Arts·Governor General's Awards

'A versatile, imaginative and prolific creator': Celebrating Alexina Louie, one of our finest composers

Longtime collaborator David Jaeger pays tribute to the boundary-pushing musician.

Longtime collaborator David Jaeger pays tribute to the boundary-pushing musician

Alexina Louie. (alexinalouie.ca)

Alexina Louie will receive the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. Watch the televised special celebrating the laureates on CBC Television and CBC Gem on November 26 at 7pm ET.

The news that my friend and colleague, composer Alexina Louie, would be a 2021 Governor General's Performing Arts Award recipient brought me warm feelings. The citation for her Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award in Classical Music reads, "A versatile, imaginative and prolific creator, she has written for all musical genres, from piano, voice and orchestra to opera and film; her orchestral works have been performed by leading international ensembles, and her music has been selected for productions by the National Ballet of Canada. Her distinctive style — a blend of Asian and Western influences — draws from a wide spectrum of sources, from her Chinese heritage to her theoretical and performance studies. Though she is a thoroughly Canadian composer, her musical voice is heard, recognized and acclaimed around the world."

Louie and I met soon after her decision in 1980 to return to Canada after a decade spent in California in pursuit of a career in music. Her plan to develop a composition and teaching studio in Los Angeles had not progressed as quickly as she had hoped. Early that year, a producer colleague of mine at CBC Vancouver, Norman Newton, told me that he had just heard a stunning work by this gifted young composer who was returning to Canada. Newton suggested I might wish to commission a new work from her for my new radio network series, Two New Hours, as a symbolic way of welcoming her home.

I agreed, and Louie came through with the commission, her first of a number of CBC Radio commissions she would work on over the years. The successful premiere and broadcast of "Refuge" gave her confidence that she truly could make a career as a professional composer in Canada. She said, "I became a professional in L.A., but returning to Canada provided a whirlwind of opportunity to develop my creativity."

Louie settled in Toronto in 1980, and over the subsequent four decades, she created a brilliant and ongoing career whose highlights are far too many to mention. Some of the most notable ones include her work O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould, composed in response to the tragic and untimely death of Gould in 1982; two JUNO awards, as well as numerous JUNO nominations; her opera, The Scarlet Princess, commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company; her 2005 appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada; and esteemed awards like the 1999 Jules Leger Prize for New Chamber Music, the 2019 Canada Council Molson Prize in the Arts, and the SOCAN Concert Music Award for the most performed Classical composer of the year in 1990, 1992, and 2003.

Alexina Louie. (alexinalouie.ca)

We had many memorable moments in the recording studio, such as when I produced her very first recording for release on the Centrediscs label in 1986. This was a recording of her brilliant Cadenzas with percussion soloist Beverley Johnston and clarinet virtuoso James Campbell which garnered a JUNO nomination for Classical Composition of the Year when it was released in 1987. It was no great surprise that her first recorded tracks would attract such acclaim, as her work uses dazzling virtuosity to evoke vivid tonal colours and enchanting, even bewitching musical moods and textures.

Johnston told me, "This Centrediscs recording with Alexina Louie's Cadenzas was my first commercial recording. It was such a pleasure, not only working with Alexina on interpretation and editing of the music, but also working for the first time with clarinetist extraordinaire, James Campbell. These collaborations over the years have lasted since I've had the opportunity to work with both Alexina and James on other works and performances. I always admired Xina's directness when dealing with musicians. She always got to the point and depth of the music at hand."

In 1993, we recorded Louie's Music for Piano for CBC Records with pianist Louise Bessette, herself a past winner of a Governor General's Performing Arts Award. Bessette's recording of Music for Piano remains a favourite of classical radio programmers, heard time and time again on air. In 2002, the Centrediscs label invited me to produce a recording of Louie's favourite chamber works in Glenn Gould Studio. From this recording, the title track "Music for a Thousand Autumns" earned a nomination for Classical Composition of the Year at the 2003 JUNO Awards.

Louie wrote, "In my pieces I aim to create something captivating, magical, touching, inspiring. It doesn't matter if the work is meant for a young piano student or the audience of the National Ballet of Canada, I cannot be satisfied with my work unless I aim high. I also avoid writing the same piece over and over, a trap that is easy to fall into. However, pushing boundaries and propelling yourself into new personal artistic territory can be frightening."

"The compositions listed in my catalogue span many decades. You can hear my musical voice taking shape in the earlier pieces. There are works from those formative years that still affect me deeply. They still ring true after so many decades."

I was, personally, pleased to play a small role in advancing this stellar career by broadcasting virtually all of her major works on my CBC network radio series. I was proud to introduce her work to listeners around the world through international program exchanges such as the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. Whenever and wherever we presented her work, audiences responded with delight and amazement. Her sonic signature is unique and captivating.

Louie sums up the essence of her achievement when she says, "Music is the most ephemeral of the arts — a mere vibration in the air. The string, the vocal cord, a length of tubing, a block of wood are set in motion by a bow, the breath, a mallet. The air vibrates and it travels to you. Your eardrum quivers with those vibrations — you are moving with the music. The composer controls those vibrations that you receive. What a job!"

Congratulations, Alexina. Here's wishing you many more years of your unique and distinctive creative work!

Watch the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureate ceremony November 26 at 7pm ET on CBC Television and CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Jaeger is a Toronto-based author, broadcaster, composer and JUNO Award-winning music producer.

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