Rachel Mercer: Lining up the Stars

Photo credit: Miriam Lee

Among the most rewarding things about being a musician are the opportunities for creative collaboration with other artists. Kevin Lau’s “Foundation” (written for cello and orchestra), which will be premiered by the Sneak Peek Orchestra and cellist Rachel Mercer on Saturday February 4th, is one such collaboration. It was born out of a mutual respect between performer and composer as well as an admiration for each other’s musical goals and passions. Mercer has been the recipient of many prestigious awards and performs around the world, while orchestras and ensembles across Canada have commissioned Lau for his compositions.

Playing Lau’s “Starsail” this past Sunday as part of the New Music Concert Series at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, Mercer admitted she felt most at ease with this piece on the all-new-music program.

“During the concert, Kevin spoke about the piece as representing homecoming after journeying far away, and that’s actually how I feel about the music, and I tried to convey that in my performance.”

Mercer encountered Lau’s music while performing with the Toronto-based Via Salzburg in concert. The ensemble had commissioned a piece by Lau for taiko drums and a small string orchestra.

“I was struck by how incredible and fantastic Kevin’s piece of music was. He had written some beautiful violin solos. I wondered whether he had written anything for cello, and that’s how I first learned of his cello music.”

This premiere performance of “Foundation” will be made even more exciting by the presence of the ‘Bonjour’ cello donated by an anonymous donor, a 1696 Stradivarius, which Mercer has had the honour of playing since 2010. It will be returning to Canada Council’s Musical Instrument Bank later this summer. During this time, she has had the opportunity to explored the incredible range of expression that this instrument affords, and has learned to express her own musicality through this instrument.

“It took about a year and a half before I felt I could fully express what it was capable of. Now, I can bring out musical expressions which I couldn’t before. It has its own special sound, and it took that long to figure it out! Now, I feel that my voice is part of it, and it’s just a really great instrument. I have at my disposal all this richness of expression that I have learned from playing with this instrument, and I can transfer this new expression when playing on any other cello. It has been a huge learning opportunity.”

When talking about her first rehearsal with the Sneak Peek Orchestra, Mercer’s excitement is infectious.

“The quality and level of playing on a shoe-string budget is incredible and inspiring. It’s amazing that they’ve brought together these different elements and produced such a professional concert. I wish we had more rehearsals, but ‘Foundation’ is just a fantastic piece. I know three of Kevin’s pieces already, so I know his language, and he has written a great range of expression in this concerto. I hope that many more people will perform this piece in the future.”

For a performer, having a piece of music written just for you is probably one of the highest compliments one could receive. For a composer, it is also a wonderful tribute to have a performer champion your work and perform it as part of their repertoire. Come see Rachel Mercer with the Sneak Peek Orchestra this Saturday on February 4th to experience the magical meeting of musical minds, and musical treasures.