Everett Hopfner: When you look back on your first E-Gré Competition in 2014, what did you take away from that experience?
Ally Smither: It was so exciting to meet so many other singers interested in singing this repertoire, to get to see their programs, talk to them about where they found their music, what they like to listen to, and see how they performed it. I was just in awe, and totally blown away! E-Gré last time really felt like my first step into the real world. In the regular canon of operatic singing, we have so many examples of how people can sing Bach, Mozart… but it’s rare in this canon to have 3 different perspectives on how to approach Vivier! This is just what we all need.
EH: Can you tell me about your experience with contemporary repertoire, outside of the E-Gré Competition?
AS: The Gamut Ensemble at the University of Toronto was really central to my undergraduate education. The first pieces I was assigned in the ensemble were by Schnittke and Gorecki – I’d been thrown off the deep end, facing music that was unlike anything I’d ever sung or even heard before. Something about the way the sounds came together, the way the music was composed, it felt like finally tasting the right dish for the first time.
When I moved to Rice University for my master’s degree, I was surprised to see there was no student new music ensemble! I emailed my theory professor, who’s on the composition department, to tell him I’d like to sing his students’ works and start a new music ensemble. The news got spread around quickly, thanks to a fabulous student composer named Alishan Gezgin who jumped in to help, and soon another professor, Dr. Jerry Hou agreed to conduct. He has an exhaustive knowledge of contemporary music. The ensemble started with a huge informational meeting – there was a huge turnout, there were so many students interested in playing this repertoire. The ensemble has been running ever since: I helped manage it until I graduated in May 2016, and by then we had done 7 or 8 concerts. One of the best parts was that it expanded my knowledge of non-vocal repertoire and helped me meet so many fabulous instrumentalists. My knowledge of the contemporary canon expanded in a way that I really wasn’t expecting.
Outside of school, I was lucky to take part in a residency at the Banff Centre called “The Concert in the 21st Century”. I’m singing in a new music ensemble here in Houston called Loop 38, and they’ve had a fantastic start to their year. All of them are fabulous musicians and artists. I’m trying to do everything!
EH: Ally, this will be your second time taking part in the competition. How is your preparation going?
AS: Really well! I learned a lot from my preparation last time, when I really had no idea how to learn and prep that much repertoire! I’m sticking to a schedule this time. It’s easy to prepare for things when you’re excited about them – I love all of my repertoire, and I know I’m going to perform it again and again. I think if the E-Gré Competition is offering singers this opportunity, it would be remiss of us not to take advantage and use this opportunity to springboard new repertoire! The administrators and donors put in so much effort, both time-wise and financially, for us not to take part and work hard would be letting down our end of the bargain. We all know this competition is difficult, but that’s a good thing.
EH: Can you tell me about the repertoire you’re preparing? What music will you be sharing with our audience in Brandon?
AS: I was really inspired to see that Nicole Lizée would be our commissioned composer. I’ve been obsessed with her music for years. Her compositions are incredible, so captivating and stimulating. It’s difficult to learn but easy to sing, which is how I like to describe well-written contemporary music!
Nicole’s involvement here inspired me to set an additional stipulation on my repertoire: I wanted 50% of my program to be works by female composers. So, for example, I’ve got a few songs from Yellow Leaves, a set by British composer Charlotte Bray, and some works by Ana Sokolovic of Montreal. I’ll also perform one of my favourite pieces of all time, although not by a female composer but featuring a powerful female character, Berio’s Sequenza for Voice. It drives me crazy, but it’s so much fun.
EH: Can you please describe your partnership with your collaborative pianist, Pierre-André Doucet?
AS: Pierre and I met 4 years ago – I can’t believe it’s been that long! – at Songfest, a great art song program in Los Angeles, and we just kind of clicked immediately. We really have been best friends ever since. The summer after that, as a coincidence, we were both applied to the Franz Schubert Institute. Most people apply as a duo, but we applied as individuals joined up as partners as soon as we realized it. So we travelled to Austria together after the E-Gré Competition and ended up living together and playing together every single day for 2 months! We left even closer friends and not hating each other, which is a real testament to our friendship.
Pierre is an amazing pianist. He’s seen my voice develop from when I was 20 years old, he knows my anxieties, and he’s really there for me. He knows what I’m thinking, sometimes even before I realize it!
EH: Finally, Ally, what are your goals for this year’s competition weekend?
AS: My goals for this year are to be confident and prepared, because I think going into a competition, that’s really all you can do. I know I’m going to have a good time, because I get to go with one of my best friends and play some of my favourite music. Obviously we’re hoping to do well, we are so passionate about our programming and would love to take it on tour, but I think we’re both trying to focus on really bringing the music we’ve chosen to life. This is a really great chance for us to introduce some of this music to people who may not have heard it otherwise!
Thanks to Alexandra Smither for taking the time for this interview. You can catch Alexandra and five other finalists during the 40th Edition of the Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, May 5-7 at Brandon University School of Music.