30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, 2020 edition

Meet the young musicians burning up Canada's classical music scene.

Meet the young musicians burning up Canada's classical music scene

CBC Music's classical '30 under 30' list has been a beloved summer tradition since 2013. (Jon F. De Leon, Artona Group Inc., Stuart Lowe; design by Melody Lau/CBC Music)

With the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting our lives and raising questions about the future, it's nice to know that at least one summer tradition continues: CBC Music's annual classical "30 under 30" list.

Every year since 2013, we've taken a moment to shine a spotlight on Canada's emerging classical musicians. They're winning competitions and awards, graduating from top music schools, making exciting debuts — and we think they're amazing.

While the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic couldn't be worse for young musicians trying to make their mark, we know this obstacle will be no match for their talent and dedication in the long run.

New this year: Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra will feature musicians from our classical "30 under 30" list in its ongoing series NACO Lunch Breaks and Musically Speaking with Alexander Shelley, and through performances streamed from the NAC's 4th Stage. Follow Canada's NACO on Facebook to get notified.

Now, scroll down to meet this year's inductees into our classical "30 under 30" community, from oldest to youngest. And if there's a rising classical music star you'd like us to know about, hit us up on Twitter via @CBCclassical using the hashtag #CBC30under30.

Marcel d'Entremont, tenor

Age: 29
From: Merigomish, N.S.

"I have always been surrounded by female teachers who supported me at different times both in my musical and personal life, and I am so grateful for all of them," enthuses Marcel d'Entremont, singling out his most recent teacher, Joanne Kolomyjec, with whom he recently completed a graduate diploma in performance at McGill University. "I always want to be better for her," he says.

While studying with Kolomyjec, d'Entremont won the 2018 Wirth Vocal Prize ($25,000), resulting in his recital debuts at Montreal's Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur and Toronto's Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Last October, he won the CBC Music Prize at the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio Competition. D'Entremont's most recent triumph was singing Rodolfo in Against the Grain Theatre's touring production of Puccini's La bohème. (Watch it here.) "I love everything that Against the Grain stands for," he says, adding, "I want [artistic director] Joel Ivany to be the face of Canadian opera."

The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled all of d'Entremont's work for the foreseeable future, which is stressful. ("I worry about everything," he admits.) Perhaps TV's feistiest tenor sax player can point the way forward? "Lisa Simpson is always the person who stands up for what she believes in, no matter the adversity," he says. "The quintessential feminist TV character!"

'Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open,' says Marcel d'Entremont, quoting Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Dominick Gravel)

TJ Skinner, violinist

Violinist TJ Skinner holds their instrument.
'People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,' says TJ Skinner, quoting Maya Angelou. (Annie Éthier)

Age: 29
From: Victoria

If you ask TJ Skinner about the music they listen to, be prepared for a long and vertiginous reply. Laura Mvula, Isabelle Faust, Martha Argerich, Kendrick Lamar, Pekka Kuusisto, Danish String Quartet, Jessie Montgomery — "I enjoy a very wide variety of musical genres," they say. It's a window into the world of this dynamic violinist who's based in Montreal, where they've just completed a doctorate at McGill's Schulich School of Music.

Skinner is a member of collectif9, a string ensemble that's been turning heads with its novel approach to the concert experience and that released its second album, No Time for Chamber Music, in 2018. They're also one-third of Trio Émerillon, which has been workshopping new pieces by student composers at McGill.

A recent highlight for Skinner was playing with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal for its European tour (March 2019) and tour of the Americas (October 2019). They also regularly play with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. That is, when they're not too busy making lists ("I make one every day that includes what I want to get done"), cycling on Mount Royal and sampling the goods at Guillaume Bakery ("so delicious and dangerously close to where I live"). Bon appétit, TJ!

Ari Cohen Mann, oboist and English hornist

Age: 29
From: Vancouver

"Oboes are so fussy," says Ari Cohen Mann, and they would know: their own oboe cracked four times during the 2018-19 season due to changes in humidity and temperature. And yet, they concede, "I truly love what I do and wouldn't trade it for anything." A graduate of Yale, Mannes College and UBC, Cohen Mann is currently based in Toronto, where they're busy performing and teaching. Lately, they've been creating fun tutorials on Instagram and YouTube, carving a space for themself as the Jonathan Van Ness of the oboe. "I hope that I can make a positive impact through these platforms."

Cohen Mann loves New York, having made their Carnegie Hall debut as part of the Yale in New York series and played Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet at Jazz for Lincoln Centre. But for their honeymoon, Cohen Mann and their husband, Peter, will likely skip NYC and head to Barcelona when international travel resumes. (Their wedding was delayed by COVID-19, but finally took place on July 29.)

For inspiration, Cohen Mann turns to mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato ("her tone, her vibrato, her phrasing and her meticulous storytelling") and, lately, Franz Schubert ("his music is simple but has so much depth to it"). Fun fact: they still know all the words to Britney Spears' Oops!... I did it Again, the first record they owned.

Ari Cohen Mann poses with two oboes.
'Do the best you can with the time you have!' — Ari Cohen Mann (Oboeari Photography)

Marie Bégin, violinist

'Love the people around you, always do your very best in everything and be open to where life leads you.' — Marie Bégin (Stéphane Bourgeois)

Age: 28
From: Quebec City

"My life went from going 150 km/h to 10 km/h," says Marie Bégin, referring ruefully to the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the careers of performing artists. This summer, she was to have played Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending with Les Violons du Roy at the Lanaudière Festival, but that was cancelled. It was a disappointment in an otherwise stellar year: Bégin was the soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto with l'Orchestre symphonique du Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean (of which she's the concertmaster); she was also the Stuttgart Kammerorchester's guest for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5; and she recorded her debut album (Debussy, Fauré, Franck, Szymanowski) at Domaine Forget with pianist and friend Samuel Blanchette-Gagnon, to be released later this summer.

The daughter of professional violinists, Bégin picked up the instrument when she was three and soon fell under the spell of Maxim Vengerov, with whom she eventually studied in Europe. "He's such a refined and sensitive musician as well as a fantastic pedagogue," she says.

Recent interests include the music of Schubert ("I am obsessed with his melodic lines"), piano music ("I listen to much more piano than violin!") and Stranger Things ("I really like the '80s vibe"). And due to her hyperactive nature, she's constantly building and fixing things — even her car! — with the help of YouTube DIY tutorials.

Jonelle Sills, soprano

Age: 28
From: Toronto

"One thing that most people don't know about me is that I can't drive," admits Jonelle Sills. And yet, she travelled a lot of Canadian highway last fall, singing the role of Mimì in Against the Grain Theatre's touring production of Puccini's La bohème, performed in bars from Alberta to Ontario. She also sang in that company's April 2019 production of Claude Vivier's Kopernikus, which won a Dora Award for outstanding performance of an ensemble.

As a lyric soprano, Sills idolizes the late Mirella Freni. "Everything that she was able to do with her voice inspires me," she says. "Her jewel tones go straight to your heart." She also loves R&B artist Mac Ayres. "His music just makes me feel like it's a perfect summer night — warm, fun, comforting, chill and I want it to last forever."

For Sills, the musician's never-ending quest for perfection is exciting. "There is always music that can be learned and techniques that can be strengthened, making it impossible to be bored." Although, she concedes the COVID-19 lockdown has tried her patience: "When things move forward I will be so grateful to sing for a live audience, go to dinner with my friends or go to church on a Sunday." Until then, she's got her side hustle (teaching ESL online) and she'll train for her next half-marathon.

'You are excellent because you are capable!' — Jonelle Sills. (Jon F. De Leon)

Joel Allison, bass-baritone

Age: 28
From: Carleton Place, Ont.

At the age of 15, Joel Allison heard Gerald Finley sing an aria from Mendelssohn's Elijah, and his fate was sealed. "I still get goosebumps," he recalls. Now, Allison is busy giving audiences goosebumps of their own with his beautiful, expressive voice. Last summer, he took part in the Young Singer's Project at the Salzburg Festival and signed with IMG Artists; in February, he sang in the semifinals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions; in May, he completed his training at the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio; and this month he begins a one-year contract with Deutsche Oper Berlin, where he'll be singing 18 roles in 14 productions.

"Whenever I need to calm down and just breathe, then my motto is 'Vienna waits for you' from Billy Joel's 'Vienna,'" says Allison. "That is my calm-down song when I get worked up about career stuff." He also turns to Eveline, his "very loving and persistent wife," and when all else fails, single malt scotch.

He's going to make his TSO debut (exact date to be announced) singing Monterone in a semi-staged performance of Verdi's Rigoletto. Until then, he'll listen to Hillary Hahn play Bach, indulge his sweet tooth ("I love cheesecake and anything dark chocolate!") and tell dad jokes.

'Whatever it takes.' — Joel Allison (Taylor Long)

Ruby Turok-Squire, composer, singer, poet

'For me, always/ the delight is the surprise,' says Ruby Turok-Squire, quoting Matins by Louise Gluck. (Neil Turok)

Age: 27
From: Waterloo, Ont., via London, England

"I wish I had wings," says Ruby Turok-Squire. "I'm very jealous of birds." That jealousy is perhaps misplaced, since her career is in fact soaring these days — and in so many directions at once. Turok-Squire is currently studying for a master's in English and drama at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, while also studying composition privately with Canada's David Jaeger. In May, she was one of eight recipients of the annual BMI Student Composer Awards.

After graduating from Oberlin College and Conservatory (composition and English literature), Turok-Squire was awarded a Watson Fellowship to spend a year researching the music of animals. (Not surprisingly, she has a hard time pinning down the animal she resembles most: "A panda or an elephant or a meerkat or a dolphin or a scarlet macaw," she wavers.)

Turok-Squire and her father (theoretical physicist Neil Turok) passed the Canadian citizenship test last year, after 12 years as permanent residents in Waterloo, Ont. She has spent this summer in Leamington Spa, England, where, during normal times, she sings with the University of Warwick Chamber Choir, Concordia Vocal Octet and Opera Warwick ("The closeness that singing or playing together brings is irreplaceable") and teaches Shakespeare to secondary school students and English as a second language to refugees.

Ema Nikolovska, mezzo-soprano

'Come back to the body and the breath, and that is enough for this moment.' — Ema Nikolovska (Kaupo Kikkas)

Age: 26
From: Toronto via Skopje, Macedonia

According to Ema Nikolovska, the best thing about being a musician is "constantly challenging the imagination and feeling like what you're about to embark on is impossible; the rush of fear and wonder from being onstage and sharing vulnerability with others." She appears to have mastered that tightrope walk, having recently completed her master's degree and opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and been selected as a 2019 BBC New Generation Artist.

Fun fact: Nikolovska completed an undergraduate degree in violin at the Glenn Gould School with Paul Kantor and Barry Shiffman. But it's as a singer that she's getting noticed these days, winning the Eugène Panebakker LiedDuo Award at the 2019 International Vocal Competition 's-Hertogenbosch with Michael Sikich, and nabbing the Ferrier Loveday Song Prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards.

"To go from a very intense performance schedule in London and Europe to months of cancellations was a shock," she says, reflecting on opportunities lost due to COVID-19 — including her debuts at the Gstaad, Luzern and Salzburg festivals in recitals with András Schiff. Instead, Nikolovska has been spending time with her family in Toronto, "trying to find some beauty and gratitude in each day," before departing for Germany where she's set to join the international studio of the Berlin Staatsoper.

Jean-Luc Therrien, pianist

Age: 26
From: Repentigny, Que.

In 2011, then teenaged Jean-Luc Therrien heard Beatrice Rana perform at the Montreal International Music Competition and was "amazed by the maturity, power and quality of her playing, even though she was only 18 years old." Nearly a decade later, Therrien is getting noticed for those same qualities, reaching the finals of the Shean Piano Competition (which was cancelled due to COVID-19) and, in January, winning first prize in the Glenn Gould School's annual concerto competition. He'll play Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra under Peter Oundjian at Toronto's Koerner Hall on Nov. 27 as a result.

Liszt's music holds a special fascination for Therrien. He transcribed Liszt's symphonic poem Les Préludes for solo piano and intends to include it on his elusive debut album. "Since I can't perform in public, I think that it will finally be the occasion for me to make this old dream of mine come true," he says.

Speaking of dreaming, Therrien spends a lot of time in bed ("I sleep a lot") and admits, "I generally find it difficult to stick to a routine." Nevertheless, last season he got it together and gave a series of chamber music recitals for Syrinx Concerts Toronto with violinist Mai Tategami and cellist Zlatomir Fung, gold medalist of the last Tchaikovsky International Competition. "Playing chamber music is one of my favourite things to do and this was one of my most enjoyable collaborations in the past year."

'Quand on veut, on peut. (Where there's a will, there's a way.)' — Jean-Luc Therrien (5600 °K Productions)

Emma Johnson, soprano

Age: 26
From: Regina

How exciting it must have been at the 2019 National Music Festival in Saskatoon when provincial favourite Emma Johnson won not only the $1,500 first prize in voice but also the competition's $5,000 grand award. She'll return to Saskatoon for a performance in the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra's revamped and reimagined 2020-21 season as a result of this strong showing.

Johnson recently completed her master's degree in voice performance at the University of Manitoba, where she studied with Monica Huisman. "I came to the University of Manitoba like an unfinished puzzle," she reflects. "Monica had this innate sense of what we needed to work on to complete the puzzle. 'Progress, not perfection,' was her motto, and that really changed the way I approached my artistry."

Johnson is busy making progress offstage, too. "A friend and I have a goal to run a half marathon on another continent within the next year," she says. If that falls through, she'll settle for long-distance cycling, trying to control her bass-baritone envy (it's real), and cuddling with Gert, her newly adopted kitten.

'Accept the things you cannot change, and change the things you cannot accept,' is a quote that inspires Emma Johnson. (Matt Johnson/Matte Black Photos)

Manar Naeem, oudist

Age: 26
From: Waterloo, Ont.

"Music is a global language of love that can bring different cultures and communities together," says Manar Naeem, who's busy doing exactly that through her performances with the Canadian Arabic Orchestra and by teaching oud to children and adults at the Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music. 

Parallel to her activities as a musician, Naeem studies physics at Wilfrid Laurier University, minoring in computer science and math. "I'm also doing research in quantum music analysis that aims to analyze music of different cultures using quantum computing," she explains. "My research tries to answer the question: do different cultures have similar patterns in their music?"

She's inspired by iconic Syrian composer, singer and oudist Farid al-Atrash, and says Umm Kulthum's "Enta Omri" is the first song she learned to play. Naeem's upcoming projects? "I hope to grow as a musician with the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, which represents home, family, and hope for me," she says, adding, "I want to explore opportunities to work with Western Orchestras in Canada or abroad and participate in bringing Western and Eastern music together." Any takers?

'Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love,' says Manar Naeem, quoting Mother Teresa. (Ali Al Lami)

Hillary Simms, trombonist

Age: 25
From: St. John's

When she was eight, Hillary Simms picked up a Frank Sinatra CD while on holiday with her family. "While I did sing along to Frank, I mostly sang along to the brass lines in the background," she recalls. "Thinking back, that trip started my obsession with brass."

One facet of that obsession is the recently formed Canadian Trombone Quartet, an all-female professional trombone quartet, of which Simms is a founding member and which gave its first performance in January. Also in January, Simms was named Stratford Symphony Orchestra's 2020 emerging artist and was to have played Ferdinand David's Concertino for Trombone and Orchestra with the SSO as a result, but that performance got sidelined by COVID-19. Also cancelled were performances with Esprit Orchestra in April and the TSO in May as well as her participation in the inaugural brass ensemble at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in Massachusetts in July. "The pandemic kind of shagged up my musical plans for the next 12 months," she concedes.

A silver lining was the birth of her first nephew, James, in October, and her acceptance to Northwestern University in Chicago, where she's moving in September, along with her fiancé, tenor Ricky Nan, to begin her doctorate.

'You might as well try.' — Hillary Simms (Zachary Haas)

Bryn Lutek, percussionist

'They can kill you but the legalities of eating you are much dicier,' says Bryn Lutek, quoting David Foster Wallace. (Supplied by the artist)

Age: 25
From: Toronto

"When I was in high school I was arrested for shoplifting books," admits Bryn Lutek, and while stealing is (we hope) a thing of the past, his intellectual curiosity is undiminished. Lutek recently completed his master's degree at the University of Toronto, studying with Aiyun Huang and Charles Settle, and collaborating with three other students on research into John Cage's experimental electronic work Cartridge Music. "Our project was accepted to the TENOR 2020 International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation and Representation in Hamburg, Germany, which has of course been postponed, but which we still plan to present at when it is held next summer."

Lutek has recently moved to Quebec City to begin his new job as principal percussionist of l'Orchestre symphonique de Québec. "I'm very excited about that opportunity and, although it came at a very tricky time for music organizations of all kinds and orchestras especially, it's been encouraging to see the ways in which the OSQ has managed to stay active through the lockdown." While he waits for the OSQ's full-time activities to resume, he's practising his French, working on a remote recording project of arrangements by New York-based composer Rob Mosher, and trying to perfect the elusive quiet snare-drum roll: "No matter how long you spend on it there's always work to do there."

Jennifer Tran, saxophonist

Age: 25
From: Brampton, Ont.

For saxophonists, opportunities to perform with orchestras are limited, and yet Jennifer Tran is undeterred. In October, as a winner of the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra's concerto competition, she played Florent Schmitt's Légende, Op. 66, with the UTSO under Uri Mayer; in 2018, she was the alto saxophone soloist in Darius Milhaud's Scaramouche with Brampton's Rose Orchestra under Sabatino Vacca. Next March, she's slated to play Edison Denisov's Sonata for Alto Saxophone as a soloist with the U of T Wind Ensemble.

Equally enamoured of chamber music, Tran belongs to not one, but two saxophone quartets. She's the soprano saxophonist in Dialectica, dedicated to new music that fuses jazz and classical music, and she plays in the aksəs quartet, which specializes in string quartet transcriptions. Both groups have concerts planned for the coming season, COVID-19 permitting.

"Being a musician trained in Western classical and contemporary music has its challenges," reflects Tran. "The arts is a sector that relies on federal patronage, to enrich and nourish each other — the people. These existing systems are far from being equitable and barrier-free for everyone, and collective action in our communities or institutions to address them is a start."

'Food always comes to those who love to cook,' says Jennifer Tran, quoting a line from the film Ratatouille. (Supplied by the artist)

John Sellick, violist

Age: 25
From: Winnipeg

Before the COVID-19 pandemic put an early end to John Sellick's final year at the Glenn Gould School, highlights of his schedule included playing with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra for their production of Hansel und Gretel, touring with the combined National Youth Orchestra of Canada and European Union Youth Orchestra, and getting in "a terrific shinny season on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg over the Christmas holidays." Not surprisingly, he compares himself to a black-capped chickadee: "I love Canadian winters and I'm addicted to sunflower seeds."

Sellick says he favours chamber and orchestral music over solo work because "the mish-mash of personalities that come together in each ensemble always creates a unique (and usually wonderful) outcome." And that collaborative spirit extends to his personal life, too. "I'd like to get a big van and take the entire Glenn Gould School viola studio with me," he says. "They're wonderful people and I think we would have a hell of a time if we went cross-country together."

While he waits for that to happen, he'll busy himself with teaching through the El Sistema music education program, and breaking in his first car, an old Honda CRV that he says will be instrumental in those essential late-night pizza runs.

'A runny yolk is preferable to an overcooked one.' — John Sellick (John Sellick)

Midori Marsh, soprano

Age: 25
From: Toronto via Cleveland, Ohio

In October, Midori Marsh won first prize ($5,000) and the audience choice award ($2,000) at the 2019 Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio Competition, securing her spot in that training program in the coming season. "I seriously still pinch myself," she says. And yet, the high point of Marsh's year may have been seeing Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. "Such a silly piece of theatre but I did the show in high school and I just love it, OK? I can't help it!"

A graduate of Sir Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Toronto, the dual Canadian–American citizen also sang at Brooklyn's National Sawdust last fall ("obviously incredible") and took part in the Banff Centre's Opera in the 21st Century program ("food, friends, fun and some seriously funky opera.")

Offstage, Marsh's interests include painting, drawing, creative writing, X-Men comic books and thrifting. She admires Lizzo for putting so much good energy into the world — "and don't even get me started on the flute playing! Iconic!" — and says the music of Jessie Montgomery makes her feel "like a character in a movie who is doing something intense and suspenseful while wearing an amazing trench coat."

'There will be just as many minutes in the day, no matter what. Let’s use them well.' — Midori Marsh (Naomi Marsh)

Christ Habib, guitarist

Age: 24
From: Ottawa–Gatineau

In high school, Christ Habib did a concentration in circus arts and learned to juggle up to six balls. Could this explain why, a decade later, he exudes such calm while playing the guitar, regardless of the music's complexity? For proof, look no further than this video, one of an ongoing series. "I had a project this year where I would go to Toronto to record professional music videos," he explains. "Because of COVID-19, I only could record three videos out of nine, so my plan is to finish recording the rest."

Habib recently finished his studies at the Conservatoire de musique de Gatineau, where Patrick Roux was his mentor for 12 years. "He always has an accurate way of being true to the composer's intentions and the musical period but still gives you the opportunity to be original in your own way," Habib reflects.

Fuelled by kri-kri nuts ("I can eat a whole kilogram in one day if no one hides them from me"), Habib won the $1,500 first prize in guitar at the 2019 National Music Festival in Saskatoon after having placed second (for the second time) at the Domaine Forget International Classical Guitar Competition. In January, he gave a solo recital at Place des arts in Montreal in Société Pro Musica's Mélodînes series.

'In order to gain something in life, you have to get out of your comfort zone.' — Christ Habib (Krystal Villeneuve)

Chloe Kim, violinist

Age: 23
From: Vancouver

If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't happened, Chloe Kim would have spent May and early June touring as concertmaster with Juilliard415 and Nicholas McGegan for performances of Handel's Rinaldo in Germany and the Netherlands, followed by a U.K. tour with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Richard Egarr. Of course, those got cancelled. But instead of drowning her sorrows in Argentinian Malbec (her favourite), she organized Music for the Pause, a weekly online summer concert series in Victoria. "It's a way of keeping myself and my colleagues, who are like family to me, creatively engaged as well as connected to audiences during a very difficult and strange time."

Kim has a voracious appetite for both reading (she's a big Steinbeck fan) and food ("my friends will tell you that I have meals like a hobbit: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, etc."). Is it any wonder? She needs sustenance to stay in her sweet spot, which is "somewhere between busy and overloaded." Kim's teacher at Juilliard, Elizabeth Blumenstock, has been a role model: "She leads with love and kindness, always, and that comes through in the powerful (sometimes utterly heartbreaking) sincerity in her music-making." 

'Being a person that other people can lean on also gives you strength,' says Chloe Kim, quoting her teacher, Elizabeth Blumenstock. (Kelsey Goodwin)

Aaron Chan, violinist

Age: 23
From: Toronto

Ivry Gitlis, Janine Jansen, Daniil Shafran, Maxim Vengerov — these are some of the legends who've inspired violinist Aaron Chan. "It's amazing how, even though I have never met any of my music idols, they've made such a huge impact in my life," he reflects. "This just shows how music can go beyond the barriers of time, space and culture. I really hope that I can give someone out there in the audience a similar experience."

Audiences are definitely paying attention. Last November, Chan won the $25,000 Golden Violin Award at McGill University's Schulich School of Music, where he recently completed his bachelor of music degree. "It was a huge honour and a fantastic learning experience."

A self-described introvert, Chan says music helps him communicate. He's certainly not shy around dogs, though. "When I see cute dogs on the street, I can't help but smile like crazy," he says. Unfortunately, his own dog, a three-year-old Akita named Atsuka ("but we just call him Kaka"), will not accompany him to Houston in the fall, where Chan will begin his master's degree at Rice University.

'Stay true to yourself, listen and respect different opinions.' — Aaron Chan (Felix Hong)

Francis Choinière, conductor, composer and entrepreneur

Age: 23
From: Montreal

Were you one of the 12,000 spectators who attended the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in Concert orchestral shows at Montreal's Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier or Ottawa's Canadian Tire Centre in February and March? If so, thank Francis Choinière, president of GFN Productions (the company behind that tour) and recipient of the 2019 Hnatyshyn Foundation – Christa and Franz-Paul Decker Conducting Fellowship ($15,000.)

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Choinière is artistic director and conductor of Orchestre Philharmonique et Chœur des Mélomanes (OPCM) and conductor of the Lanaudière Festival's Chœur Fernand-Lindsay. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic robbed Choinière of the opportunity to prepare the latter choir for a Yannick Nézet-Séguin-led concert performance of Verdi's Aïda this summer.

Also on ice is a series of three concerts with the OPCM, programs that would have included Stravinsky's Firebird, Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, and Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony. "With the lack of live rehearsals and concerts, I now put more time into my compositions and into organizing future concerts," he muses. That, and listening to John Williams' Star Wars soundtracks, which Choinière says changed his life.

'Opportunities don’t happen. You create them,' says Francis Choinière, quoting Chris Grosser. (Tam Lan Truong)

Melody Yuan, violinist

'Enjoy the process. It will be a rewarding journey.' — Melody Yuan (Feng Yuan)

Age: 23
From: Vancouver

"I can't bear the cold," says Melody Yuan, who's evidently looking forward to beginning her master's degree at the Colburn School in Los Angeles this fall, studying with Martin Beaver. "I just like the California vibe in general." A recent graduate from the New England Conservatory, Yuan had been planning to spend the spring and summer attending festivals and taking part in competitions. When those were cancelled due to COVID-19, she returned to her home in Vancouver. "It has been a great time to settle down and rethink," she says. "Practising and spending time with my family have been rewarding and calming, since I am not at home most of the time."

On her music stand these days are Beethoven's Romance in F ("Simple and elegant") and Paganini's Caprice No. 5 ("An old piece but still fun to work on.")

Jascha Heifetz was an early discovery. "I heard his Scherzo Tarantelle when I was about nine years old, and was stunned by his playing," she remembers. "The next day I requested to play the same piece." By 12, Yuan made her debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. These days, Julia Fischer and Janine Jansen are role models, inspiring Yuan to make her beautiful 1708 Carlo Giuseppe Testore violin sing.

Jacob van der Sloot, violist

'Do what you love.' — Jacob van der Sloot (Jeiming Tang)

Age: 22
From: Victoria

In January, Jacob van der Sloot became the youngest member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (yay!) and then, just weeks later, COVID-19 intervened (boo). "Joining the VSO was a huge honour and I found myself quite challenged to keep up with a completely new lifestyle, coming from student life," says the recent Juilliard grad. "To have it taken away right when I felt like I was getting the hang of it was tough, but it also makes me that much more excited for the time we get to return to the stage."

Until then, van der Sloot has been preparing to marry his fiancée, Camille. "She is my greatest inspiration; I wouldn't be here without her." They tie the knot on Aug. 8 and no doubt van der Sloot's parents, both musicians, will be involved in those celebrations. "My mom started me on violin along with my dad, and then I switched completely to viola with my dad when I was 12 and he taught me until college," he explains. "I really owe it all to them!"

He made his solo Carnegie Hall debut in 2019 playing Brahms' Viola Sonata No. 2 as part of Julie Jordan's International Rising Stars series. Offstage, he enjoys documentary photography, Breaking Bad ("I've lost track of how many times I've watched the series") and says he "can't get enough NHL hockey."

Tyler Song, clarinettist

Age: 22
From: Langley, B.C.

In January, Tyler Song played Mozart's Clarinet Concerto with the McGill Symphony Orchestra. "This concerto draws from Mozart's work as an opera composer and I think it's critical to use the entire colour palette of the clarinet in order to be true to that operatic nature," Song explains. "I examined the phrasings of opera singers to try and achieve this more vocal style." Perhaps this explains why he was compelled to take his first trip to New York City, where he saw Verdi's La Traviata in March, just before the COVID-19 lockdown.

Song loves Brahms ("I continuously discover new things that fascinate me in his music") and admires Gustavo Dudamel's ability "to engage whatever ensemble he's conducting and create a vast array of colours."

A late bloomer, Song says he only began studying music earnestly in Grade 11, but now he's fully immersed, heading into his final year at McGill's Schulich School of Music and turning his attention to grad school auditions. "One particular piece I am looking forward to studying closely is the Copland Clarinet Concerto, something that I have hoped to play since I was in high school," he says. And if it proves to be a challenge, persistence is Song's secret weapon: "I take pride in being able to get myself to keep working on something even if it seems to keep beating me."

Tyler Song adheres to this motto, sometimes attributed to Beethoven: 'To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.' (Ay Kawasaki)

Gabrielle Carruthers, tubist

'Just breathe.' — Gabrielle Carruthers (Ali Touesnard/Radiant Photography)

Age: 21
From: Moncton, N.B.

In March, when New Brunswick first implemented social-distancing measures, Gabrielle Carruthers had been preparing for three recitals, a concert weekend with the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and a five-day tour with her choir. "When all those events were cancelled, everything was very uncertain and difficult to deal with," she says, "but lately, I have taken time to work on my basic technique — I'm still trying to get an even double- and triple-tongue throughout my register — as well as a lot of self-care, which has been very beneficial." That self-care likely involves eating lots of blueberries, full of antioxidants, a staple of New Brunswick summers and Carruthers' go-to snack.

Carruthers' acceptances into the Domaine Forget International Summer Academy and the National Youth Orchestra of Canada have been deferred to 2021. In the meantime, she'll get familiar with her shiny new EBC632 Eastman tuba ("I love how responsive it is, especially in the low range!"), and prepare for the final year of her bachelor of music degree at Université de Moncton, where she studies with Gregory Irvine. And who knows? Maybe she'll find time to get back into horseback riding, a longtime passion that has recently taken a back seat to tuba. Giddy up, Gabrielle!

Spencer Klymyshyn, pianist

Age: 21
From: Ottawa

The first thing to know about Spencer Klymyshyn is that he's an avid sailor and sailing instructor. And while you may not have had the pleasure of sailing down the Ottawa River in his company, his piano playing is sure to transport you.

A student of Ilya Poletaev at McGill University's Schulich School of Music since 2017, Klymyshyn won the $1,500 first prize in piano at the 2019 National Music Festival in Saskatoon. "It was particularly meaningful to have won in Saskatoon because my parents and most of my extended family are from there," he says. As a result of that win, he'll play Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor with Symphony New Brunswick in a future season. (He admits to a recent obsession with Schumann's music.)

His acceptance to the International Holland Music Sessions, where he was to perform Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, has been deferred to 2021. In the meantime, Klymyshyn will keep busy as co-president of McGill Students for Make-a-Wish, which raises money to grant wishes for children who suffer from critical illnesses. He's also an amateur astrophotographer. "If the sky is clear and I have some free time, you can probably find me somewhere in a field with my telescope and camera!"

'Have one passion but many interests.' — Spencer Klymyshyn (Tam Lan Truong)

Gabrielle Després, violinist

Age: 19
From: Edmonton

When the Irving M. Klein International String Competition, based at the California Music Centre, was forced to move online in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gabrielle Després was unfazed and nabbed first prize. She collected $5,000 US and a string of concert engagements as her reward. Not a bad way to conclude her second year at Juilliard, where she studies with Masao Kawasaki and Joseph Lin. In February, she played Mahler 5 with the Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and in January, she took part in Juilliard's Chamberfest. "An intense week of learning and rehearsing Enescu's Octet for Strings," she says.

Her secret may be a combination of caffeine (she calls coffee an "absolute necessity") and  frequent Central Park strolls. "It's the perfect place to walk, listen to music, read, or just think," she explains. "Sometimes life can get so busy or overwhelming so I find it's important to take some time to clear your mind and get some fresh air."

The pandemic has given Després pause. "I have been taking this time to learn more about the systemic racism in the Western world, most specifically North America," she says. "It's given me a lot to consider about my role as a musician and how to be responsible as an artist and citizen."

'To send light into the darkness of men's hearts, such is the duty of the artist,' says Gabrielle Després, quoting Robert Schumann. (Jacques Després)

Olivia Yelim Cho, cellist

'The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried,' says Olivia Yelim Cho, quoting Stephen McCranie. (Artona Group, Inc.)

Age: 19
From: Vancouver

When South Korea's Yuna Kim won gold in women's figure skating at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, nine-year-old Olivia Yelim Cho discovered her role model. "Even under huge amounts of pressure, she consistently delivers beautiful performances," says Cho. "I look up to her diligence and grit, and admire her modesty despite her huge success and fame."

Now 19, Cho's own diligence and grit are taking her far. Last summer, she was awarded a fellowship to take part in the Aspen Music Festival and School before returning to the University of Michigan for year 2 of her undergraduate studies with Richard Aaron. Earlier this year, her semester abroad in Frankfurt, Germany, got cut short due to the COVID-19 lockdown, but not before she got to study with Kristin von der Goltz, meet new friends and learn some German.

A semifinalist at the recent Bader and Overton Canadian Cello Competition, Cho says she plans to prepare for more competitions, further her German skills and "delve deeper into my faith by finishing reading the Bible by the end of this year," on top of exploring and learning new pieces by BIPOC and women composers.

Duncan McDougall, violinist

'Nothing worth having comes easily.' — Duncan McDougall (Stuart Lowe)

Age: 17
From: Uxbridge, Ont.

"My biggest inspiration is my grandmother," says Duncan McDougall. "She's demonstrated incredible strength and resilience. She has a sense of adventure, enjoys the simple things in life, and always remains positive in spite of everything."

Her qualities have evidently rubbed off on McDougall, who's been a scholarship student at the Royal Conservatory of Music's Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists, and who's heading to Los Angeles this fall to begin his undergraduate studies with Martin Beaver at the Colburn School. There, he'll be able to indulge his passion for chamber music. "I love being able to play some of the greatest musical masterpieces alongside my best friends, then having the opportunity to share it with an audience," he says.

McDougall is a big fan of Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang ("I love the imagination, the fire, the expressiveness, and the fact that she always takes risks") and he thinks Sibelius is one of the most underrated composers. McDougall's twin, Graeme, compares his brother to a hedgehog: "You're a bit prickly at first, but you're much warmer once you get to know you," he says, adding, "You're small but feisty, and you will do tricks for snacks."

Jessica Yuma, pianist

'Life is a marathon, not a sprint.' — Jessica Yuma (Xiuli Yu)

Age: 17
From: Edmonton

COVID-19 has bought Jessica Yuma more time to prepare her repertoire for the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, which has been postponed from 2020 to 2021. She says playing so much Chopin brings her great satisfaction. "When you're working exclusively on one composer's pieces, you discover some incredible depth and intricacy that you might not have noticed if you were only working on one piece."

Yuma had lots of success at competitions in 2019, including first prizes at the Canadian Music Competition National Final, the Steinway Young Artists Competition and the CFMTA National Final. She also nabbed third prizes at the Canadian Chopin Competition and the 2019 Orford Music Awards.

We asked her whom she'd invite on a long road trip. Her answer: "Clara Schumann, because she was well acquainted with many of the big names of the Romantic era; Mark Gatiss, to ask him when season 5 of Sherlock will be released [she's a big fan], and Stephen Hawking, to give us all a lecture on theoretical physics." (Presumably her dog, Presto, will tag along to make it a quintet.) Yuma will begin her undergraduate studies at the New England Conservatory this fall.

Devin Huang, pianist

Age: 13
From: Halifax

"You don't need to practise five hours a day to get good at something," says Devin Huang, the youngest musician on this year's list. "You just need to make the hours you do spend count." How did he become so wise?

Huang has had an impressive winning streak at the annual Canadian Music Competition, winning first prize in his age category three years in row, from 2017 to 2019, as well as the grand prize in 2018. Last season he gave solo recitals at Halifax's Government House (the residence of Nova Scotia's Lieutenant Governor) and Lilian Piercey Concert Hall, the latter a presentation of Cecilia Concerts.

Inspired by Lang Lang ("I admire his passion for music"), Huang has decided to learn a lot of new repertoire during the COVID-19 pandemic: Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, Brahms' Rhapsody No. 2 and Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1, Ballade No. 2 and "Winter Wind" Étude. Not surprisingly, Chopin is Huang's favourite composer "because of his musical style: lyrical, Romantic, innovative." Hearing him play this music in person — in the not-too-distant future? — will be a tremendous pleasure and a reassuring sign that the future of classical music is in good hands.

When he's not playing piano, Devin Huang likes skiing, playing video games and hanging out with friends. (Grand Moment Digital Productions)


Robert Rowat


Robert Rowat has been a producer at CBC Music since 1997. He's based in Montreal and specializes in classical music. Reach him by email