In 2021, Jesse Plessis became one of our 21-22 season composer fellows! Now it’s time to premiere his new work composed while working with the HPO: Forma Divina.
A Canadian composer of Métis heritage born in British Columbia, Jesse is currently completing a Doctorate in composition at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music. He has been recognized for his “skilled hand at crafting textures that pulse with life,” (Winnipeg Free Press) and has earned multiple awards for piano and composition alike.
Jesse also has a doctorate in piano performance from the University de Montréal. As a pianist, contemporary music occupies a place in his programs as important as the standard repertoire, premiering pieces by George Crumb, Nico Muhly, Kaija Saariaho, and others. He has performed as a pianist on numerous occasions across Canada and Europe. His compositions have been broadcast on CBC Radio and performed by musicians across Canada including the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra, Brittany Rae, Jonathon Adams, and the musicians of Continuum Contemporary Music’s Hatch! program.
Q&A with Canadian Composer Jesse Plessis
JESSE PLESSIS’ LIFE AND CAREER
HPO: We are excited to hear what you’ve been working on as an HPO Composer Fellow! Can you tell us a bit about what else you have been working on between 2021 and now?
Jesse Plessis: I am very excited too! I have written works for Continuum Contemporary Music’s Hatch! program, Brittany Rae, Jonathon Adams, the McGill Percussion Ensembles, and given probably well over 100 solo recitals. Also, I always try to make time for my favourite sports (running, swimming, kung fu, and surfing).
HPO: We know that you are an established pianist as well as a composer. What has inspired you to pursue composing?
Jesse: I knew since I was very young that I wanted to both perform and compose. The musicians I look up to are all as capable with an instrument as they were with the pen. I’ve been composing much more since 2020 because I was diagnosed with focal dystonia. It’s a neurological condition where a particular part of the body is no longer controllable. For me it is the middle finger of my right hand. As you can imagine, that is pretty bad news for a pianist. Since the treatment can take years, I decided to pour my heart into composing while I am working on recovery.
ABOUT “FORMA DIVINA”
HPO: What is the inspiration behind the premiering work we will hear on March 25?
Jesse: The last few years have held some intensely difficult moments and events in my personal life. This has led to a handful of long and serious works. Since the composer fellows have to write a short work, I wanted to do something lighter to focus on things I am grateful for. That’s why I wrote a piece about my dog.
The first aria in the opera Aida by Giuseppe Verdi is sung by the character Radames. He extols the beauty of the captured princess Aida with the line Celeste Aida, forma divina (“Heavenly Aida, divine form”). Aida is not only the name of one of my favourite operas, but also one of my favourite creatures on this earth: my now one-year-old border collie/chocolate lab. When she first came into my home I used to sing her that ariato go to sleep. It worked every time. In this work, I wanted to write a musical portrait of this wonderful dog. It’s a short, sweet, silly, and sometimes wild toccata-scherzo-etude for orchestra . It includes sounds of her cries, barks, and footsteps zipping through the snow are interwoven with the beautiful melody of Verdi’s opera that is her namesake.
HPO: What are some interesting musical elements of your composition that we can listen for during your premiere?
Jesse: The music has a lot dog sounds in it – yawns, barks, cries, the rhythm of running across the snow. She is a goofy and loving dog, and I think the piece is like that too.
JESSE’S COMPOSITION PROCESS
HPO: Can you share a bit about your process for composing Forma Divina?
Jesse: It was a great time. Every time I took Aida out for a run I would say “come on we are doing research!” That’s is a bit silly, but a bit true as well. The “raw materials” are either orchestral transcriptions of dog noises as I mentioned before, the melody by Verdi, or rhythms and harmonies inspired by a few mathematical objects as is the case with most of my music.
HPO: How would you describe the type of music you create in general?
Jesse: I really love structure, I really love setting up a system and watching it all work out. When I was a kid, before I found the piano, I was dead set on being an aeronautical engineer. I flirted with architecture as well. I think a lot of my music is playing out those early scientific interests. That might make it seem like my music doesn’t have an emotional component, but that is very important to me too. Whatever structure or system that I build in the music is at the service of a feeling.
GETTING INSPIRED BY ORCHESTRAL WORKS
HPO: Who are some orchestral composers that most inspired your taste and style in this genre? Can you give us some listening recommendations to discover and share why you love this work?
Jesse: The first that comes to mind would be Johannes Brahms and his Piano Concerto. No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83. It is not really like a typical piano concerto, it is more like a giant work of chamber music. My favourite recording is with Claudio Arrau as soloist with the USSR Radio and Television Orchestra, conducted by Gennady Rozhestvensky.
The music of Maurice Ravel, in particular the Bolero, has so much to teach about orchestration, form, and pacing. My personal favourite recording is Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Iannis Xenakis has made a huge imprint on my creative spirit. One of my favourite works of his is Jonchaies, a work composed for an orchestra of 109 musicians(!) The recording by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Arturo Tamayo is as mighty as the piece is.
I am going to add a fourth, all the Beethoven Symphonies conducted by Toscanini with the NMB Symphony Orchestra.
OTHER MUSIC THAT INSPIRES JESSE
HPO: Are there non-orchestral pieces/songs that inspire you that you’d like to share with us?
Jesse: The last five string quartets of Beethoven are testaments to what music can do. Either recordings by the Quartetto Italiano or the Guarneri Quartet are remarkable. I love jazz music – the spontaneity of an improviser who has spent decades honing their craft is truly a miracle. John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Brad Mehldau are some of my favourites. Then I’d also add Wasifuddin Dagar, a singer who sings in a style called Dhrupad, which is the oldest surviving branch of Hindustani music. He is the 20th generation of his family to practice this music. He is a marvel.
HPO: We love to get an inside look into some of the music that inspires our composer fellows, so thank you for sharing!
WHERE TO FOLLOW JESSE PLESSIS
HPO: Lastly, is there anything else you would like to tell our audience, and where can we follow you online?
Jesse: I would just like to tell them thanks for reading all this, and what a great honour and pleasure it has been to become familiar with the HPO community – it really is something special you have going. For recordings, there are many things on my Youtube Channel @JessePlessis, and for pictures of Aida there are a ton on my Instagram @JesseThePlessis.
Don’t miss this world premiere by Canadian composer Jesse Plessis!
Mozart in Paris
Saturday, March 25 at 7:30pm
FirstOntario Concert Hall
Available for online viewing
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