The one thing I really, really wish I could do today -- instead of doing what I have to do today -- is go to the 80th birthday celebration concert being held for Toronto composer Derek Holman at University of Toronto's Walter Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m.
The concert is free, followed by a reception at Massey College.
My first contact with him was as a chorister at St. Simon-the-Apostle Church in 1986-87 and again in 1988-89, two years I took off from being an organist and choirmaster. (Holman retired from the organist and choirmaster's job in 1998.)
Like so many musicians from the English tradition (he was born in Cornwall and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music), Holman wears his art lightly, the music coming out with a seemingly natural ease and grace. Surely, under that ease, further leavened by Holman's easy, wicked wit, probably lie all the demands and struggles and agonies and demons that just about every creative person wrestles with in the metaphorical dark hours.
The trick is to make it look easy.
My last contact with Holman was two years ago at the premiere of The Four Seasons, a song cycle he wrote in memory of late Canadian Opera Company general director Richard Bradshaw. It was beautiful and deeply touching, especially as sung by tenor Lawrence Wiliford.
Wiliford was so taken with Holman's music that he commissioned a new set of songs, Steam, Sweps and Semi-Circles, which get their premiere tonight.
Among the other treats on the programme are Choir 21, under David Fallis, who will sing a selection from Holman's choral output. The Talisker Players and Peter Stoll present A Serenade for Clarinet and Strings, a gorgeous work from 1989. And the Canadian Children's Opera Company will celebrate their onetime leader with a song he wrote for them.
Holman's music is largely tonal, rooted in the sort of modal sensibility of composers like Herbert Howells and Maurice Duruflé. It's an aesthetic that was not in fashion at the Univeristy of Toronto, where he taught for many years.
Hopefully, now that it is safe to perform tonal new music without fear of embarassment, a new generation of musicians and listeners will discover, as Lawrence Wiliford did, the magic of Derek Holman's art and keep him busy for a few more years.
The only clip available on YouTube is of a setting of the Magnificant and Ninc Dimittis for the Anglican Evensong service. There is plenty more to read and listen to at the Canadian Music Centre's website. Below is a biography of Holman provided by Elizabeth Andreson (via the concert organizers).
Derek Holman was born in Cornwall, England in 1931. He was educated at Truro School and at the Royal Academy of Music, studying with York Bowen, Eric Thiman and William McKie. He received no formal instruction in composition but was awarded three composition prizes whilst a student, and graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Music from the University of London, and the Fellowship Diploma from the Royal College of Organists.
Throughout his adult life, Holman has been active as a composer, teacher and church musician. His varied experience as a teacher began with two years as a sergeant-instructor in the British Army of the Rhine, followed by two years as Music Master at the Westminster Abbey Choir School. From 1956 to 1965, he was Tutor, later Warden, at the headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music. In 1965 he immigrated with his family to Canada, and from 1967 taught at the University of Toronto, in the Faculty of Music's Department of Theory and Composition, retiring as a Professor in 1996.
As an organist and choir-director, Dr. Holman held posts in Anglican churches in England and Canada, retiring from St. Simon's Bloor St. in Toronto in 1998. From 1975-85 he conducted the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus.
Derek Holman's considerable output as a composer consists almost entirely of choral works, ranging from hymn-tunes to full-scale oratorios, and songs for solo-voice and piano. Most of these works were commissioned by a wide range of performing artists or organizations, including the CBC, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Toronto Children's Chorus, the International Choral Festival of 1993, the Aldeburgh Connection and many others.
Holman's collaborations with Robertson Davies include three Gaudy Night cantatas for Massey College, a children's opera, Dr. Cannon's Cure, and the oratorio Jezebel, premiered at Roy Thomson Hall in 1993. A second oratorio The Invisible Reality to words by P.K. Page was premiered there in 2000, as part of Toronto's Millennial Celebrations.
Of Holman's sixty-plus songs, most are found in twelve song-cycles. These include Ash Roses, written for Karina Gauvin, The Centred Passion, written for Mark Pedrotti in 1986, and recorded by Gerald Finley and Stephen Ralls in1998 for CBC Records, and in 2008, The Four Seasons, commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company in memory of their director, Richard Bradshaw.
Dr. Holman holds the degree of Doctor of Music from the University of London and is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2003.