As we count down the days leading up to this year’s Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition, our semi-finalists checked in to share their experiences and preparation with pianist Everett Hopfner, a two-time E-Gré participant. -

Today’s interview features Jesse Plessis, a Brandon University graduate who is currently a doctoral student at l’Université de Montréal.

Everett Hopfner: Participating in the Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition requires a broad exploration of music since the last half of the twentieth century. What’s your personal connection to this repertoire?

Jesse Plessis: Since I was very young, classical music post-1950 has been something that appeals to me. Nobody showed me this stuff – I just kind of discovered it on my own, and it’s been a huge love in my life. People think of “contemporary music” – whatever that word means to you – as something different from the rest of classical music, but it’s really the same thing. It all goes in a line, right? You can follow the line from Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Messiaen, to Claude Vivier – we’re all part of a lineage. The reason I like to explore what’s newer, is that I’m interested in pushing that lineage forward.

EH: What do you enjoy about studying and performing contemporary music?

JP: When you’re playing music from this time period, the composers are often still alive – and often, they’re reachable human beings! If you have questions, you can call them up. We all love to play Beethoven, but we can’t ask him questions anymore. Also, working on a lot of this repertoire makes you a more well-rounded musician. If you play something like Xenakis’s “Evryali” or some of the Ligeti Études, then go back to Beethoven’s Hämmerklavier Sonata – you’re not going to be afraid of it anymore.

EH: Can you touch on your previous experiences with music from this time period?

JP: Thanks to my studies at Brandon University with Megumi Masaki, I had a lot of wonderful experiences. My favourite one was meeting Kaija Saariaho – I had the opportunity to perform the Canadian premiere of “Calices” with violinist Maria Cherwick in the Piano Nobile series of the WSO New Music Festival. I think Kaija is one of the great living composers now, and she was really kind to us, and gave a lot of insight into her music – she was very generous with her time, which she doesn’t have a lot of! I’ve also been able to have coachings with John Corigliano and Nico Muhly on some of their piano pieces. I’ve had a handful of pieces written for me, and also studied composition during my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

EH: What would you like to share about the pieces you’ll perform in Brandon?

JP: One of the draws to Montréal for me was the music here. It’s one of the hubs of classical music in Canada, which of course includes composition. My program for the competition is a little Montréal-heavy as a result – Gilles Tremblay, who’s kind of the godfather of composition in Montréal, a pupil of Messiaen. Claude Vivier – I’m playing both of his piano pieces, which are just extraordinary. I’m also performing Arlan Schulz’s “Pli” – it’s a workout, but it’s well worth it! I studied composition with Arlan during my undergrad in Lethbridge.

EH: Has your background as a composer influenced how you approach performing?

JP: Oh, absolutely it has. The training with Arlan especially was really rigorously analytical. So, when I play anything, whether it’s Bach or Vivier, or anything in between, there’s a big step of heavy analysis before even touching the piano. I think it really strengthens your understanding of the work, and it also strengthens your memory if you can see the music not as a string of notes, but to understand on a very deep level how the pieces are put together.

EH: How are you approaching your preparation for this competition? Do you have personal goals for the weekend?

JP: I already know three of the other competitors, but I’m very much looking forward to meeting the others, and to hearing them and seeing what music they brought. In a situation like this, there’s always going to be some piece or some idea that you haven’t heard of before. It’s another opportunity to play in public, and to introduce the music to some new listeners. And hopefully they’ll like it after they hear me play it!

In some ways, I’m not even thinking about this as a competition. I’m just going to show up to Brandon, I’m going to try to deliver my personal best and see what happens. If I play very well for me, then I’ll be satisfied. I’m looking forward to it with alacrity!

EH: Thanks for taking the time for this interview, Jesse. The audience in Brandon is sure looking forward to hearing you again! We’re excited to welcome you back in a few weeks.


The 39th Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition will be held May 6-8 in the Lorne Watson Recital Hall, Brandon University.

For advance tickets or more information, feel free to contact us: 

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