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Guelph arts couple are a formidable pas de deux

judith yan and amanda paterson

Meeting Judith Yan and Amanda Paterson in their new home on Talbot Street in Guelph, you see immediately that each admires the other. They don’t exactly finish each other’s sentences, but each enlarges on their partner’s responses to questions, especially if they think the other person is underselling themselves.

Yan, recent winner of a Guelph Women of Distinction award for arts and culture, has been the conductor of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra since the 2011-12 season, bringing the 55-member group to a new level of playing sophistication and audience acclaim. The coming season will be her sixth as the artistic director of the Guelph symphony, and the 15th anniversary for the orchestra.

Paterson is also a highly accomplished artist. She is both director of the Oakville School of Classical Ballet, which trains children aged four and up, and artistic director of the Oakville Ballet, a regional youth ballet company that is also a performance outlet for senior students from her school.

You might expect a conductor to be all show and bravado, but 48-year-old Yan is the more reserved of the two and a little more relaxed and casual. Paterson, 55, is the one who talks with her hands and looks you in the eye as she makes her points. She looks every bit the dance teacher she is, with a tight bun, silver jewelry, defined features and an intense gaze. Even around the house, her movements are elegant and poised.

When children from their Old University neighbourhood drop by for a chat — two young girls in dresses who could easily be Paterson’s students — it’s Yan who answers the door. It’s not clear if they know they’re in the presence of a maestro, but Yan betrays nothing of her professional side to her new neighbours. She crouches down to their level and asks where they’re headed on their scooters, then answers questions about the couple’s unusual front door mat. “It’s made up of leather blue jean labels sewn together,” she explains to the girls.

“The kids love Judy,” says Paterson, “but they’re scared to death of me!” Yan looks like a kid herself at the door, with her legs crossed casually, her capri-style pants, her loose, medium-length black hair and no jewelry or makeup. Paterson looks over at Yan and smiles.

The Oakville Ballet has staged a full production of “The Nutcracker” at Christmas for 20 years running and, this December, dancers from Paterson’s company will perform a scene from that classic at a Guelph symphony concert. Yan says she’s excited to have Paterson’s dancers share the stage with her orchestra, which is very different from a normal ballet production where the players are in a pit, with no visual connection to the dancers.

Paterson jumps in on the conversation, adding, “It’s so exciting to see Judy conduct ballet, because she understands the dancers so well, which is a really unique gift.”

Likewise, Yan is effusive about Paterson’s upcoming season, where the Oakville Ballet will perform portions of two ballets by the French ballet master Marius Petipa: “La Bayadère” and “Pequita.” The production will be with an orchestra, with Yan conducting.

“And did you see the sponsor Amanda got for that production?” Yan asks, drawing attention to the prominent Porsche logo on the brochure.

The two have separate careers for the most part, the December symphony concert notwithstanding. Yan conducts in Guelph, in Newfoundland and internationally. Paterson commutes daily to Oakville to run the ballet school. She doesn’t mind the drive for the most part, because she leaves Guelph in the late morning and returns in the evening, which suits the school schedule and misses rush hour.

Paterson calls Guelph “her refuge,” where she can escape the demands and pressures of Oakville. “It’s a different society,” she observes, “and coming back to Guelph is almost like going up to a cottage.”

They had only been in their house for about two weeks at the time of this interview, moving in July from a previous residence near Paisley and Edinburgh. Yet there’s not a cardboard box in sight. “That’s Amanda’s doing,” says Yan, clearly happy to have an efficient organizer in her home.

Yan and Paterson have moved into a mature neighbourhood with a variety of large trees that would rival the university’s Arboretum in their diversity. Inside, their house has been renovated to a modern, open-plan space. The entrance, living room, dining room and kitchen are all connected in one large expanse, with windows looking out in all four directions.

“We like open space,” declares Paterson. When it is pointed out that could be because of all the time they spend in theatres and concert halls, Yan replies, “We never thought of that!” There’s a grand piano in the corner of the living room, and a large island in the kitchen, covered in a marble countertop that could almost serve as a stage, or a conductor’s podium, with its central location.

“Either that or a great house for a party,” says Paterson, “because everyone likes to crowd around the kitchen.”

They both work from home when they’re not teaching young dancers, rehearsing orchestra players or running productions. And here, interestingly, they collaborate, each using their artistic insight to enhance the other’s work.

How does a conductor help a dance teacher or vice versa? Well, as it turns out, Yan actually started as a ballet dancer, studying from the age of four through until 14. She also studied piano, starting at the age of six. And her first professional job in 1994, after university, was as a rehearsal pianist with the National Ballet of Canada. Four years later she was appointed Conductor-in-Residence at the Canadian Opera Company.

Paterson was steeped in dance. Her mother, Elizabeth Paterson, founded the Oakville ballet school her daughter now leads, and Amanda studied there as a child. But she also studied violin as a child, giving her insight into the intricacies of playing music.

Yan points out that when she’s conducting singers, “they read me,” but it’s the opposite with dancers. They can’t see the conductor, who is following them, even if they have to dance in time with the music. “I read the dancers by watching the way they breathe,” she says, explaining that dancers take a breath in anticipation of certain moves, like a spin, and she uses that to time her conducting of the music.

Even though both Yan and Paterson were working in arts performance in metropolitan Toronto for some time, they actually met in Guelph quite recently, and fell for each other straightaway. As Paterson tells the story, they were set up by her father and a musician friend of hers. Paterson’s parents have lived in Guelph for 16 years, and were subscribers of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra. They invited Amanda to a concert and made sure she got introduced to Yan after the performance.

The first thing Yan said to Paterson was, “I know your mother!” In fact, when she was only 15 years old, she had played piano for the senior Paterson at ballet examinations. And Paterson also realized that she had spied Yan years before, at the National Ballet. “She came out of the pit at the end of the performance and I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s an Asian woman!’” In an occupation dominated by men, Yan is an exception to the rule.

As soon as they met, Yan says, “We couldn’t stop talking to each other!” It was instant chemistry. In fact, during their courtship, they attended a Stratford production together, then afterwards got into an involved discussion about ballet and music at a restaurant. They began scribbling on their brown paper table covering, and Paterson introduced Yan to Benesh dance notation, a method for representing ballet symbolically on paper.

They moved in together in 2013. Yan had just completed her second season with the Guelph orchestra, and the two decided to make Guelph their home. While being interviewed in their new dwelling, they are constantly together, sometimes brushing against each other, or touching each other’s arms or shoulders as they explain something.

What they share, it seems, is both a drive for artistic excellence, and also a passion for storytelling, which is what unites their two disciplines. Yan describes her tutelage under the Canadian Opera Company’s Richard Bradshaw, beginning in 1998. “I watched him conduct Act II of ‘Tosca,’ ” a classic opera from 1900, “and it was the most exciting and heart-wrenching 40 minutes of anything I’ve ever seen,” she says. “The suspense was just amazing.”

Despite her musical and dance training from a young age, Yan began by taking English literature at the University of Toronto and thought she might go into law. But she ended up studying composition at U of T’s Royal Conservatory of Music. When she finished, she thought she would write music for television, “music to support drama,” as she describes it. But Bradshaw changed all that. She realized that as a conductor of ballet or opera, “you’re essentially living the story through your whole body,” and she knew she’d found her calling.

It also explains why she’s been enlarging the Guelph symphony’s programs to include dance and choral works. Last season, at the Basilica of Our Lady, the group performed the Mozart “Requiem,” which was left unfinished when the composer died in 1791. It was the first time the Guelph Basilica had been sold out for a concert, Yan says, and 200 people had to be turned away. This season, in April 2017, the symphony will return to the Basilica to stage Verdi’s “Requiem,” which the operatic master wrote in 1873. It requires a double choir and an enlarged orchestra.

Yan was on the music staff at the Ulmer Theatre in the city of Ulm, in southern Germany, in 2004-05. (She also held staff conductor positions at the San Francisco Opera and the National Ballet of Canada as well, plus guest conductorships internationally, in the decade before coming to Guelph.) Ulm is the same size as Guelph, is also on a prominent river — the Danube — and has a professional philharmonic orchestra, plus a public theatre featuring drama, opera and ballet. “It was a program as large and varied as the Metropolitan Opera in New York,” Yan says. That’s her vision for the Guelph orchestra: “to combine ballet, opera, oratorio and symphony, all in one season.”

Paterson has had a more direct career path than Yan. She studied in her mother’s company, then moved to the National Ballet, first as a dancer and later in its full-time, professional training program. She studied with Betty Oliphant at the National Ballet School, who trained a whole generation of Canadian dancers, including the current director of the National Ballet, Karen Kain. After spending time in New York City, she returned to Oakville, taking over from her mother as director of the ballet school in the mid-1990s.

Yan came to Guelph when the symphony’s founder, Simon Irving, decided to retire and the orchestra wanted to hire a full-time, professional conductor. They interviewed six candidates and had them all conduct a full program during the 2010-11 season. The last to audition was Yan. She was also the only woman under consideration, and she won the approval of the orchestra and the audience, both of whom were surveyed about all the candidates.

Only four of 46 professional orchestras in the country are led by women, Orchestras Canada indicates, so Guelph was blazing a trail when it hired Yan in 2011, even if that wasn’t a consideration in the decision. (Hamilton’s Philharmonic Orchestra recently hired 29-year-old Gemma New, from New Zealand, as its new conductor.)

Christoph Kessel, a semi-professional flautist with the Guelph orchestra since its beginning in 2001, says of Yan: “She has great rapport with the players. She’s like a good manager who engages you as an employee, instead of just telling you what to do.” He thinks the orchestra has made huge progress under Yan in the last six years. “There are pieces we do now that we could not have attempted 10 years ago, like works by composers Stravinsky and Philip Glass. We’ve improved as individual players, and as an orchestra.”

About her decision to come to Guelph, Yan says, “I was perfectly happy with what I was doing at the National Ballet, but I also thought it was time to make something happen, and to grow.” She took over an orchestra that was used to playing Baroque, Classical and Romantic repertoire, and has grown it to one that tackles 20th-century music and experimental pieces, as well as premières new Canadian work. “We put one challenging thing onto every program,” Yan says proudly.

How does her audience react to that? She says they welcome challenging and new material. “This year, the ‘audience choice’ concert includes modern Canadian composer John Estacio’s ‘A Wondrous Light.’ ” Still, Paterson reminds Yan that “when you put that experimental percussion piece by Barbara Croall on the program — 20 minutes with no notes — you were terrified!”

Yan laughs and acknowledges the comment, saying, “Yes, I was!” But she also says that she’s no longer surprised by “the love for arts and culture in Guelph, and by the open-mindedness of our audience.”

With her back to the audience, at least until she takes a bow, Yan says she can judge audience reaction during a performance by looking at her players, because they face the audience, and they tell her if it’s working.

“Guelph is a wonderful city – open-minded, positive, diverse and adventurous,” Yan says. In the 2016-17 season, ballet, opera excerpts, oratorio and symphony will all get a chance to shine.

“We’ve come to understand that our community is warm to this mini-opera house idea. It is my hope that we can find patronage support to make this dream come true.”

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