Ottawa Symphony sails up the Saint Lawrence River with Victor Herbiet

Ottawa Saxophonist, composer and professor, Victor Herbiet, used to perform with the Canadian Forces music branch. But since 2011, he has focused on solo performance, education (he teaches at uOttawa) and composition. In his music Herbiet says he mixes twelve-tone music with French impressionism, Canadian folk, American jazz and Latin music. He is principal saxophone of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. His composition, Sur les berges du Saint-Laurent, will premiere with the OSO on Nov. 18. He answered questions about the piece from ARTSFILE.

Q. What are you doing these days Victor?

A. These days I’m teaching saxophone at the University of Ottawa as well as running the band program at the Collège Catholique Mer Bleue. I’m also composing original works for saxophone and showcasing them where I can. In January, I will be promoting my album The Road to the Ethereal Gate (Centrediscs 2018) as well as presenting three of my published compositions for solo saxophone at the International Saxophone Symposium in Washington D.C. organized by the U.S. Navy Band. I’ve also applied for funding to record another album of my compositions this upcoming summer.

Q. Tell me the origin of Sur les berges du Saint-Laurent?

A. I started thinking about writing a French-Canadian folk inspired overture-like piece for orchestra while I was working on a concerto for violin (doubling on viola) in 2014. The opportunity to develop my ideas and the motivation to go ahead with this project presented itself when I was approached with a commission to compose a 10-minute work for orchestra in April of 2017.

Q. When did you start working on it? 

A. Officially, Sur les berges du Saint-Laurent (On the shores of the St-Lawrence) was commissioned by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada), at the behest of Dr. Bernard W. Andrews, a professor at the Faculty of Education of the University of Ottawa. The initiative was called The Genesis Project: An investigation of contemporary music composition. Its goal was to document the compositional process of a new work as it was being composed. During the 18 months it took me, I kept a journal of my progress and answered many questions about how my identity (age, gender, minority group) affects the music I write. A few years before receiving the offer to participate in the Genesis project, I had envisioned a piece for symphony orchestra that would be a Canadian-themed symphonic poem akin to Bedrich Smetana’s Moldau. Since I hadn’t developed my Canadian symphonic poem idea beyond the conceptual stage, the Genesis project was the perfect opportunity for me to move forward with this project and see it to completion.

Q. When you approach a piece like this which is based on the river, where do you begin?

A. When I started establishing the framework for this piece I knew there would be a section that would feature French-Canadian folk tunes. To that effect I listened to a lot of traditional music and violin reels to see what I wanted to quote. I ended up choosing Vive la Canadienne, À la Claire Fontaine et J’entends le Moulin. For the reel, I decided to compose my own because I needed the music to fit specific criteria and I also liked the idea of having something original that felt familiar. The rest of the material required less research as it is original and in my own style.

Q. There are four parts to the piece. Please walk me through each one.

A. The piece depicts four scenes that can be imagined on the Saint Lawrence River: the dawn, a nautical adventure, French-Canadian folkloric celebrations and the flight of migratory birds. In a sense these four sections depict the fours elements of Antiquity: Earth (the shore), Water (the boat ride), Fire (festivities) and Air (the birds).

To begin, I attempt to transport the audience members outside of the concert hall and onto the shores of the Saint Lawrence. To do this, the string section holds long notes in superimposed perfect fifths while the woodwinds take turns playing musical phrases and imitating birdcalls. As the piece goes on, we see the sun rise above the water and we set off on a nautical adventure. Here, the brass and percussion sections illustrate the excitement of the boaters and the crashing of the waves. We eventually end up in what could be a music festival in Quebec. This section is built like a rondo where an Irish-style reel is used as the refrain while diverse French-Canadian folk tunes are used in the episodes. All the musical material of this section is blended together and gives way to the final section in which we hear the depiction of a large flock of migratory birds flying overhead accompanied by the musical theme heard in the first section.

Q. Musically, how would you characterize the piece? Explain.

A. Although the beginning of the piece has some Stravinsky-inspired melodies, musically this piece is more reminiscent of early 20th century French music blended with French-Canadian folk melodies near the end. I went with a more impressionistic idiom because, for one, it’s the style in which I feel the most at home and, secondly, impressionism lends itself very well to the depiction scenery.

Q. How long is it? 

A. Ten minutes. Lately, I’ve been composing shorter four to five minute pieces for chamber ensembles so this piece was a bit of a stretch. The musical material is ample but using the orchestra to its full potential was the real challenge. I have less experience composing for large orchestras and finding the sounds I’m looking for can be difficult and time-consuming. There’s also a fair amount of doubt as to what will actually be effective in the concert hall versus what looks good on paper.

Q. Can you put the piece into context in terms of your musical career? 

A. A large-scale orchestral work is certainly a departure from my comfort zone of composing for chamber ensembles in which I’m playing. This is a key moment where I will be able to assess if I have a future as an orchestral composer or if my skillset is better suited for smaller groups. Although it’s immensely satisfying to compose for such a large group, I must admit that in the time it takes to compose an orchestral work of this size, I could have composed a dozen smaller pieces. This said, I have no regrets composing this work and I’m quite proud of the result.

Q. Is there a featured instrument?

A. The piece is for the entire orchestra and all the principal players have some exposed melodic lines. I’ve also taken care to give exposure to some of the less usual suspects like the bass clarinet and the tuba.

Ottawa Symphony Orchestra
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Nov. 18 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.