In Canada's classical music circles, it's a common refrain that musicians must do better at championing contemporary Canadian music. Gone is the period in the 20th century when "new Canadian music" was often synonymous with "hard on the ears," when many composers seemed to write not works of art, but challenges, both for the listener and the player.
Yet the damage seems lasting; classical music – a too-vague term – exists largely in a separate room from its equally vague counterpart, "pop music," or even more worrying, "pop culture." And Canadian classical artists, perhaps out of humility or perhaps out of disinterest, often exclude their own country's music from their repertoire.
If there's any occasion for bringing cultures and fan bases into one room, it's the Olympic Games. And at this year's Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, classical music is on the front lines of one of the most popular events: pairs figure skating. For their free-skate routine on Thursday, Canadian figure skaters Michael Marinaro and Kirsten Moore-Towers have chosen Un ange passe (An Angel Passes), by French-Canadian pianist and composer Alain Lefèvre.
"I checked and double-checked to see if it's true," says Lefèvre of hearing that his music would be part of this year's Winter Olympics, soon to be heard by millions of people worldwide. "It's moving for me. I don't take it for granted."
Originally recorded and released in 2000, Un ange passe was written by Lefèvre following the passing of his father, who died before having a chance to see his son's professional success.
For Lefèvre, it's not only "touching" that Marinaro and Moore-Towers chose his music for their pairs routine at this year's Olympics; it's significant that they chose music rooted in a classical tradition, rather than something more popular and recognizable. "It's maybe the beginning of a change," he says hopefully.
Lefèvre makes a curious point about what he calls "a terrible propaganda for classical music," and for those who listen to it. In popular culture, particularly in film and television, he has noticed a disturbing trend: The villains – serial killers, monsters, generally creepy people – all seem to love listening to classical music. Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange loves his Beethoven, while Hannibal Lecter loves his Bach in The Silence of the Lambs. Conversely, it's the good guys, the socially capable, who listen to pop music.
The role of Lefèvre's music in Olympic figure skating is a perfect example of bridging a cultural gap. Sports and music often represent opposite poles of social institutions, yet figure skating straddles the worlds of athletics and the arts; skating to Un Ange passe offers a clear example of the "good guys" – Olympic athletes, in this case – essentially vouching for Canadian classical music.
Chance connections like these are icing on the cake. The true championing of Canada's classical music must come from its artists, a sentiment with which Lefèvre agrees. When it comes to getting contemporary music heard, "pianists have a duty," he says. With his award-winning discography and international performing career as platforms, Lefèvre has taken on his share of the work, notably reviving the recognition of fellow French-Canadian composer André Mathieu (1929-1968) with worldwide recitals of his music and multiple recordings, including the Classical Internet Award-winning version of his Concerto de Québec.
Lefèvre is likewise breathing new life into the compositions of Montreal-born composer Walter Boudreau. In two concerts with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (Feb. 20-21 at Ottawa's Southam Hall), Lefèvre will perform – and record live – Boudreau's stirring Concerto de l'asile. "His Concerto is a new piece, but above that, it is a new masterpiece," says Lefèvre. After nearly four years and thousands of hours of practice, he admits that Boudreau's work is "a monster," one of the most difficult he's ever played, and not just for him as the soloist. "For the orchestra, it's a killer," he says.
Difficult or not, Lefèvre considers it a responsibility of Canadian musicians to promote their own country's music – if not out of a sense of national pride, then for the sake of classical music looking forward. "A [Canadian] pianist who is making a career playing everywhere in the world, if he doesn't himself promote Canadian music, it doesn't make a lot of sense."