From violin to viola and beyond

Marina Thibeault, a UBC School of Music professor and Juno Award-nominated violist, will be performing a selection of pieces from Canadian-based women and non-binary composers Ana Sokolović, Dorothy Chang and Melody McKiver. Presented by the Chan Centre, Thibeault’s solo performance will take place on April 9.

“This program very much emerged from my second album ELLES which features women composers [from] the 20th century to today,” says Thibeault. “So after that, this program is very representative of where my career has been, where it’s going and who I wanted to feature as part of it.”

Pushing boundaries

Marina Thibeault, a UBC School of Music professor and Juno Award-nominated violist. | Photo by Matthew Perrin

Thibeault took to the musical strings at a very young age. Having started out at just six years old, Thibeault would enter the musical conservatoire to study music at just nine years of age. At that time, she was excited to grow as a musician and journey on a path to becoming a professional violinist. But it’s a path which, according to Thibeault and other classically-trained violinists, means less fiddling around, so to speak.

“My violin teacher had forbidden me from playing folk music. And from that point on, I told him I wouldn’t play it. But in family gatherings, I would continue on playing,” says Thibeault.

Thibeault credits her classical training for ingraining in her good performance habits, as well as optimal and sustainable technique and posture. But for all the trust to be laid in tradition, Thibeault has been adamant about carving her own path forward, a trend which equally informed her bold switch to the viola six full years into her studies.

“I switched to viola at 15 after I heard it for the first time at a solo recital by Bruno Giuranna. I fell so in love with the sound that I told my then violin teacher that I wanted to play both,” says Thibeault. “She said, ‘Well, do like me: marry a violist, but don’t play the viola.’ And as a teenager, that really triggered something in me. So I said, ‘you know what, I’m only going to play viola.’ And in too much pride I then chose the viola, and I’m very happy about the decision.”

A new frontier for classical music

While virtuosos of every instrument are always looking to push boundaries, Thibeault says that, with the viola in particular, the sky’s the limit. She notes that a great deal of the most popular and/or challenging solo viola material, unlike its cello and violin siblings, have emerged mostly in the 20th century or even more recently than that.

“It is a new instrument in terms of the solo repertoire,” says Thibeault. “There’s so much latitude, and there are no standards yet to the technique, so people are still pushing the limit of the instrument. I feel very privileged to be one of these ambassadors.”

Thibeault has gravitated towards these more intimate solo, duet and chamber ensemble performances in recent years. For her, the move has proved especially fulfilling and engaging, allowing her to work more closely with composers to better express their work while informing them of the nuances of this (relatively) novel instrument in its renaissance.

“It might appear that I’m by myself on stage performing, but actually there are countless hours of conversation with the composers. My role is to help so that everything that they have in mind, in terms of character and atmosphere, is efficiently delivered on the viola. It becomes a symbiosis that is very natural, and there’s a lot of trust. Trust is absolutely needed on both parties,” says Thibeault.

In all, Thibeault is excited, if cautiously optimistic, for a return to a busier performance schedule as Canada continues to make progress against the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, she’s excited to be able to showcase the works of talented, forward-thinking women and non-binary composers in the upcoming show.

For more information about the event, visit www.chancentre.com

For more on Thibeault, visit www.marinathibeault.com

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