With her easy smile, quiet confidence, and gentle self-assuredness, Kathleen Allan exudes the fresh-faced optimism of a recent university graduate. But unlike most grads launching careers in the midst of global economic uncertainty, the 22-year-old composer and singer has good reason to be feeling optimistic.
For starters, she’s landed a couple of posts that will make it easier to pay the bills at the East Vancouver apartment she shares with her composer boyfriend (and former T.A.) Benton Roark: she’s recently been hired as the director of the Chorales of the Vancouver Bach Children’s Chorus, and has joined the faculty of the Vancouver Academy of Music as a voice instructor—this, on top of being a soprano with the Vancouver Chamber Choir and penning numerous commissioned works for choirs such as the VCC and Chor Leoni, the latter of which will premiere her piece The Blue Puttee at its Remembrance Day concert.
Those accomplishments are even more impressive when you consider Allan just graduated from UBC with a music degree in composition this past May, four years after leaving her native St. John’s, Newfoundland. And no one is more surprised at her successes than Allan herself.
“I never expected to be right out of school and saying no to things,” she reflects in a conversation at a Kitsilano coffee shop. “The Vancouver community has been extremely welcoming. I was completely taken aback. I was thinking, ‘Big city, it’s going to be really hard to network, it’s going to take me a few years to get to know the scene.’ But basically within my first few months here, I had met or had interaction with the conductors and the choirs that I had heard of growing up in Newfoundland.”
Allan is the first to admit she’s benefited from the help of various mentors and supporters throughout the course of her burgeoning career. When she was in Grade 6, her entire class performed one of her early compositions, a piece for voices, piano, and violin. A member of the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Choir (now known as Shallaway) for 10 years, she was given opportunities to conduct the group, and the choir often sang music she’d written. And when Allan was offered a scholarship to study composition at UBC, her parents urged her to accept, even though she’d already been offered scholarships to study engineering by a number of other schools.
“They were very encouraging and said, ‘You know, this might be an opportunity to do something you really love and explore it, and in four years’ time you can always go back to sciences,’ ” she says. “So I came out here with the idea that it would kind of be ‘Okay, now I can afford it, I’m young....’ But anyway, I’m hooked.”
As for her music, Allan says, “I think it’s accessible to most audiences. I would say it’s text-oriented and, from a musical perspective, maybe tonally based, but with new flavours.” And while she has carved out a niche composing for choirs, she says she hopes to branch into more symphonic work. “I’d like to write a major work for orchestra and soloists,” she admits.
She adds: “Ultimately, my goal in life is to be able to write the music I want to write, and support myself.” Allan may not have realized it yet, but she appears to be doing exactly that.
Talent, intelligence, and determination are parts of any classical musician’s tool kit, but for those who succeed, luck is often just as important. And Iman Habibi was certainly lucky in the piano teacher he found as a teenager in Tehran. The late Farman Behboud made a habit of ensuring that his students spent time on-stage, and it was there that Habibi discovered his life’s work.
“Even though I was really young, he would allow me to play at all these concerts,” Habibi explains in a telephone interview from his Vancouver home. “It was just a really encouraging thing, and I realized after a while that the piano was becoming my personal voice. It was becoming something that I could really relate to. Anytime I was lonely, anytime I needed somewhere to go, the piano was the place for me.”
It was in front of 350 of his fellow Iranians, though, that Habibi had the first of two musical revelations. “I was so nervous that I was ready to jump out of the window and just run away,” he recalls. “But when I walked on the stage, the energy that I got from the audience… I mean, I can’t describe it. But it was such an amazing experience that I decided I wanted to pursue that.”
There were, and still are, obvious impediments to following a classical-music career in Iran, where the state is not sympathetic to western art of any kind. But Habibi and his family immigrated to Canada in 2003, and it was here that he had his second musical breakthrough, when he entered a score in a competition sponsored by the Vancouver Bach Choir. Given that the day after he mailed it in he was told he’d notated it incorrectly, he didn’t think he had any chance of winning.
He was wrong.
“I won second prize,” he says, still sounding shocked, “and I was competing against some of Canada’s best choral composers, people who had been writing for 40, 45 years. It was at that point that, first of all, I realized that I really like writing choral music. But I also realized that composition had something special for me, and that I might have a future if I kept working at it.”
Today, having just received his master’s degree in composition from UBC, the 25-year-old Habibi splits his time between appearing on the international stage—he and girlfriend Deborah Grimmett are just about to leave for Norway, where their Piano Pinnacle duo is performing—and writing scores. He will make a brief, nonplaying appearance at City Hall on September 29: he’s the winner of this year’s Mayor’s Arts Award for emerging artist in music.