Musical friends: Stewart Goodyear pens Cello Concerto for NACO’s Rachel Mercer

Stewart Goodyear. Photo: Anita Zvonar

The pianist Stewart Goodyear and the NAC Orchestra’s principal cello Rachel Mercer have known each other for a long time. They first met at the Royal Conservatory of Music when they were part of a piano trio with violinist Susanne Hou. Both were 13.

Mercer recalled in an email to ARTSFILE: “I think I was too young to be aware of the extent of his existing career but I definitely recognized I was lucky to be in group with these two. I don’t remember talking that much, but the depth of the big Brahms B major trio seemed to be a piece of cake for him.”

Indeed. Goodyear was a prodigy and remains a standout concert pianist. But he has another skill. The Toronto-based performer is also a skilled composer with many works in his bibliography.

The most recent commission is from the NAC Orchestra with help from the Ontario Arts Council and the University of Ottawa. And it is a cello concerto for his good friend Rachel Mercer.

Rachel Mercer. Photo: David Leyes

“Rachel and I talked about the possibility of my writing a cello concerto for her some three or four years ago,” Goodyear said.

“Everything just aligned. Both Rachel and I spoke to NACO and they were very excited about the possibility. The commission came and inspiration began,” he said.

Goodyear graduated from the conservatory at 15 and he moved on to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at 15. His mother was with him there until he graduated at 18. Then “I was on my own.”

After he left the conservatory “we all went our separate ways. We were all studying in different places. We stayed in contact though and Facebook brought a lot of us back together. Rachel’s (chamber) group Ensemble Made In Canada performed my piano quartet three years ago.” It’s also on the books for a performance in Ottawa in the near future.

While Goodyear’s piano career was accelerating, he was continuing to explore composition.

“I started composing at age six. It has always been a part of my life. I knew that there were ideas that were mine that I had to communicate to audiences.” Early on he was composing motets for choir while attending a choir school in Toronto.

But “I was always wanting to write pieces for orchestra. I was studying orchestration at eight and I was collecting scores. I loved the sound of the orchestra. I just thought it was an incredible art form. It was something I felt passionate about.”

He was encouraged by composition mentors throughout.

At the conservatory, Samuel Dolin was a guide and at Curtis the gifted American composer  Jennifer Higdon was another.

“I never majored in composition,” he said, “but I was always composing and always learning about music.”

Goodyear uses the word eclectic to describe the composers he admires. “Beethoven was very eclectic especially when you see his output. His Symphony No. 9 was an eclectic utterance with all those influences coming together in the Ode To Joy.”

Chopin and Johann Strauss were important influences as are Gershwin, Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein.

“All these composers  were inspired by the atmosphere around them, by the music that was playing in their cities.”

Goodyear is half Trinidadian and half British and both sides of his heritage are present in his music, he said. “Every time I compose there is always a little bit of Trinidad that comes out. There is also a lot of my British background as well.”

He also says there is a lyrical sensibility that comes from his time at choir school where they were singing motets by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell.

“Lyricism was something that I was very fascinated by from an early age. I try to always be mindful of whatever I do lyrically and rhythmically which for me comes from a very personal place.

“There are always pictures that you have in your mind when you listen to a piece of music. The beauty of the music is that for every individual there is something unique in how these pictures take place.”

With his cello concerto “I knew I wanted to write a vehicle that was lyrical and virtuosic. I knew it would be very much inspired by Rachel’s deep commitment to everything she plays and her sensitivity as a chamber musician. I knew I would be inspired by that.

“What I did not know was how I was going to write it and what mood was going to be conveyed, but I knew it was going to be a work that was really set out to be inspired completely deeply by Rachel who she is personally and musically.”

He said it’s important to strike a balance between writing something that is inspired by someone, but that is still coming from him.

To that end, the two were in communication right up to when Goodyear started writing. That’s when the cone of silence descended for a time.

This concerto is the first time Goodyear has written anything virtuosic for the cello. He has written cello parts in chamber pieces.

This time “I knew I was getting into very unique territory so I just started studying how composers have treated cello, how they used it orchestration and looking at every cello concerto ever written.”

That’s a lot of homework, but this was a big deal.

“This is one of the biggest projects I’ve ever had as a composer. It was very challenging and exciting. I love challenges. Because this is such a big project it inspired me to take the plunge and go as deep as possible.”

He wrote one version, took a look and tossed it.

“It’s always very different, but in this case I wasn’t satisfied wth the first draft.”

So he wrote a second. That one was the one he showed Mercer. “It was ready for more eyes to see.”

Mercer says she can’t wait to hear the full force of the orchestra engaged in the concerto.

“Until the first rehearsal the true sound of the piece is only in my head.

“I find it fascinating how he’s used the orchestra to create his own sound worlds. The different instruments have clearly been chosen to create very specific characters in relief with or together with the solo cello.

“He has a very personal and sometimes complex harmonic world which contributes to his unique voice, but it is still instinctively accessible to the listener, creating moods and atmosphere.” 

She added that Goodyear’s exploration of the cello repertoire shows. But “he didn’t shy away from writing what he truly wanted, but he has really done everything to maximize possibilities on the cello, from allowing it to ring to virtuosic passage-work written to lie in the hands.”

The arrival of the draft of the concerto wasn’t the end of the job. The two discussed possibilities for the next few months.

The concerto took Goodyear several more months to complete. He was always sketching even if he was on tour playing concerts.

The concerto is one movement that is 22 minutes long, he said.

“It is in a language of the present. It’s also a narrative work which could suggest a story to listeners.” It’s also a very emotional work, he said. Friendship, of course, is an emotional thing.

“She has been a wonderful friend and great supporter.”

For Mercer’s part, getting a piece of music “is truly an honour and a gift from anyone, but when it’s someone you know and can call a friend, there’s another personal level of feeling connected to the music.

“There is also a feeling of confidence in your ability to communicate their story, which is what we performers are always trying to do. Add to that cameraderie and collaboration, which can only enhance the musical output.”

This won’t be the only Goodyear composition to be heard in Ottawa this season. On April 27, he will play Callaloo which is a Caribbean suite for piano and orchestra.

This is a piece he had wanted to write since he was 14. It honours his Trinidadian heritage.

“I wanted to write a work that combined classical with calypso but I couldn’t come up with a structure that satisfied me until five years ago when went to carnival in Trinidad for the first time. We were just surrounded by the sounds and the history.” He knew then what he was going to write and how.

“I hadn’t written a piece for myself in a long time. It’s a suite in five movements. and it’s also a personal postcard.”

Goodyear said the cello concerto was emotional for him for another reason.

“This is the 30th anniversary of my relationship with NACO, so it’s also a love note to them. My orchestra debut was with them when I was 11. Since we have worked together many concerts from Mozart to Gershwin.”

There is more. His first composition for orchestra was a piano concerto for NACO. He was 13 when heard that performed. Some of the themes from that piano concerto echo in the cello concerto being performed on — when else — Valentine’s Day.

Goodyear Cello Concerto
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Feb 14 at 8 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.