Mireille Asselin and Amici Ensemble travel into heart of Canadian songbook

Mireille Asselin. Photo: Bo Huang

There’s nothing the soprano Mireille Asselin likes more than a project … big and small, she does them all.

Few of them are as challenging … and interesting as the one that has just gone on sale in stores.

The CD, Inspired by Canada/Notre Pays on the Marquis label (Marquis Classics MAR 81485), was a true journey into the great Canadian songbook, including the nooks and crannies where the forgotten tunes are hiding.

Asselin was invited to take part in the development of the record and to sing on it with her friends in the Amici Chamber Ensemble.

“Basically it’s kind of a crossover CD but it is more nuanced than that. We started out wanting to honour those we feel are Canada’s great art song writers. In the classical world, when we think of art song, we think of Schubert and Debussy.”

But she has no doubt that songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and the Quebecois chansonniers Gilles Vigneault and Claude Léveillée are in that tradition.

She’s worked with the Amici trio before on other projects.

“We sang a concert together three years ago. It was vocal repertoire with the trio’s clarinet, cello and piano. The following year they asked me to join them on a fundraiser at which we did a new arrangement of Cohen’s Hallelujah which Amici pianist Serouj Kradjian had done. It was,” she says, “kind of the kernel of the whole project.

“We were so surprised how lovely that material worked with the instrumental forces of the group.”

This record doesn’t fit easily into any musical boxes, she says.

“The label has been trying to figure out where to position it,” she says. “It’s fundamentally a classical album, it sounds very classical, but it’s open. We have, for example, Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. It’s neo-classical sounding which an homage to Glenn Gould at the end of it which sounds like a Bach prelude.”

The other members of Amici are David Hetherington, an assistant principal cellist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Joaquin Valdepeñas is the principal clarinetist with the TSO.

Essentially, Asselin says, the four took the idea of Canadian art song “and applied our musical instincts.”

The search broadened to eventually include folk songs from places such as Newfoundland and Quebec. Songs such as Un Canadien Errant and Red River Valley got the treatment and found a spot on the CD. The Red River Valley is on the disc as a bit of a tribute to Asselin’s fiance who is from Manitoba. The couple will marry this summer on the family farm in the real Red River Valley.

“The whole project became a labour of love as we were trying to figure out what to put on it.”

Canada has always had an identity issue, she said. That made it an interesting exercise.

“We said ‘OK, we all have our individual feelings about what Canada is and what our musical touchstones are.” And they started to dig in.

Asselin is French-Canadian, now living in Toronto. “Genetically I’m Quebecois but I grew up in Ottawa and New Brunswick. I really identify with the Acadian community where I grew up. A lot of the French songs we pulled from were ones I had memories of from New Brunswick.”

Along the way she says she found the connections between Canadians of different regions were actually strongly connected by msuic. There is, she says, quite a cross pollination across the solitudes.

“You see this especially out east where a very strong traditional Celtic folk music tradition sits side by side with Acadian folk traditions.”

Connections are great, but how the heck did they pick the music for the record?

“It really did involve hours and hours and hours of parsing through raw material. It was massively overwhelming. On the one hand you feel blessed that there is this abundance of riches that you get to choose from. That veers into frustration that there is so much people don’t know. Truly so much music is rotting away in the stacks of some library somewhere.”

At the end of the day they chose pieces that “spoke to us as musicians and people; things we couldn’t put down and kept coming back to.”

They did try to balance English and French, and east and west.

Serouj Kradjian felt strongly about one piece of music that he compiled called Underground Railroad Songs. He took, Asselin says, three spirituals that were essential in the symbolism of the Underground Railroad by which black slaves found freedom in Canada in the 19th century.

His family had fled ethnic violence in the Middle East and found safe haven in Canada so the underground railroad story meant a lot to him.

The team also included, with care and due respect, a First Nations lullaby.

At the suggestion of a First Nations singer they reached out to the Eel Ground First Nation for permission to record a song from their community that had been recored by Helen Creighton, a white musicologist in the early 20th century.

“This lullaby was something we found at the University of Toronto library. It was just called Mi’kmaw lullaby.”

After more research they found the band and made contact. The band chief helped Asselin find out who had sung the lullaby on the recording and she found her descendants.

At the end of the day, Maqi Denny’s Lullaby made it on the record.

She says many of the songs will be familiar but others won’t be as well-known.

For example, the second last track is Ma Cabane au Canada, that was a surprise hit in Europe but not so much at home.

“A lot of Europeans know it but I don’t think anyone here would really know it.”

They have also recorded the prelude to the Second World War movie The 49th Parallel. The actor Raymond Massey starred in it and the music was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s turned into a vocalese on the CD. A vocalese is a song without words in which the voice is, in this case, a fourth instrument. Asselin sings an ‘ah’ vowel throughout.

In all, she says, they could have made 10 more CDs.

As for the rest of her musical life, Asselin has just completed her fifth season at the Metropolitan Opera. She’s also been doing some contemporary opera in Toronto. And she’ll be in Europe this summer with Opera Atelier in Versailles, France; making her U.K. debut and taking a turn at the Rossini Opera Festival in Italy. And there might even be some Ottawa dates on the horizon.

If you want the album you can find it on iTunes.

Share Post
Written by

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.