On a Personal Note: Department of Music Teaching Faculty Share Memories of Malcolm Forsyth

In one of life's serendipitous moments, I entered the Bachelor of Music program at the University of Alberta the same year as Malcolm Forsyth was hired to teach in the Department of Music. He became my first year harmony professor and eventually, a friend and colleague.

12 July 2011

Some thoughts about Malcolm Forsyth
by Janet Scott Hoyt

In one of my life's serendipitous moments, I entered the Bachelor of Music program at the University of Alberta the same year as Malcolm Forsyth was hired to teach in the Department of Music. He became my first year harmony professor and eventually, a friend and colleague.

That year, I remember him providing a lucid and well organized introductory course that was exactly what we all needed as we attempted to assimilate the principles of tonal harmony and its effect on the music we were studying. In third year, he would teach our class a History of Modern Music course that stretched our ears and our understanding too. Over many years in the Department of Music, Malcolm would teach composition classes, theory courses, trombone lessons, aural skills and eventually direct the University Symphony Orchestra. In every case it was the same. He was uncompromising in his expectations as he tried to fill the gaps in our musical education.

After graduation, I was privileged to forge a friendship with Malcolm and his family. I became his daughter Amanda's piano teacher and frequent accompanist as she developed into a fine young cellist. Throughout these years, Malcolm was consistently developing his composer's art and craft. And as his writing progressed, the performers premièring his works had a higher and higher public profile. They were responding to Malcolm's ability to give them music that really worked with an audience. He had a great imagination for tonal colour, turns of melody, for exciting rhythms. It felt good to perform his music. The audiences loved his music too, and for good reason. I found this quote on his website. In October, 1996 he wrote:

" I always have had a sense of responsibility to the audience, coming from a deep sense of belief. I am myself a dedicated audience member, dedicated to the idea of concert music that does sweep people away. Everything I've done is with that experience in mind: changing the space the audience sits in for those brief moments. I believe in the audience's intelligence. The most important people are the ones choosing to be there."

In 1975, The Banff Centre buzzed with excitement around the première of Sagitarrius performed by the Canadian Brass and the Canadian Chamber Orchestra. Later that year, I remember traveling with Malcolm, his wife Lesley and Ernesto Lejano (a former U of A piano professor) for the première of the Three Habitant Songs at an international music conference held in Calgary. The songs were given a stunning performance by the great Canadian contralto, Maureen Forrester. The concert was taped by CBC and the audience included such luminaries as Yehudi Menuhin. After this event, I remember thinking that Malcolm's work was moving into quite another league and he was affecting a much wider audience than before.

Despite this, he remained responsive to commissions from his friends and colleagues and produced numerous fine works for them. Among these were Fordyce Pier (Sonata for Trumpet and Piano), William Street (Tre Vie :Concerto for Saxophone), Margaret Bunkall (Dreams, Drones and Drolleries), John Ellis (Fanfare and Three Masquerades), Helmut Brauss (Concerto for Piano) Stephane Lemelin (Je Répondrais). There were works for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (Symphony #2 'a host of nomads', and Siyajabula! We Rejoice!), premières by the Edmonton Youth Orchestra and conductor Michael Massey (Sketches from Natal). I count it among my most treasured musical experiences to have been part of some of these premières.

You had to have your wits about you when you played his music. I experienced a case in point. In 1984, Malcolm composed the colorful orchestral suite Atayoskiwin. The ESO premièred it and included it later that season in a number of 'run-outs' that were performed in smaller communities around Edmonton. One day, I was asked to step in at the last moment for a performance that was to happen in Spruce Grove the next evening. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity for a rehearsal.

We got to the hall and as is often the case in rural communities, there was only a very small upright for me to play. To optimize the piano sound, they put me very close to the front of the stage and placed the back of the piano to the audience. This meant that I was facing the audience as I played. Malcolm's scores were always complicated rhythmically and it took everything I had to keep track of the alternating rhythms on this first and only time through. I must have been counting aloud very diligently as I played.

A friend later reported meeting an enthusiastic audience member who said "Yes, she had enjoyed the piece very much, but wished that she had been better able to hear the person who was singing at the piano!" Enough said.

There was no one who inspired Malcolm so much as Amanda did. He loved and admired her musicianship and ability to play the cello with such tonal beauty and instrumental control. Over the years he was to write wonderful works for her to perform. Initially this was in the form of small pieces that suited her age (8 Duets for Young Cellists premièred by Amanda and her friend Shauna Rolston). It culminated in the Juno award winning Electra Rising: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra.

I have learned quite a lot since my first year in university. One of the most important lessons is to never forget that those in our midst have far greater gifts than we often recognize at the time. A man of enormous intellect and creativity, Malcolm was a big presence in the Department of Music, the University as a whole and in Edmonton's music community during his life here. He was highly respected for what he contributed. As I sensed so many years ago, his musical influence was to become widespread as one of our country's most honored and esteemed composers. By infusing his newly acquired Canadian identity with the sounds and rhythms of his birthplace, he created an important and beautiful legacy that will continue to resonate with audiences everywhere.