By David Templeton | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Violinist Angèle Dubeau has depended on two things to get her through the last two years. One has been to attentively witness the changing of the seasons—allowing herself to feel part of the natural world and, most recently, to simply watch the snow fall around her home in Quebec, Canada. “We all need some picturesque positivity to grab onto with this Covid situation,” Dubeau says, speaking on the phone shortly before Christmas, “and if we can find a little joy just looking out the window, that’s just perfect.”
The other thing the meticulously disciplined musician has depended on, of course, is music. “Music was my best friend during the hardest parts of that period, that’s for sure,” she discloses with a soft and affectionate laugh, adding, “Music has always been the best way for me to express my emotions. And because there was so much emotion that went along with that whole situation, I found that the simple pleasure of playing music—playing just for me, playing only the things I needed and wanted to play for myself—was very useful. I even started playing some of the exercises I learned as a child, as a young musician—exercises for the bow and exercises to learn different techniques. And you know what? It was fun!”
Like many musicians, Dubeau—founder and conductor of the celebrated all-female ensemble La Pietà—has had to be creative in inventing ways to perform safely for others. In addition to playing online concerts and disseminating music videos for those who could not leave their homes, Dubeau has presented a series of remarkable open-air summertime concerts on the surface of beautiful Lake Tremblant. Located in Quebec’s Laurentides region at the foot of Mont Tremblant—the mountain that gives the lake its name—the spot is near the town of Tremblant, where in 1998 Dubeau founded the Fête de la Musique de Tremblant, highlighting the work of Canadian musical artists.
“That first summer of Covid, I thought, ‘OK. I need a way to get back to the public,’” explains Dubeau. “So I had this crazy idea—though it was a fantastic idea, a magic idea—that I would go and build a stage on the water. And I did, and I played on that stage. People were coming and swimming. People came with paddleboards, with all kinds of boats, coming for the concert on the lake.”
Not surprisingly, the women of La Pietà accompanied her in this harmonious aquatic adventure. So she called the performances “Les Dames du Lac,” the Ladies of the Lake.
“It was obviously so complicated you can’t imagine, just to get the electricity out under the water to the stage, but those concerts were just fantastic,” she says. “People are still speaking of them. So that’s one way I got through it. But nothing stopped me, really. I never stopped. With so much time on our hands, we recorded three albums in less than two years.”
The first of those, the meditative and trancelike Immersion, was released in February 2021, and the third, as yet unnamed, will be released this fall. Hovering in between those two, released in February 2022, is the landmark Elle, a project that simultaneously marks the 25th anniversary of the formation of La Pietà in 1997 and the 46th album of Dubeau’s career.
“I know that’s a big number,” allows Dubeau with graceful acquiescence, adding with another laugh, “I admit it’s even starting to impress me.”
Dubeau has been playing the violin since she was four years old. As the seventh sibling in an eight-child family—in which all of her brothers and sisters played musical instruments—it was more or less assumed that Dubeau would take up an instrument like the rest of the family.
The only question was what instrument she’d play.
“One day, my mother asked me what I thought I would like to learn,” she recalls. “I remember I was so happy to be old enough to begin playing just like my brothers and sisters.” Dubeau’s initial choice was the cello, but being four and not very tall, her mother offered her a violin instead, calling it “a baby cello.”
“I think it was the right choice, because more than 50 years later, I’m still playing the violin,” she says.
Dubeau was five when she gave her first concert. Three years later, after turning eight, she entered the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, where she earned the Conservatoire’s First Prize with honors—the equivalent of a master’s degree—when she was 15. Following a period studying at the Juilliard School of Music, working with Dorothy DeLay, Dubeau relocated to Romania where she studied for three years with violinist Ştefan Gheorghiu.
Her performances as a world-traveling soloist have been legion, and over the course of her career she’s made her 46 recordings as a solo artist, or with La Pietà, or as a collaboration with other artists. If that weren’t enough, in addition to having hosted radio and television shows devoted to the importance of music, Dubeau is an actual knight, having been granted knighthood in the National Order of Quebec, widely considered the highest honor in the country.
To hear her speak, though, one might think Dubeau places the quarter-century anniversary of La Pietà as an even higher honor.
“I formed La Pietà in 1997,” Dubeau says, admitting that despite having a strong career traveling the globe playing solo concertos, solo sonatas, and solo recitals, the solitude was growing heavy to bear. “I wanted to share music with others onstage,” she says.
She began preparing a recording project in which she would perform several Vivaldi concertos with an orchestra, but having become interested in conducting, she planned to play the violin solos and conduct the orchestra at the same time. “I knew a lot of great string orchestras to play with, of course, but they were all coming with a conductor,” she explains. “So I decided, why not? Maybe I should just start my own orchestra.” Dubeau began to put some names on a piece of paper, all the people she thought she might like to play with. “After I had about five names, I looked up and said, ‘How funny. The first five names I came up with are all women.’ And then I thought, ‘I wonder if I could get up to 14 or 15 musicians and just keep picking women?’ And that’s how La Pietà was born.”
Since Vivaldi was on her mind at the time, she named her new ensemble after the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, an orphanage where, over 300 years ago, young female orphans and illegitimate women were given the opportunity to study music with Vivaldi himself. “I’ve been there in Venice, of course, and I’ve seen La Pietà,” she says. “I’ve seen the screen that the young women had to play behind to keep them hidden away from ‘worldly temptations.’”
If all goes well, in March Dubeau will take La Pietà to perform in the actual La Pietà in Venice. “That will be a good way to celebrate our 25th anniversary,” she says. “It will be a dream come true to bring our all-female ensemble there, and to play some of the music from Elle. I hope we can.”
Appropriately enough, all 15 of the compositions on Elle are by female composers. “It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for years,” she says. “I’ve been playing for 25 years with women, and it was about time that I did this kind of an album. I went with modern composers, mostly, something that is from the present.” The one exception is Hildegard von Bingen. “She was a 12th-century visionary whose writing and music have come down to us, and those who know her work will agree with me that her luminous compositions have aged very wonderfully.”
The von Bingen piece La Pietà performs on the album is “O Virtus Sapientiae,” translated as “Antiphon for Divine Wisdom.”
Asked to walk me through the other composers and the pieces she selected, Dubeau begins with Elena Kats-Chernin of Australia, who contributes a piece titled “Re-Inventions No. 1.” “I knew her music, but had never spoken to her before,” Dubeau says. “But now it feels like we’ve known each other for years.”
There are two pieces from Rebecca Dale, a young composer from the UK. “Her music is wonderful,” Dubeau says. “One of her pieces we play is called ‘Winter,’ and the other is a piece she asked me to do—a movement from a requiem she wrote for her mother, ‘Libera Me.’ It’s wonderful, colorful music.”
The Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman (Emma and The Cider House Rules) appears with the 2020 work “Flight,” the final piece in a series titled “Ask the River,” which Portman wrote in response to her own musings on humans and our relationship to nature. “I chose to play this piece because I have decided that my violin can sing freely with ease, like a bird,” Dubeau says. “I feel like a bird going over a river when I play this—it’s just delightful music.”
Also on the album are Austrian-born pop composer Dalal’s “Eos,” Lera Auerbach’s “Postlude,” Jocelyn Pook’s “Introspection” and “The Wife,” Isobel Waller-Bridge’s “Arise,” and Pulitzer-winner Caroline Shaw’s 2014 “The Orangery.” The latter is the fourth movement in a quartet piece by the New York composer titled “Plan & Elevation.”
“It’s a wonderful piece, ‘The Orangery,’” says Dubeau. “I just love it so much. It’s exquisite.”
In addition to those mentioned, representing several nations and cultures, there are compositions by three Canadians on the album. Ana Sokolovic’s “Girandole des danses imaginaires: Danse No. 3,” is influenced by the dance music of the Balkans. In describing Julie Thériault’s lovely “Transmutation,” Dubeau says, “It’s a brilliant musical evocation of colors.”
Katia Makdissi-Warren’s “Mémoire” is a special commission by Dubeau.
“With this piece, I fulfill a dream I’ve had for over ten years, to build a bridge between my violin and Inuit throat singers,” she explains. “Since the Inuit tradition has been handed down from mother to daughter for centuries, I thought this all-women album would be the perfect place for this collaboration of cultures. So I contacted Katia, and I asked her to write ‘Mémoire’ for strings, piano, and three soloists—my violin and two throat singers. For this recording, those singers are Lydia Etok and Nina Segalowitz.
“A lot of Inuit singing tradition comes from imitating the sounds of the wind, the water, the birds,” says Dubeau. “So I listened carefully to Lydia and Nina, trying to find my inspiration to do my own kind of imitation of those sounds. It was quite an experience performing this work with them.”
Now on the cusp of releasing Elle to the world, with the possibility of public performances in support of it, Dubeau sees that her time in isolation was an indispensable part of the process. “It was a joy,” she says. “What I learned from two years of Covid, of listening to those hours and hours of music, is that the music women are writing is really quite extraordinary. I’m very proud of this album. I’m proud to be a woman working with so many other talented women.”
Would Dubeau consider producing another all-female album in the future?
“Why not?” she replies. “You should see the list of woman composers I have made, with many, many I haven’t worked with yet, who are wonderful. How do I choose? It’s a wonderful problem to have.”
Angèle Dubeau owns and plays the 1733 “Des Rosiers” Stradivari, nicknamed “Arthur” after its previous owner, legendary Canadian violinist Arthur Leblanc.