Music and Beyond: John Rutter has a vision of music for Ottawa’s Kerson Leong

John Rutter will be in concert on Sunday at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

When the British composer and conductor John Rutter appears in concert on Sunday at Dominion-Chalmers United Church, he’ll raise his baton for a work he wrote for Ottawa violinist Kerson Leong. In the first of two ARTSFILE interviews, Rutter talks about the piece called Visions. We also asked Kerson Leong about working with John Rutter. His comments are included. Our second interview with the composer will be published Saturday morning.

Q. Tell me how did this piece come about?

A. This came about through the (Yehudi) Menuhin competition. The fellow who organizes the whole thing had a very good idea for Menuhin’s centenary year in 2016, when the competition was due to be held in London. It rotates around a number of cities. He thought it would be nice, rather than just having a competition, to make it a festival. To that end he had the idea to invite back one or two past winners to play in London at some celebration concerts.

I had attended a concert at the Temple Church in London held to celebrate my birthday. This is the famous lawyers’ church. He was sitting next to my wife at dinner when my Gloria had been played and asked her, ‘Would John be interested in writing something for one of our past winners if they come back to London for the centenary?’ She said ‘Ask him.’

So he did. He told me there was this young man called Kerson Leong who had won the competition’s junior bit when he was 12 years old. He was at the time 17. Kerson was coming to London and it was thought it would be interesting to commission something specially for him.

I said I would see if I could see his playing 0n Youtube. Which I did and I was impressed because not only has Kerson got formidable technique but he has a profound musicianship as well.

After that I said I’d like to do it. The first concert was to be held in the Temple Church. I was also asked to also find a role for the boy choristers of the church.

Q. How did you react to that request?

A. I said this is extraordinary because this will be either be the only violin concerto in the repertoire that has a part for choir, or it will be the only choral piece with a virtuosic part for solo violin. I was intrigued by that idea and agreed to do it.

Q. What was the next step?

A. The next thing was to think about what I was going to write.

One evening, I was walking around inside the church in darkness and the shadows were falling across the tombs of the crusaders. These were the Knights Templar. The Temple Church was the London headquarters of the order.

They came back from the Holy Land with all their plunder and they used their ill-gotten gains to do good works. They opened schools and hospitals. There was an element of some idealism there. They built the old part of the Temple Church as a direct copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

I wondered then if I could write a work inspired by the church and by its history and the idea of Jerusalem, which is not just a troubled city in the Middle East. It’s a place which stands as a metaphor for the holy city on the hill, a place we hope to go after death. It is a vision of peace. Of course, it is also a shorthand in the Old Testament for God’s People.

There is a lot of history and poetry attached to the idea of Jerusalem. That gave me the way into the music I wanted to write, because it does have a role for choir in articulating the words that I have chosen that are mostly from the Bible.

At the same time, it has a role, poetically speaking, for a solo violin that stands for God’s people in the wilderness. So, that was how it came about. We did premiere it in the Temple church. Since then, I have performed it with Kerson in several places, most recently in Carnegie Hall on the American Memorial Day. We also have done it in Hong Kong which was nice because he is of Asian parentage. His father is Chinese and his mother is Vietnamese. It was nice to perform it in Asia.

Last year we performed it in St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was an awe-inspiring experience. St. Paul’s is just down the street from the Temple Church but it’s five times larger. We performed with the Royal Philharmonic who were very impressed with him.

Q. And you two are performing it in Ottawa…

A. Kerson sort of felt wistful that he had performed this piece in these places around the world but never at home. So I am glad we have a chance to perform it in Ottawa.

That came together with an approach from Julian Armour (of Music and Beyond). He had asked me before, but the date never really worked out. This year I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can make it work out. So I am doing a brief but intensive visit with a concert that we’ll do twice on the 15th and 16th and that will give Kerson an opportunity to perform Visions on his home turf.

Q. Kerson Leong, you are playing the piece Visions that John Rutter wrote for you? Tell me about that?

A. I’ll be bringing the Canadian premiere of Visions to my hometown.  It is a piece for solo violin, boys’ choir, string orchestra, and harp. I was very honoured when the Menuhin Competition invited John to write a piece for me. We have recorded it together, as well as premiered it around the world (Carnegie Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Hong Kong, and in Brisbane, Australia).

Q. The idea of a famous composer choosing you to write music for is pretty flattering? How did you react to it.

A. The wonderful thing is that John wrote Visions with my playing in mind. When I first received the score, I was struck by how natural it felt to bring out all the lyricism within and how I’m able to literally just let the violin become my voice. I also enjoy the intertwining dialogue between my line and the choir’s — it makes for a very natural cohesion. I always enjoy playing it, especially with John on the podium. Working with him is such a pleasure as he is so warm and engaging as a person.

John Rutter with Kerson Leong
Music and Beyond
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: July 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.