Profile by Jane Ledwell
Christmas is a “fast and furious” season for St. Dunstan’s Basilica and Diocese of Charlottetown music director Leo Marchildon. “I want to give people a welcoming community to allow them to develop,” he says - which this time of year means helping a Christmas choir made up of many singers who don’t read music challenge themselves to fill the Basilica with the sounds of Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” cantatas, and carols. Many of the carol service accompanists will be accustomed to Leo’s baton, since he is also conductor of the Strathgartney Chamber Orchestra.
Himself a pianist and organist active in church music since the age of 16, Leo says he challenges choirs and orchestras with “music that is a little bit beyond them” because, “as a musician, I love to be challenged.”
After the Christmas season, his next challenge engages his love of composing music. In January, he will be mounting the premiere of his composition “Canada: Our Dear Home,” with soloist Sylvia Mutch performing with the Strathgartney Chamber Orchestra.
“Canada, Our Dear Home” had its origins in 1992, “when Canada was 125 years young,” he laughs, “when I wrote a little song of that name, an anthemic ‘yeah, Canada’ song, in the wake of all the other anthemic songs of the ‘90s, like ‘We Are the World.’” Another song written at the time, “We call it Canada,” got a little more airplay – “but ‘Canada, Our Dear Home’ was left on the shelf.” PEI’s celebrations of the sesquicentennial of the Charlottetown Conference revived the anthems, and he developed the idea of interweaving those Canada compositions with songs by PEI traditional music composers.
“There is lots of talent here on the Island, but to hear it you have to go to the ceilidhs and the kitchen parties, and it hasn’t been heard as much in the concert hall,” Leo says, “I wanted to give it the symphonic treatment, to bring it to a different audience.” Working with compositions by eight musicians, working with the composers themselves or their family members if the composers had died, was an inspiration. “I want it to be an homage to them. I want them to be celebrated,” he says.
“What was it about PEI that was so special to make it the birthplace of Canada? I think it was three very strong cultures. We have very strong examples of Celtic music, Acadian music, and Mi’kmaw music,” he says. What we had here, culturally, “was the seed of what would become the flower of our country – that’s the suitability that PEI was chosen for the birthplace.”
Making time for composition has always been a priority for Leo, whose childhood dream was to write scores for films. “Luckily for me, the job I do as music director for the Diocese is not a clearly defined nine-to-five job,” he says. There is room in his work for composition, and, he says, “I send new settings of the psalms to congregations to pick up and sing.”
The stages Leo works on here on PEI are smaller than some of the stages of his past. Studying film scoring in California and working “with the best – a who’s who of Hollywood’s music department” was thrilling, but it led, accidentally, to a performance career in musical theatre.
While working on a project to transcribe and restore film scores for Looney Tunes cartoons, to present them on stage in what would become the successful show Bugs Bunny on Broadway, a scheduling mix-up for his supervisor led to an offer of free tickets for a first visit to New York – a week before the show was to open. The jazz pianist slated to perform in the show was having trouble playing with the click track and kept missing his cues. Leo said, “I said, I think I can play that score.” The director hadn’t known he could play keyboard but heard him perform and said, “You just hired yourself for the next three years.”
It was an immensely successful run, and Leo then travelled the world with touring productions of the show, as well as Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, Kiss of the Spider Woman.
After returning to LA and working as a music editor on TV shows, doing film composition, still working in the industry, and also doing church work out there, Leo says, “In 2004, I came on a road trip to PEI. I went to the North Shore, to Cavendish, and it was one of those June days, when the lupines were out and the grass was greener than Ireland. I got emotional. I felt I had arrived home.
“We had just gone to see Anne of Green Gables the night before, because it was raining, and what do you do when you’re visiting PEI and it’s raining? You go to the theatre. I was with a writer friend, and we thought we should write a musical about Anne when she grows up. We came back the next year with Anne books in hand – and no sooner had we gotten to the visitors’ information centre in Borden than we saw the advertisements for Anne and Gilbert.” They made an abrupt change of plans and at the suggestion of the owner of the B&B where they were staying, they started to look at writing a story about the author. “Her journals were raising a lot of eyebrows… And, as often happens, truth is stranger than fiction. We wrote the Nine Lives of L.M. Montgomery in LA and workshopped it at Confederation Centre in 2007. That workshop was the instigating factor to leave my life in LA. We decided to produce the show at the King’s Playhouse,” Leo says.
“Sometimes thrills come at strange moments,” Leo says. “My most public moment was conducting Bugs Bunny at the Hollywood Bowl for 18,000 people. That was a calculated thrill. But the moment when all the forces assemble in you and around you… so many times those things just happen. Sometimes it’s best not to make them happen.” For the musician who loves to “move the heart,” it’s the “uncalculated thrill” that matters. He admits, “I love the gushy and sentimental. The Romantic. I love the moment the music surges up. That’s where the magic comes, and music to me is magic.
“Working in the pit, glamorous as the shows were, felt somewhat anonymous,” he says. “I guess you could say I’ve seen ‘Paree’,” Leo jokes good-naturedly, but on PEI, “people ask questions about you and are actually interested in you.”
Working with a community “means more to me than hearing a professional orchestra play everything note-perfect. I’ve had it happen that you hear an orchestra that is so professional, so note-perfect that you don’t hear the humanity, the connection to an organic process -- the rustic, raw, sound that is not finessed, it’s just there.
“But it is still an art. There is still an artistic desire to excel. I try to do it in a non-intimidating way.” As a composer, he says, “You have to put something on the page, to give you a design. But without interpetation, it’s lifeless.”
“I could spend my life in LA working in the pit -- and it’s not that I aspire to recognition. But when I’m in the Sobey’s picking out asparagus, and someone stops me to say ‘Oh, I loved the music in church,’ I feel part of a very connected community. I don’t feel alone on PEI.”