Music to our ears: Gift to McGill and UdeM creates hub for collaborative piano in Montreal

Credit: Université de Montréal

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Thanks to a $2-million donation from the Azrieli Foundation, McGill University and Université de Montréal launch a unique joint program for pianists who specialize in vocal collaboration

After two years of health restrictions that have often left concert halls empty and musicians struggling, a generous donation from the Azrieli Foundation is helping to breathe new life into the world of elite music performance.  

The Foundation’s $2-million gift to McGill University and Université de Montreal (UdeM) has established a joint residency for high-level pianists who specialize in accompanying and coaching singers. Dubbed the McGill-UdeM Piano-Vocal Accompaniment Residency, this intensive nine-month program will give six emerging artists per year the opportunity to deepen their skills as collaborative pianists and vocal coaches.

Shared by UdeM’s Faculté de musique and McGill’s Schulich School of Music, this gift is believed to be the largest joint donation to two music faculties in Canada, giving musicians a rare opportunity to benefit from the expertise, resources and facilities at both universities.

“On behalf of McGill, I would like to thank the Azrieli Foundation for its generous support of this unique cross-institutional residency, which will give promising artists the opportunity to truly become masters of their craft,” says McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier. “This inspiring investment in support of musical excellence will help revitalize a field deeply affected by the pandemic.”

“Thanks to the generosity of the Azrieli Foundation, two high-calibre institutions for musical training are joining forces in service of the next generation,” says Daniel Jutras, Rector of Université de Montréal. “The dreams of young pianists will be realized, and international careers will be born, but the primary beneficiary of this gift is the public, who will get to enjoy artists of even greater talent.”

Residency inspired by passion for music

The vision for this project came from Dr. Sharon Azrieli, an award-winning soprano and member of the Azrieli Foundation’s Board of Directors. Dr. Azrieli, who has performed at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the Opéra Bastille in Paris, noticed that there was a shortage of collaborative pianists with the skills necessary to work with the highest level of singer.

“In Canada, we produce some of the world’s best singers,” says Dr. Azrieli. “Imagine how far they could excel if they had the best partners at the piano! In contemplating how to meet this need, I had a spark of inspiration. Why not invite two of Canada’s top universities to unite their strengths in offering elite training to collaborative pianists of exceptional potential?

“I’m thrilled to say, with the foundational support of the Azrieli Foundation, that spark has grown into the McGill-UdeM Piano-Vocal Accompaniment Residency.”

Intensive training with renowned artists

The residency, which focuses on art song and operatic repertoire, will be co-led by two renowned pianists and vocal coaches – Professor Francis Perron (UdeM) and Professor Michael McMahon (McGill). Collaborative pianist Marie-Michelle Raby will serve as the cross-institutional coordinator of the program.

The six members of the inaugural cohort, hailing from France, Brazil, Canada and the United States, were selected this spring and will begin their residencies in fall 2022. All the artists will receive a full scholarship, and, thanks to the Azrieli Foundation’s philanthropic commitment, they will also receive a living allowance and a career grant at the end of the program.

The program also includes opportunities to work with some of the world’s most renowned artists and experts in a wide range of specialities, including conducting, lyric diction, opera, and lieder.

“I believe this residency will provide the skills necessary to work with a graduate or professional level of singers,” says Erin Palmer, one of the exceptional pianists selected for the first cohort. “This will enable me to make the leap from Staff Accompanist to either a collegiate coaching position or working with an opera house.”

“The opportunity for intensive language study is also thrilling,” adds Palmer, who is currently based in North Carolina and is eager to improve her French and experience life in Montreal.

Montreal music scene will reap the benefits

The impact of this program extends far beyond the artists chosen each year. Public concerts and masterclasses offered by a number of prominent visiting artists will enrich Montreal’s music scene. The Canadian music community will also benefit from an influx of specialized artists who will be highly sought-after for artistic collaborations and will help elevate Canada as a major player in opera and music performance.

UdeM and McGill are no strangers to collaboration when it comes to performance research and education. In 2015, funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Quebec government allowed the two universities to create a research hub for the study of live performance by virtually linking McGill’s Multimedia Room and UdeM’s Salle Claude Champagne.

Soon the two universities will also be physically linked by the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light-rail system, which will make it easier to travel between the two campuses.

About the Azrieli Foundation

With a firm belief that everyone has a contribution to make, the Azrieli Foundation has been opening doors, breaking ground, and nurturing networks for more than 30 years. The Foundation funds institutions and operates programs in Canada and Israel.

About the Schulich School of Music

The Schulich School of Music of McGill University embodies the highest international standards of excellence in professional training and research. Home to over 800 students and 200 professors, the School is known for its programs in orchestra, opera, jazz, early music and contemporary music. Its status as a leader in sound recording and music technology provides unique possibilities for collaboration with the larger musical community.

About the Université de Montréal Faculty of Music

The largest francophone educational establishment for music in North America, the Faculty of Music is distinguished by the excellence of its performance school, by its musicologists working at the crossroads of the social sciences and the digital humanities, and by its artist-researchers, who cover a broad range of styles. Promoting a multiplicity of approaches and interchanges among disciplines, the Faculty offers study programs moored to the realities of the music world of today. It plays host to organizations in residence that contribute to anchoring its practices in the professional environment, as well as a number of research groups, including the OICRM and the Canada Research Chairs in Opera Creation and in Music and Politics.

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