concerts by the Canal, started last year and it is a direct off-shoot from Doors Open.

“Just over a year ago, I was listening to one of the noon hour concerts and thinking ‘This concert should happen more than once. Why don’t I do something on the weekend?’

“It just sort of happened. I spoke to my colleagues at the church and they again said ‘Let’s give it a shot.”

CBTC is on Saturday nights and charges $25 for a ticket. The concerts are longer and the  artists are paid more.

This year’s opens Sept. 16 with a concert by violinist Veronique Mathieu with an all-Canadian show. It will also feature the final round of the Brian Law Opera competition. held by the National Capital Opera Society, the Artie Roth Trio, a jazz ensemble, a performance of Faure’s Requiem, another jazz trio featuring two Grammy-winning, identical twin reed players from New York City, Peter and Will Anderson.

The final concert of the fall series of CBCT pairs Charles-Richard Hamelin with Andrew Wan, the concertmaster of l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal.

Graham started in piano lessons in London, Ontario.

My mother put all us kids in lessons. Her rule was ‘Get your Grade 8’ and then you can stop. I sang in church choir for many years. I got the Glenn Gould Bach bug and was obsessed with that for awhile.”

He moved to Ottawa after high school and continued to study music independently. He joined the St. Matthew’s Anglican Church choir under Matthew Larkin’s direction and he started studying the piano with the well-known accompanist and performer Jean Desmarais who was also teaching part time at uOttawa. That sent Graham to university first at uOttawa and then for his master’s in piano at the University of Montreal where he studied with Marc Durand.

He returned to Ottawa to take up what was supposed to be a temporary post at  at Southminster which has since “turned into something longer term.”

For information on Doors Open and Concerts by the Canal, including dates and times, please see Information on the 2017-18 Master Piano Recital Series will be available at in coming days.

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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.