NACO on Tour 50: Erin Wall’s music marathon

Erin Wall: Photo: Kristin Hoebermann

LONDON — About 11 years ago, Erin Wall decided to start running.

The Canadian soprano had just ended a long relationship and was looking to change her life.

“Now it is a habit I don’t seem able to break,” she said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

“I started because I was tired of being defined by someone else’s idea of what I could do. And I was tired of being defined by my own idea of what I could do.

“I had always hated running because I was really crappy at it, but a friend talked me into signing up for a 10K and I did it … because I wanted to take some weight off. But I didn’t want to finish last. I ran whole thing, I didn’t finish last and an addiction was born.”

She is now on another kind of marathon. She is currently travelling with the NAC Orchestra on its 50th anniversary tour of Europe. She’ll be singing in Dear Life, part of the Life Reflected quartet of new music about Canadian women. And she will sing The Lonely Child by Claude Vivier.

Her running helps her singing, she says.

“It teaches you to push through discomfort and pain in a way that can be applicable to other areas in life. It’s also a good way to self-medicate anxiety away.”

She’s still not a fast runner but last November, after a couple of hurdles, she completed the New York City marathon.

One of those ‘hurdles’ was breast cancer. Even during her treatment she was running.

She has been quite open about her cancer and she seems to have settled into a calm acceptance that the cancer will be a chronic concern for the rest of her life.

Today, there is no evidence of the disease, she said, but “it could come back.

“When I finished treatment and I was back to my regular life of performing I felt like I had a get out of jail free card. There is a new appreciation of life.”

That new zest has her excited to be on the NACO tour, the longest she has been on, giving her lots of time to reacquaint herself with old friends Joanna G’froerer and Chris Millard.

“All the soloists are Canadian; there is lots of Canadian music. I think it’s putting Canadian music in the forefront and I love that. It means a lot to me to do this.

She joined the orchestra in London after a concert in Austria where she sang in a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

Wall sings a lot of opera and a lot of concerts.

“When I had my kids ( a son nine and a daughter six), I definitely tried to focus on concerts because of the time commitment of opera. You can be away from your family for three months at a time in an opera.”

She fulfills her opera needs in Toronto with the Canadian Opera Company where her partner is an administrator. The family lives in Mississauga.

The pieces she sings with NACO are modern and difficult.

“It’s challenging,” but “I am open to it.”

One reason is that she has perfect pitch “so it’s a little easier for me to learn some of the crazy things that occur. It’s easier for me to pull pitches out of the air.”

One of the challenges of modern works is figuring out what note one is actually singing.

“My parents were musicians (in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) and they figured out as soon as I learned to name notes and what the notes sounded like that I had perfect pitch.

“They used to trot me out at parties like a little trained monkey and my dad would play pitches and I would say what they were.”

Perfect pitch is one of the brain’s many mysteries. Wall does wonder: “Why do I have it? It’s very strange.”

She says that, “90 per cent of the time I hear a note and I know it. Sometimes if the note is isolated I can be off a bit and I notice as I get older I am losing some of my skills.”

It helps her learn music. “But it doesn’t help when you are in an ensemble and asked to transpose. One conductor I worked with would transpose all the time up a step or down and I would go berserk. I couldn’t do it.”

Wall has sung Dear Life every time it has been performed save the most recent on March 8.

“Dear Life was a huge challenge. This was the first time I had sung micro-tones where you are almost sliding between notes. It’s also challenging because of the range Zosha (Di Castri, the composer) uses. It goes up to a high C sharp, especially in the beginning and the meter is changing constantly.

“It gives me high blood pressure every time I perform it until I have sung the last note.”

Despite the difficulties, “I do like it. It really conveys the story Dear Life by Alice Munro. I can’t be that objective because I have been a part of it for four years now, watching it come to life.”

Still, “I have sung things that are challenging in and of themselves and I don’t particularly like them. They are just an ordeal.” But she likes Life Reflected.

She also likes that the quartet of compositions tells four different stories about four strong women.

“It is a female forward project.”

The Lonely Child is equally challenging.

“Both Vivier and Di Castri use these extended vocal techniques. In Vivier, for example, I am use my hands against my mouth and make some sounds you wouldn’t normally hear in the concert hall.” The first time she performed it, it was part of a concert of music by Ravel. She could see the audience wrestling with the piece.

Still, “it is a very haunting piece. You really feel the lonely child.” Vivier’s own lonely life — he was an orphan — is thought to be the basis for this composition that speaks to isolation, loneliness and the fear of the dark.

The Lonely Child is also physically demanding and so Wall spent the past several weeks singing the piece through twice a day to build up her stamina. Here is where running helped.

Wall started making music as a child on the piano.

“My parents were not stage parents, but they did put us into lessons. We have done same with our kids. I want them to have a musical education because I believe it’s important for brain development.”

She didn’t start singing in front of people by myself until college. She is, she says, an anxious person. “It’s a general condition of living for me.”

“I sang in choirs and musicals but always in the chorus. I was terrified and it took a while to get over that. I didn’t think I was good at singing.”

Look at her now.

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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.