Making music with the Mercer sisters

Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner and Rachel Mercer. Photo: Bo Huang

Sisters Rachel Mercer (the principal cello of the NAC Orchestra) and Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner (violinist) are sharing their love of music and their relationship in a new recording of music by Canadian women composers called Our Strength, Our Song. The album is on the Centrediscs label (at the Canadian Music Centre) with worldwide distribution by Naxos. The official digital launch is on Dec. 6. The worldwide physical launch is Jan. 3, 2020. If you want a CD please see or The sisters explained how this project came together to ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me about your family home growing up. 

Akemi: We were lucky to have a loving family home where we were endlessly supported in everything we did and encouraged to do all sorts of activities. I think my mom was driving us somewhere every day, whether it was soccer games, violin lessons or private gymnastics lessons in my school lunch hour. Our parents are both incredibly dedicated, disciplined and motivated people which hopefully rubbed off a bit on me. I must say Rachel has always been a big influence for me, especially musically. We grew up playing together and developed a similar musical understanding and I can always ask for her advice and would trust her completely. 

Rachel: We were so lucky to have parents who wanted us to experience all kinds of things, so not only did we have music lessons and sports, but we were taken to festivals, museums, camping, hiking and also travelled regularly to England where our dad’s mother lived, as well as other trips to France, across Canada and the U.K. and the U.S. As sisters, we’ve always been extremely close, so it’s hard to say who influenced who. I think it would depend about what. If it’s about music, I guess since I’m the older one you could say I started lessons first, but Akemi was soon doing Orff [a music method for young children] and it was inevitable she’d play something too. As we got older it was also clear that she was a natural athlete, doing flips on her own in the front yard. I still did some gymnastics and soccer, but definitely recreational, while she was in the competitive streams. We had normal sister bickering, and there were times growing up when the 2.5 year age gap seemed bigger or smaller, but generally we shared so much together, and there is no one in the world I trust more or feel closer to in a really special way than my sister.

Q. We know a fair bit about Rachel’s many musical activities but we’re hoping to learn more about you Akemi. 

Akemi: I am assistant principal second violin in the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. I’ve been here for 11 years and really love my job. We play a wide variety of repertoire  from Baroque to contemporary music and of course the great german romantic repertoire. Our orchestra is especially known for Mahler symphonies which are slways exciting to play.  Every week is a new program with a different conductor and soloist which always beings in fresh ideas. We also do yearly tours in Europe and every two or three years an Asian tour. My passion I must say is for chamber music. I have a string trio with my husband Dirk who is assistant principal viola in my orchestra and enjoy other colourful programs with different instrumentation, mostly with colleagues from the orchestra. For example in one hour I am about to play a concert at the radio hall of a mixed programme for strings, harp and flute.

Q. Tell me a bit about what playing together means? 

Akemi: Playing with Rachel will always feel like coming home. Rachel will always be one of my favourite people to make music with. I love her intensity and her understanding of music. We know each other so well, respect each other and know each other’s playing so well, we barely need to rehearse.

Rachel: For me it means being able to have complete trust that the result will be a sensitive, honest, unique interpretation of whatever we are doing. Even though we studied at some different places and now work on different continents, there is so much overlap in background and experience, plus just the fact of growing up hearing each other, that we have really similar values and understanding of music. Plus I think when we play together, our individual egos are put aside, and what you hear is really the dialogue between two sisters. For me it’s a different experience from playing with any other violinist. Even when one of us is dominating in temperament or the music, there is still this underlying sensitivity (whether positive or negative) that is related to our being sisters. 

 Q. Are you opposites-that-attract sisters or like-minded?

Akemi: I’d say we are actually very different, but at the same time understand and accept each other fully. 

Rachel: I think we’re more similar than not. We’re definitely products of our parents, and each carry their personality traits to certain degrees. So when the similar, more “vigorous” temperament rises in both of us, maybe there’s a bit of friction, but in the end we always balance out. Even though we’ve lived apart for so many years, I think we just know each other so well, all our vulnerabilities, fragilities, strengths and deepest inner lives. We are each other’s biggest champions. 

Q. When it came to Our Strength, Our Song: what was the spark?

Rachel: The real spark was the desire to do something with my sister. We’ve played a lot together, but it has become harder with our schedules and the distance with her being in Germany.

We always visit a few times a year, but I wanted another excuse to be with her, plus, of course, she is an amazing musician and we have a special musical connection.

Over the years I’ve spent time looking for repertoire for various concerts, often music for violin and cello, often Canadian works. During this research I came upon the duos by (Violet) Archer and (Jean) Coulthard, which I had never heard and didn’t think they had been programmed much.

I’d also been waiting for a chance to commission Jocelyn Morlock after playing and hearing a lot of her music, and I thought Alice Ho would be the perfect person to write for us. Having played a few pieces by her, I was curious what she would do with our Japanese heritage and in fact what she wrote related exactly to that, without prompting.

I had wanted to work with David Jaeger — who has been a longtime mentor to me on many aspects of the music business involving commissioning and recording — for a while. With him on board as producer, he suggested a young composer who was doing a Masters at the University of Toronto, Rebekah Cummings. After asking her to write for us, I ended up playing a piece of hers called Forget on a recital of music for cello and electronics at the Canadian Music Centre. With a bit more research I found Barbara Monk Feldman‘s Pour un nuage violet and the program was complete.

This all happened around 2017. We received the pieces between July 2018 and February 2019, rehearsed in Germany and Toronto, and recorded this past April, with a premiere recital of the whole program just after.

Q. Tell me more about Jean Coulthard and Violet Archer.

Rachel: Jean Coulthard and Violet Archer were part of a trio of composers (including Barbara Pentland) that had a huge influence on Canadian music during their time. They are often grouped together as they all mysteriously died in the same year, 2000. Archer and Coulthard studied in Canada and abroad, Coulthard in Europe as well as the U.S., and both ended up teaching — at the University of Alberta and University of British Columbia.

Coulthard has a unique and colourful use of chromatic harmony and some of the lyricism could have been influenced by late Romantic French or English music. In this particular piece at least, I feel one can hear the influence of Hindemith on Archer, rhythmically, harmonically and through the compactness of the work. They are not necessarily easy to play, with some thorny bits, and while both were hand-written scores. The Coulthard was really difficult to decipher, with many questionable notes and markings that had to be “interpreted.” At some point in the second movement, it actually says “re-write” on the score. In the end we hired Trevor Wilson, who had previously studied violin, composition and conducting at uOttawa and is now at Peabody studying conducting with Marin Alsop, to create a computerized version that is as close to the score as possible. It will soon be published through the Canadian Music Centre site.

Both pieces were written for violinist Tom Rolston and cellist Shauna Rolston, part of the incredible musical family that ran music at the Banff Centre for years. The Coulthard is dedicated to pianist Isobel Rolston. To add to this, Tom Rolston gave me many special and unforgettable opportunities during summers at the Banff Centre, not only my quartet getting to play with Menahem Pressler, but playing the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Sonata multiple times to accompany a pas-de-deux in the summer dance program. I still remember him zipping around on his red scooter. I studied with Shauna Rolston at the University of Toronto, and she has been a huge influence and supporter over the years. My mom studied piano with Isobel briefly during her time at the University of Alberta and my mom was in the Masters composition program at U of A with Violet Archer until I was born. I guess I derailed that. Both my sister and I were born in Edmonton. I did apparently get a little Snoopy stuffed animal from Archer. I wish I could say I still had it.

Q. The CD title comes from a Rebekah Cummings piece? Why?  

Rachel: For our commission, Rebekah was inspired by the connection of sisters. She has a deep connection with her own sister. She was also influenced by the way generations of Bulgarian women connect through traditions. She said it best in her notes: “ These songs are a strong, common bond among the women and girls in the community, and a remarkable way in which the older generation upholds the younger and imparts wisdom, culture, values, beauty, and strength.”

Her music and words pierce right to the heart. Shortly after Rebekah sent us her piece, she was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour. She underwent surgery and treatment, but succumbed a few months later, even just a week after we had sent her our latest rehearsal recording for her notes.

We never got to meet her, but from what we can tell she was a vibrant, positive, force of energy who lifted up the people around her. What her piece stands for, and its title, perfectly represent the beauty and strength of women all over the world.

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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.