By David Templeton | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Angèle Dubeau, the celebrated Canadian violinist and founder of the all-female string ensemble La Pietà, has dedicated her career to heightening the public’s appreciation of classical music, while also championing the works of contemporary composers. La Pietà’s most recent album, the delightfully explorative Elle, exclusively features the compositions of women, all of them—with the exception of 12th-century musician-author-mystic Hildegard von Bingen—still in the midst of their careers. From the first track, it’s the kind of album you find yourself listening to with heightened curiosity and focus, which pretty much sums up Dubeau’s approach to selecting repertoire and finding everything, as a violinist, that can be found in a particular composition.
It is no exaggeration to say that her own personal relationship to music has been at least partly informed by the historic violin she’s been playing since the age of 15. The way that instrument came into her life—a process that involved a kind of modern-day treasure hunt that included a Canadian phone book and a certain amount of luck—is as much a part of Dubeau’s story as is her lifelong passion for exploration, depth, self-discovery, and musical invention.
Starting with the basics, what instrument do you play?
I play a wonderful 1733 Stradivari, called “Des Rosiers,” but I call it “Arthur.”
You received Arthur when you were still a teenager, isn’t that right?
Yes. My family bought the Strad in 1977. I was 15 and I had just finished my master’s degree in music, and I was starting my career. Of course, I was not looking for a Strad, but I was looking for a special violin of my own, that’s for sure. Do you have time for a story?
I received this violin from its previous owner, Arthur Leblanc, the most renowned Canadian violinist at the time. My family knew that he was getting older and would be retiring soon from his violinist career, so my father tried to contact him to arrange a meeting. Not knowing how to reach him, we searched the entire Quebec phone book—Quebec the city, not Quebec the province—where we knew Leblanc was living.
Was “Arthur Leblanc, renowned Canadian violinist” really just listed there in the phone book?
Yes, but it wasn’t quite that easy. We called all the A. Leblanc listings that we could find, asking if this was Arthur Leblanc? And we finally found him. Believe it or not, Arthur was living in apartment 13 on Rue St. Angèle. Of course! Angèle is my name, so it was a magical coincidence. And that—apartment 13 on Rue St. Angèle—is where I first saw and first played this wonderful violin.
So you named it after its previous owner?
Yes, well, as I said, the official name of the violin is “Des Rosiers,” which is attributed to the first family that owned the violin. But a violin can have many names, so I call the Strad Arthur, because of how the instrument came to be in my life.
What was it like to be 15 and suddenly in possession of a Stradivari?
For me, the wonderful thing about getting this violin at the age of 15 is that, like a box of paints, it has a wonderful palette of colors. I have had an infinity of colors on the palette of this violin to explore. It’s been such an important part of my growth as a musician.
Something like asking for a book and being given a library?
Yes, something like that. People always ask me if I could play on another instrument. And of course, any good violinist can play with any good violin. You can take my Strad and ask ten different violinists to play it and you’d get ten different sounds from it, different textures, different everything. But after so much of life with Arthur, when I play, every note has a special familiarity, a special texture. For the low register, it’s velvet, and the high register will be like pearl. Every time I play, I can’t wait to go deeply into that palette, and find all of those colors, those textures, those sounds.
So, had you ended up with a different violin, would it have changed the way you play?
Probably. And had this Strad ended up with a different player, perhaps one a bit older or with less natural curiosity, it might have produced something different as well. I have always been curious and explorative as a musician. It took me a long time to discover all of those colors with this instrument. A gift like this doesn’t come with a checklist. You have to go deep to find everything. This natural curiosity, and this interest in the sound of the violin, was already in me when I received the instrument. By then, you know, I had already taken on all the baggage you are asked to carry as a young player who is learning. I would have tried Adler and Paganini and a lot of things and learned from those explorations. But as a teenager, you want to make a difference in your own way, you want to find your own approach to playing a Beethoven concerto or a Brahms concerto. You want to be yourself, have a unique signature.
And Arthur Leblanc’s Stradivari has been a part of developing that signature?
Of course. I received Arthur at the exact right time in my progression as a player. I was building my own way of playing, and then this gift came into my life. It’s a treasure, and I will never take that for granted.