Nicholas Urquhart sees many parallels between leading an orchestra and educating secondary students. And he’s in a good position to make this assessment as both a conductor of many ensembles and the strings director at Killarney Secondary School. There, he oversees five orchestras.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Urquhart said that whether he’s dealing with students or professional musicians, he must be able to explain the structures, theory, and technical aspects of the music.
“At the same time, that’s not enough for students to succeed,” Urquhart added. “They need inspiration. They need to be engaged in the music. They need to believe. They have to have confidence, so that’s something that you work with them over time in developing a sense of their own abilities. And I would do the same thing with orchestras.”
Urquhart conducts the Harmonia Orchestra, which will perform its first live concert since the start of the pandemic on the Labour Day weekend as part of TAIWANfest. The theme of the concert is “sooner or later”, Urquhart said, which will bring together European and Taiwanese traditions of orchestral music at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl'e7énḵ Square (north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery).
It will include four pieces from Taiwan. They were created by Taiwanese composer Che-yi Lee, a native of Kaohsiung, which is the island nation's third-largest city and a major centre for arts and culture in Asia.
Lee, the founder of One Song Orchestra, has composed about 2,000 works, according to the TAIWANfest website, and performed at dozens of festivals in different countries. He's also produced about 90 albums.
Urquhart explained that even though Taiwanese music has a five-note scale structure, it sounds “incredibly different” than five-note scale-structured music from the United States, Denmark, and many other countries.
“There’s nothing particularly new about the harmony or the rhythm or the notes, but in the way that it’s put together, it certainly takes to you to Taiwan and to Asia,” Urquhart said.
In fact, the orchestra has become so enamoured with what it has learned that it’s considering going on tour to Taiwan, which is an independent nation about the size of Vancouver Island off the coast of mainland China.
Harmonia's roots go back to sushi
Harmonia first performed at last year’s virtual TAIWANfest, playing to the camera at the Orpheum Annex in Vancouver. This taped performance was shown alongside a video of an Indigenous youth orchestra from Taiwan.
“We played some of the same music and it was interesting to hear different interpretations,” Urquhart said. “It was all prerecorded and edited and assembled.”
He described Harmonia as an “amateur orchestra”, with several professional musicians who donate their time. It was founded by the principal viola player, Tony Lee, who originally called it the I Musici Sushi Chamber Orchestra because he would buy sushi for all the musicians.
Urquhart said the name stuck for about a decade, but it was changed to Harmonia a few years back because the moniker didn’t seem to fit, given the quality of the musicianship.
“Ever since then, it’s been a little bit more structured and a little bit more professional,” he noted. “It sort of moved to the next level.”
Urquhart originally played double bass for the orchestra, but after conducting a couple of concerts, he was kept on in this role.
He credits three of his former professors, in particular—his bass teacher Kenneth Friedman at UBC, conducting instructor Yariv Aloni at the University of Victoria, and Dale Lonis, who was his master's of education adviser. Between them, they provided him with a much deeper understanding of pedagogy and how to motivate musicians from the podium, and how to experience more joy in the music.
As long as Urquhart continues being energized by the music, he expects to continue teaching and conducting orchestras.
"I'm searching out more gigs because it's all feeding each other," he said. "It's a wonderful experience each time. We're living with geniuses—we're working with Bach and Beethoven, Schubert and Shostakovich. It's good stuff. It feeds you."
As a conductor, Urquhart cherishes giving the players freedom while promoting a unifying vision.
“I think I’m quite good at explaining in a sophisticated yet approachable way what the vision could be,” he said. “And usually our players are pretty onboard with that and we get good results because of that.”