When you are a student, it often feels like you must win a big competition in order to have a career. Of course, a big win is a fantastic achievement that should be celebrated, and the competition experience is invaluable in many different ways. But it is not a win, itself, that makes a career. Ask yourself who came second or third in a big harp competition even three years ago. Do you know, off the top of your head? Can you even tell me who won, if you go a bit further back, perhaps six years? If it wasn't you or your lover, I bet you have to look it up. What you will probably be able to do, however, is cite the past and current activities of famous harpists. Maybe you know that Isabelle Moretti teaches at the Paris Conservatoire, is one of the most famous soloists in the world and released a CD with Dame Felicity Lott not so long ago. Your library might full of recordings by Nicanor Zabeleta, Marisa Robles, Marielle Nordmann, or you are trying to get onto a summer course with Susann McDonald. Maybe you are aware that Xavier de Maistre recently did a Venetian baroque CD; that Anneleen Lenaerts now plays with the Vienna Philharmonic; that Catrin Finch is releasing her second album on Deutsche Grammophon. You could be a fan of Isabelle Perrin, Remy van Kesteren or Maria Luisa Rayan-Forero. I could go on and on, and I am a bit, but my point is that some of these artists have a first prize somewhere about their CV; some don’t; and in any case it is not their first prize that you think of first, if at all. Careers are made by being consistently very good, over years. It does not feel like it when you have just got the gut-wrenching news that someone else has won the competition you have worked so hard on, but it is your long game that will make you in the end.
Our Camac Voice for November is one of the young harpists whose work I follow with the most interest. Harpblog has sung the French-Canadian harpist Valérie Milot's praises on several occasions. From her success in the Cité des Arts competition 2008, to her performance at the 2011Camac Festival and her excellent recording projects, her career is going from strength to strength. It is deservedly recognised by the wider musical establishment, always a killer nut for harpists to crack. In 2009, Valérie was named Young Soloist of the year by the Radios Francophones Publiques group, as well as Discovery of the Year at the Quebec Music Council's Opus Awards. In the same year, Valérie also won the Louis-Philippe-Poisson Performing Arts Award by the Grands Prix Culturels 2009 of Trois-Rivières, and became the Révélation Radio-Canada Musique for the year 2009-2010. Her 2012 diary is full of solo, chamber and concerto engagements, and she regularly releases discs on the Analekta label which always stand out because of their genuine creativity, musical integrity and unfailing good taste - a balance which is a lot harder consistently to pull off than it sounds.
The track now playing on camac-harps.com is taken from Valérie's latest solo release, Aquarelles("watercolours"). All the tracks on the album are works associated with particular images, and also broadly of Romantic / Impressionist style, in order to give musical as well as conceptual unity to the idea. The CD was launched on September 11th in Montreal, accompanied by animated illustrations from Paule Trudel-Bellemare, who designed the sleeve. Valérie has also made some videos to accompany the disc. "I think it is important to have material online, because you can use video to give a sense of the music in concert", Valérie explains.
I love the sincerity, professionalism and elegance of this CD presentation. The concept is attractive without being flippant; the programme enjoyable while still offering listeners a substantial exploration of both original harp repertoire, and the instrument's capacity for effective transcription. The classical industry rightly expends a lot of energy on making its music appealing and relevant to the audiences of today. These audiences are not stupid: regardless of how much experience they have of classical music, usually they aren’t long fooled by projects that lack artistic integrity. There is nothing wrong with nice styling or a popular focus, but without this fundamental integrity, you can spray as much PR as you want on an album or artist and it still won’t work. Not for the long game.
Like all art, music is a human matter. It’s made and heard by people, and it touches us because it expresses truths about life and the human condition in general. “I think audiences want the artist to communicate something of his personality to them”, says Valérie, “as well as something about the music. You can’t separate the two. Performing music that’s already been written is recreative, the interest lies in the spark between composer and the performer.
I also think one of the most important aspects of your career as a musician is collaboration. If you find great colleagues to work with, you should look after those partnerships, because they’ll make you a deeper musician. It’s much more beautiful to be with other people than just yourself. I suppose this is why I do a lot of chamber music.”
As Christmas approaches, keep an eye out for Valérie’s next recording: an extension of the harp/violin Christmas disc she first released in a mini version in 2010, with violinist Antoine Bareil. All the tracks on the album are Bareil's own arrangements, and there will also be one of his original compositions: 'Trois jours avant Noël'.
Not being based in Canada, we don’t get the chance to hear Valérie live very often, but we keep a beady eye out for her videos and CDs. They are always a real pleasure to watch and hear, and remind us why we love to make harps in the first place.