NACO’s Rachel Mercer is all about making the music happen

Rachel Mercer. Photo: David Leyes

Composers write the music and the musicians play it. That’s the standard formula, but musicians take on another role more often that you think by commissioning new work and advancing the art form.

One such commissioning musician is Rachel Mercer who sits in the principal cello chair with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

This weekend, she’ll play a piece she co-commissioned from the Canadian composer Vivian Fung called Humanoid which combines cello and electronic sounds as part of a new music series called the WolfGANG Sessions that takes place on a regular basis at the Mercury Lounge in the Byward Market.

“For me, commissioning, in the past five to eight years, has become more important,” Mercer said in an interview. “I have worked with living composers for a long time now, playing pieces that weren’t necessarily written for me.” After awhile she realized she could ask someone to write something specifically for her and feel comfortable doing that.

“I believe that, in commissioning, I discover voices from whom I want to hear more, and I feel very lucky to be in a position to help make that happen. Selfishly I want to have them write for the cello, especially if they haven’t already, so I can play their music.
“(But) it’s not something I would have done when I was 20.”

Another aspect of the composer-musician relationship is that sometimes composers will write something for someone without being asked.

“It’s amazing to have someone come to me and say ‘Rachel, I have written this piece for you.’ I feel so honoured when that happens. It’s just really wonderful to see this relationship that you can have with a composer.”

Trust grows that produces more music over time, she says.

“(Composers) know that you understand their language and you’ll represent it the way they feel happy with the way you present it. That is how it has evolved.”

Commissions always involve money as far as Mercer is concerned. She won’t take a freebie. So she fundraises either by writing for a grant, or contacting donors or out of her own pocket.

“I have done all those things and I feel now I am in a very lucky position that I can do those things.

“I can’t write a piece of music myself at all. I’m more intuitive with music theory. Of course I studied it and if I had to I could put something together but it’s not my thing.

“I have so much respect for composers and what they do. I have no idea how they do it and they are all so different in their processes.”

Humanoid was done with contributions from six different sources including Mercer. The other five commissioners were organizations looking for a piece for their organization.

“I am the only unaffiliated person,” she said.

Mercer knows Fung after having played a piece of hers at an earlier WolfGANG. The composer approached her and asked if Mercer wanted to be a part of the process.

“She had some ideas about it already. I didn’t have any involvement in the process of her writing the piece but I knew it would be for cello with electronics.

“These days electronics means anything that is on a pre-recorded track. It can sound like regular classical music or be electronic effects.”

Humanoid, Mercer says, is built on an idea of human against machine. Fung explores that through the kinds of sounds she uses and the way time happens in the piece, Mercer added.

“There is a first section with lot of blips happening on the tape. The cello makes these surging sounds in response and then there are times when the cello is supposed to sing like a human voice.

“You will also hear singing voices on the tape including the sounds of a baby (actually Fung’s young son).

“I have played it three times now and I can now do different stuff in reaction to the score. It’s like playing chamber music … the track doesn’t change, but piece can feel very different.”

The first piece written for Mercer was called Melodrama and Flight for cello and electronics by Dennis Patrick who teaches electroacoustic music at the University of Toronto and Philip McConnell in 2009.
The first commission she made was for a sonata for cello and piano called Crossings by Abigail Richardson-Schulte in 2011. That spurred her on. Te next commission happened very soon after. She asked Kevin Lau to write a cello concerto called Foundation “which I will finally be doing the second performance of in October with the Niagara Symphony.”
Those relationships developed with composers over the years have come in handy.

Example: She has run a chamber music series called 5 at the First in Hamilton for the past eight years. In May, she’s doing a program with her partner and violinist Yehonatan Berick and NACO’s Jethro Marks on viola.

“I realized it would be neat to have a little encore piece that would be a companion to the Mozart Divertimento so I asked Abigail Richardson-Schulte who lives in Dundas near Hamilton to write an homage to Mozart. It’s called Ein Kleines Trio.”

And sometimes there is a very direct contact with the composer. She is currently collaborating with Ottawa’s Kelly-Marie Murphy who is writing a double concerto for cello and harp that Mercer and Erica Goodman will premiere with the McGill Chamber Orchestra on Oct. 15. This one isn’t one of Mercer’s commissions however. It’s the result of Murphy winning the 2018 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music.

“I really enjoy playing new music, especially Canadian work … and not only current work but older contemporary music too. There is all this other repertoire that doesn’t get played enough.”

Mercer, as a self-managed musician, knows that “you have to make stuff happen because stuff doesn’t get handed to you on a plate. First of all you have to know what you want to do. That has never been a problem for me. I always have dreams of projects that I want to do. I write them down and at some point it’s time to start developing this.”

In her family home, her parents both played instruments.

“It was inevitable that my sister and I would pick up something. I did Suzuki method so I started when I was three. There was an older family friend who was playing cello and that’s why I picked it.”

By 14 she was in conservatory and playing a lot of chamber music. After undergrad at the University of Toronto, she went to the New England Conservatory in Boston then she went overseas to study in Amsterdam for a couple of years.

Right out of school she joined the Aviv Quartet and stayed in Europe for the next six years.

“It was a full-time touring string quartet. Right after I joined we won a major competition (the International Critics Prize at the Bordeaux String Quartet Competition in 2003). And we ended up playing throughout Europe.

“I grew thinking that I was going to play string quartets for the rest of my life. I did that for a long time and I loved it. It was amazing. But at some point I wanted to do more.

“I felt that I needed to be on my own for awhile so I left Aviv.”

She had other chamber projects and lots of solo work and then in 2016 a job with NACO opened up.

“My partner got a job as a violin professor at the University of Ottawa. We had had a long distance relationship for seven years. He got the job here and almost at the same time the NACO job in the cello section opened up. It seemed something good to go for. I had never thought about playing in an orchestra full time.”

Over the course of a the past two years, she has now obtained the post of principal cello, a job once held by Amanda Forsyth.

And a new world has opened up.

“I started really studying orchestral scores and I hear the colours of the orchestra every day. That is feeding my chamber music.”

While they compliment each other, and I appreciate being able to do some other activities along with working with NACO, I’m fully committed to the things I do and wouldn’t want anything to be compromised, so it’s basically about juggling the schedule.”
WolfGANG: Session 11
With members of the National Arts Centre Orchestra
Where: Mercury Lounge, 55 Byward Market Square
When: April 7 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.