Canadian Bands You Should Know: Donovan Seidle and Classical Diversity

In the culture of classical music one of the most valued qualities in any artist is devotion to detail. Commonly, those details are related to the perfection of one style, group of compositions, or a general virtuosity. What results is impressive and spectacular. Take for example a breathtaking live performance of Chopin’s Etude No. 1, Op. 10 by Russian virtuoso Vladimir Ashkenazy or the dense, concentrated complexity of a movement from Anton Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet. Both are examples of extreme focus on the aforementioned details. In the case of Ashkenazy, the result is the highest technical virtuosity in a very demanding performance, while with Webern it is a complete understanding of detail and a masterful harnessing of various musical elements in a very confined structure.

Ashkenazy plays Chopin's Etude, No. 1, Op. 10

Sehr Bewegt plays Anton Webern's 5 Sätze Für Streichquartett, No. 3, Op. 5

Another quality that goes somewhat unappreciated in this world is the direct opposite of this intense focus on detail and something that is highly valued in other art forms: diversity. Now, let me state unequivocally that when I classify a musician or artist as diverse that is not to say that they are not detailed, and that if they are detailed they are not diverse—it is more about where the intention is focused and the type of art that results.

To better illustrate the idea of diversity in classical music, I spoke to arguably one of Canada’s most diverse classical musicians—producer, arranger, artistic director, composer, sound engineer, associate concertmaster, and violinist Donovan Seidle (that list is not an exaggeration). In speaking to him, I wanted to discover how taking his intense training in classical music and spreading it through various fields has influenced his artistic life. Seidle may best be known as the associate music director of the Vancouver Olympic Games, something he undertook alongside fellow producer Dave Pierce and as assistant concertmaster of the Calgary Symphony. This, however, only begins to scratch the surface of the musical endeavours he has been involved in for over fifteen years.

Seidle began his musical life in Calgary, eventually studying at the University of Calgary in both computer science and music performance/composition. He soon chose to focus entirely on music but never quite leaving behind this split in interests, something that would continue to influence him throughout his career. Following this initial education and a few years spent as a freelance musician, Seidle continued his studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, playing in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and eventually winning the position of Assistant Concertmaster with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. With the foundation of his training and career firmly established, Seidle began to explore the different facets of his varied career.

Seidle acknowledges that the direction of diversity can come with its own set of challenges, noting “The idea of being a ‘jack of all trades’ is one that has troubled me for my whole career so far.” This focuses around the perception that “dividing one’s attention is detrimental to skill-building [and] pushes some people to try and become experts in a single field.” Aspects of this notion may be true; however it has always been a peculiarity in the classical world that diversifying your skillset provides negative results to your primary medium. Seidle sees the opposite as being true, stating “That just doesn’t work for me for a few reasons: I am plainly just too interested in a range of things to only focus on one, and I’ve found, again, that a wide range of knowledge/skillsets can benefit those skillsets in different ways.”

This comes out clearly in many of his projects, a noteworthy example being the Kensington Sinfonia, a string orchestra in Calgary, Alberta that he leads both as principal violinist and artistic director. Since he took over the position in 2007 he has revitalized the organization, employing a group of enthusiastic young musicians to perform unique programming. A typical concert could see the group performing an energetic rendition of a Vivaldi concerto grosso alongside a newly commissioned piece by a young Canadian composer, the premiere of Calgary composer Aura Pon’s work “Romp and Repose” being a perfect example. During each concert, Seidle himself will often be front and centre, performing a solo or giving an off the cuff speech about what is about to be performed. The list of his performing projects goes on and on, including appearances in the Aspen (USA) and Lucerne (Switzerland) festivals, a featured arranger and performer in I Musici de Montreal’s 2013- 2014 season, and performances in the Jeunesses Musicales World Orchestra. A testament to his talent and character was his inclusion in the YouTube symphony, a project that brought musicians from around the world together to perform live.

Bassoonist Michael Hope and Kensington Sinfonia perform “Romp and Repose” by Aura Pon.

Meet the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

Alongside these projects as a performer and programmer, Seidle also pursues composition and arranging. And yes—you guess it—his endeavours in this field are similarly diverse. Besides the previously discussed project for the Vancouver Olympics, his original composition for string orchestra, “Chinook,” recently nominated for Western Canadian Music Award, stands out as something very striking. Seidle credits American fiddler and composer Mark O’Connor as being a standout influence in the creation of this work. Seidle describes O’Connor as “A Copland incarnate, [who] incorporates folk (or folk inspired/styled) melodies to his writing that is largely tonal. I very much enjoy his writing, and attention to detail—quite a talent, and worth a listen.” The same could be said for Seidle’s Chinook as well. Other projects include original scoring for the quirky Canadian film Lloyd the Conqueror, and a recently announced posting as resident composer for Calgary’s Globalfest Fireworks Festival 2014.

Mark O'Connor's “Appalachia Waltz” (Feat. Yo-Yo Ma).

Despite his vast resumé of projects and successes, Seidle still possesses a hunger to learn more and continue the pursuit of musical creation, displaying the type of mentality that is epitomized by the quality and variety of his output. Seidle says somewhat humbly that “I’m still working on my ‘voice’ as both a performer and composer. This is something that simultaneously delights and frustrates me; the work is never done.” Work that continues to evolve in a range of forms that many artists could only hope to scratch the surface of. Along with these grand ideas and huge projects (another of which was as a star in the 2013 Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show), Seidle maintains a simple love for the roots of his musical upbringing as a violinist. He reflects that “I have always felt very close to playing the violin… Amidst all the stresses of this career, I find the most peace when I am practicing or performing great repertoire.”

What stands out most about a musician such as Seidle is the amount of dedication, quality, and originality that is put in to each of his musical pursuits. He epitomizes the idea that with the right amount of ingenuity and interest, you truly can be a “jack of all trades” that doesn’t fall in to the trap of “master of none.” As Seidle himself fittingly puts it, “There is so much so much music that is available to learn and perform. Bottom line for wishes about my career and all the things I’d like explore is that I’m never short of opportunities!” At this point, it doesn’t seem likely that will ever be a problem.

Click here to listen to samples of Seidle’s compositions and click here to see video samples of his work.

You can read the full interview with Donovan here.

Nathaniel Schmidt

Find me on Twitter @N88TE

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