New Brunswick

Instrument of change: Symphony New Brunswick's new director has big plans

Don't love classical music? Mélanie Léonard wants to change your mind

Mélanie Léonard, the first woman to lead N.B. orchestra, makes her debut in October

Mélanie Léonard is the new musical director of the New Brunswick Symphony Orchestra. (Sergio Veranes)

Some people know from the moment they pick up an instrument that they were destined for a life of music.

Mélanie Léonard was not one of those people.

Léonard, the new musical director of Symphony New Brunswick, is a natural leader, full of ideas and energy and a deeply ingrained passion for music.

She was chosen from among more than 50 applicants from Canada, the U.S. and Europe over the course of three years, a candidate whose "dynamic conducting style" was clearly a standout.

"I think she's going to be an exciting conductor," symphony president Reid Parker said. "You see that when someone special steps on the podium."

But when she was first introduced to musical instruments — a violin — at age nine, it wasn't exactly love at first sight.

"It was actually kind of the opposite," Léonard said in an interview. "I needed a lot of encouragement to practise. I was thinking, you know, this is too much work."

For years afterward, she was more interested in almost any of the other arts: ballet, theatre, visual arts. At Cegep, she majored in visual arts and minored in theatre.

I think she's going to be an exciting conductor. You see that when someone special steps on the podium.- Reid Parker, Symphony New Brunswick president

The violin bided its time, played it cool, played hard to get.

And then one day, Léonard said, she just knew.

"It just occurred to me while I was busy doing theatre and visual arts and I was not able to devote as much time to my violin, I wasn't playing at at the level I wanted to play at," she said.

"And it made me realize that music was what I should pursue. Because I missed it when I was devoting my time to the other forms of art."

That moment, she said, was her wakeup call.

From then, her trajectory was a straight and unbroken line.

She pursued music in university, did her master's in orchestra conducting, became the first woman to complete a doctorate in orchestral conducting at the University of Montreal.

"Then I won the position as resident conductor with the Calgary Philharmonic," she said. 

"And the rest, as they say, is history." 

Léonard was most recently with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra in Ontario. (Robert Provencher)

Taking the symphony to the next level

Léonard has blazed quite a trail in the years leading up to her appointment as Symphony New Brunswick's musical director, the first woman to hold the position and one of a handful of female conductors in Canadian orchestras.

Most recently, she has served as music director of the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra.  

She has conducted at the Montreal International Jazz Festival and with several Canadian orchestras and has recorded soundtracks for Cirque du Soleil's Land of Fantasy in Hangzhou, China, and other projects.

Now, she said, her focus will be squarely on bringing Symphony New Brunswick to the next level.

I'm someone who's going to come out into the lobby after a concert. I like meeting the people. I want people to say 'Hi' when they see me at the grocery store.- Mélanie Léonard, Symphony New Brunswick musical director

She'd love to see the appeal of classical music spread into corners of lives it has never touched before, although she knows that could be a challenge. 

Léonard knows there are people who think of the symphony as elite and unrelatable entertainment.

"It always makes me sad to hear that," she said. "I wish that perception did not exist."

She'd love to see those people "come out of their comfort zone a little bit" and try a symphony performance for the first time.

"There's something special that happens in the concert hall where you're all sitting together," she said. 

"When I perform, I feel the energy of the audience, I feel their presence, and the musicians do as well. It nourishes us. It makes us want to be even better." 

She's excited to get to know the community she will be playing for, and for Léonard , that starts in the concert hall.

"I'm someone who's going to come out into the lobby after a concert," she said. "I like meeting the people. I want people to say 'Hi' when they see me at the grocery store." 

Léonard's debut as musical director with the New Brunswick Symphony Orchestra will be on Oct. 22. (Sergio Veranes )

A duty to the community

Without question, music should be entertainment. But Léonard strongly believes a symphony has a duty to do more than entertain.

That responsibility is something she feels keenly.

"First of all, I want the orchestra to shine. I want the musicians to feel excited and proud at every performance," she said. "But we also play a role beyond the music. It's a privilege, but also a responsibility to have a voice in your community."

Leonard thinks the symphony should not only partner with other arts organizations but also with the community itself, "to listen to what is important to them in terms of values, the causes that are being supported, and try to make a difference."

It's early days to be making detailed plans, she said, but noted that whatever the symphony does under her leadership must be a comfortable fit for everyone.

"It's one thing to have ideas, but the ideas have to resonate and feel relevant for the people," she said. "So I'm eager to meet the people, to meet the audience, meet my colleagues, and really immerse myself in what the province has to offer."

Leonard will make her debut as Symphony New Brunswick's music director on Friday, Oct. 22, at the Imperial Theatre in Saint John.

On Saturday, she will lead the symphony at The Playhouse in Fredericton, and on Sunday at the Capitol Theatre in Moncton. 


A 'COMPLEX, BUT VERY FULFILLING' ROLE

What, precisely, does a music director do? Symphony New Brunswick's Melanie Leonard explains:

Mind-body connection: "First of all, I really take good care of my body. I work out almost every day, I try to sleep well, eat well. Most concerts are 75 to 80 minutes long, so that's a long time to be standing up there, moving your arms. But also you need to be in good physical shape to sustain the type of schedule and the travelling that is part of the job."

Multi-tasking: "In addition to conducting concerts, a music director oversees all the responsibilities associated with the orchestra. So that involves artistic planning: the choice of programs, the choice of guests, soloist or guest conductors, the relationships you build with the community and with other artistic organizations."

Music, of course: "Every day, I study my my music. I have to be very well-prepared for every concert, and one of the challenges is that I have many concerts to prepare at the same time."  

Rehearsals: "In classical music, there are different ways of conveying the emotion or structuring the phrase. The orchestra has to come together in a unified vision in terms of interpretation, we have to come to a consensus, so that's part of what the rehearsals are for."

Nurturing the team: "You want to present a performance that is of the highest excellence every time. As a leader, for me, it really is about inspiring the musicians. I want them to feel happy when they play, I want them to feel proud."  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marie Sutherland is a web writer with CBC News based in Saint John. You can reach her at marie.sutherland@cbc.ca.

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