Centric founder and artistic director Jesse Plessis.
NMC blogger Nathaniel Schmidt had a chance to catch up with Jesse Plessis is a 26 year old pianist and composer living in Lethbridge, Alberta and is the founder of Centric, Canada’s newsest classical music festival.
Can you give us a bit of your personal background as far as music is concerned?
I started studying piano at age thirteen and began composing shortly thereafter. When I finished high school I decided to enter the bachelor of music program at the University of Lethrbidge. This was a source of confusion and irritation for my father, who I think had hopes of me becoming an architect or engineer. I was reasonably strong in and very curious about science and mathematics in my youth, but he’s extremely supportive now. In Lethbridge, I studied piano with Deanna Oye who instilled in me a love of vocal music, especially lieder, as well as composition with Arlan Schultz, whose methods of analyzing and absorbing a score still serve me very well. After Lethbridge I studied in Brandon, Manitoba with a teacher named Megumi Masaki. She was a pupil of Kendall Taylor so we all had to play and study so much Beethoven! Masaki is also very interested in newer music and commissions new works for piano nearly every year. Through her I was able to meet and play for some important composers of our time, most notably Kaija Saariaho, Nico Muhly, and John Corigliano. I don’t like the term ‘new music’ but the good modern stuff was always very alluring to me – Ligeti, Boulez, and Stockhausen were regulars on my iPod at 16 years old – but of course good music is good music, no matter the time or person it comes from.
An individual in their mid-20’s founding a festival, and on top of that a classical music festival, is quite a feat. Can you explain your inspiration and desire behind undertaking this?
The Centric Festival didn’t actually start out as a festival. Originally I was talking with Winnipeg’s the Bison Duo about the possibility of coming to Lethbridge to play and they said that I should play a few pieces in their concert. Once we began discussing repertoire we had far too much music to play so we thought about doing two concerts and maybe inviting pianist Luis Ramirez as well. The next step obviously was to have three concerts, invite some musicians from Lethbridge to play, and make it a festival.
Many readers may not be familiar with Lethbridge. Can you give us an idea of the music scene and general life around the community? Why did you decide to choose this as the home for your music festival?
Lethbridge is home to a wonderful and collaborative classical music scene. For instance, the Lethbridge Symphony always collaborates with the opera workshop program at the University of Lethbridge, and our professional musicians are almost always inviting their students from the university or conservatory to play in concerts with them as part of their education. The city is also home to a thriving and creative rock scene – you can go to a show here nearly every night of the week. We have a jazz festival in the summer as well which is growing larger each year. There is a classical music festival called SoWeCa which takes place across Southern Alberta and the East Kootenays (which my former professor Deanna Oye is an integral part of), but they only hold one concert in Lethbridge. There are a few classical concert series that take place here year-round, which are programmed very conservatively in the main, I think. We decided to have this festival in Lethbridge because it is my home and I love this city and its people. On top of this, they have a new multi-purpose arts building called CASA which we are very much looking forward to using for our event.
What do you think can be gained from bringing something like this to a community like Lethbridge?
My highest goal for this festival is that somebody – just one person would be enough – will come to one of our concerts, hear something that they never heard before, fall madly in love with it and run home to look it up on the internet and listen to it many times over and take profound joy from it. This happened to me the first time I heard Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring,’ and I’m only hoping to pass on that love and curiosity!
As this is your first time operating the festival, what are some things you’ve learned and experienced from the process?
I learned that we live in a city that cares about this music if only somebody will bring it to them. So many people have been emailing me or stopping me in the street to ask me questions about the music or the players who are coming here, and our online ticket sales are doing quite well. I also learned, of course, about managing finances for an event of this magnitude. That’s really boring and I hate it. What I should say about financing our festival is that four local businesses (listed on the sponsors page of our website) gave us donations without which these concert could not have happened – so I’d like to send a humongous heap of gratitude to Tompkins Jewellers, Mystique Boutique, Piggyback Poutinerie, and Express Coffee and Tea.
Now that you’re fully immersed in the artistic and operation world of classical music, do you have any comments about its current state of affairs as well as what it’s like to be a working classical musician today?
You know, the operation or administration or whatever you want to call it is totally uninteresting to me, but I learned to do it because I wanted to bring these concerts to life in Lethbridge. I do want to say one thing that’s very important to me though: in the last few months or so, in which I’ve really been trying to get the word out about this festival, I’ve encountered a number of people who were reluctant to attend because they worried that the tickets would be very expensive (they are $10-$15, but one woman was expecting them to be $1000!); that they would have to dress very nicely, or that they weren’t educated enough to enjoy the music, simply because it was branded as “classical.” This attitude makes me very sad, and brought me to the realization that people unfamiliar with this music and the environments for its performance hold on to a stereotype that it is somehow elitist. This is not music for the educated. This is not music for the rich. This is not music for the well-dressed. This is music for humans. This is music for every single human. You can take all the same joy from Beethoven in sweatpants as you can in a tuxedo.
This interview has been edited and condensed.