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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 5

Jan Simons —Winner of the 2005 prix Hommage

by Danielle Dubois / February 15, 2005

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Jan Simons was flabbergasted to learn he would be the recipient of this year's Hommage prize awarded by the Board of directors of the Conseil québecois de la musique. "I guess it must be because of my long association with CAMMAC (Canadian Amateur Musicians Musiciens Amateurs du Canada) and my teaching", says the naturalised Canadian baritone who has had an impressive career, both as a performer and a teacher.

Born in Germany in 1925, Simons was living in The Hague with his family when his father, certain there would be a war, decided to leave Europe for the United States. As chance would have it however, the day Hugo Simons presented himself at the American Embassy, its doors were locked. With little time to waste, he did what any responsible man of instinct would have done--he walked across the street to the Canadian Embassy. In May 1939, the Simons family arrived in Montreal.

Jan Simons has a vivid memory of his first performance. War obliging, he was asked to sing Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory at a school assembly with Oscar Peterson accompanying him on piano. "Oscar was not pleased about reading music," recalls Simons, who remembers listening to the pianist improvising during lunch hour at The High School of Montreal, now the FACE school. Despite having a natural voice, Simons had never had any formal musical training apart from singing in choirs and learning the recorder while still in The Hague. Nonetheless, it was clear he wanted to pursue singing and, after completing his high school diploma in 1947, he went to New York to audition for different voice teachers.

Simons stayed in New York for two years, studying with Emilio de Gogorza. Yet, the passing of the 1948 draft law convinced the young baritone to return to Canada, where he earned a scholarship to Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music, studying with Ernesto Vinci and Emmy Heim. The latter was, musically speaking, the most influential of his teachers. "She was a very profound interpreter," says Simons. "It was maybe the death of two of her children from influenza that gave her her depth of feeling, her intensity," reflects the father of six. "What I've learned is mostly through instinct," he adds. "I've got a good feel for what I'm doing and I've been graced with good ears. That's really the most important thing."

"Things really started taking off in Toronto," remarks Simons, who, by this time, had begun doing radio work for the French and English CBC networks. It is also while a student in Toronto that Simons befriended Glenn Gould. In 1950, the two shared a recital in Oshawa. Simons remembers attending Gould's performance of Bach's D-minor Concerto at the Brussels World Fair in 1958. He himself was there as part of the Montreal Bach Choir. "After his concert, Glenn asked me if I would carry his piano bench. I was tired of people always stopping us to congratulate Glenn so I went ahead to the tent where there was a big reception thrown by the Canadian Ambassador to Brussels. When Glenn got there a few minutes later, the doorman wouldn't let him in. He was wearing his typically dirty old raincoat. His hair was long and he looked like a bum." It fell to Simons to rectify the case of mistaken identity.

Possibly the most inspiring recital of Simons' career was his debut with Gerald Moore at London's Wigmore Hall. Despite a reputation for being unkind to artists he didn't like, Moore had a soft spot for Canadians and the two immediately hit it off. "The rehearsals were particularly satisfying," recalls Simons. "He was so generous with his time and I learned a lot." On the programme that evening were the Heine songs from Schubert's Schwanengesang and Schumann's Dichterliebe, the postlude of which Simons, whose preferred repertoire is lieder and oratorio, will never forget.

Also memorable was performing at the Philadelphia Academy, one of the 42 stops for the National Ballet of Canada and its production Dark Elegies, an Antony Tudor ballet in which Simons performed Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. "The day before the sold-out performance, I stood on the stage and felt like a dwarf, it was such a high building. I started to vocalise and a voice came from the back and said, this hall has the best acoustics in the world, you don't have to push, you'll be heard. It was the janitor, and he was right. It was a wonderful singing there," says Simons who still laughs when he thinks of how the dancers made fun of him for not knowing how to put on make-up.

There were many other firsts over the course of Simons' career: the lead role in the opera In a Garden, directed by Pierre Mercure in 1952; a trip to Japan with the Bach Choir in 1961, where his solos were broadcast on Japanese television, in colour.

A man of initiative himself, Simons founded in 1955, along with Gordon Rye and Tom Brown, a professional choir that would later be named the Elmer Iseler Singers, in honour of its conductor. That same year, Simons went to CAMMAC for the first time. Long a teacher at its summer camps held on the shores of Lake Macdonald, Simons served as its general and artistic director for 25 years. Still faithful, he returns every summer to teach vocal and interpretative classes.

Looking back on his musical career, Simons does not hesitate to say its most rewarding aspect has been teaching. His pedagogy is simple: "Going back to basics. I do that with every student, every lesson. That's the only way to keep the voice healthy," maintains Simons, who has always been keen on clear diction.

Officially retired from McGill since 1995, Simons continues to teach at the University 11 hours a week, together with pianist Michael McMahon. That's in addition to his private students, seasoned professionals, amateurs, and singers suffering from serious vocal problems. "One of the most important things in teaching is to be positive with your students, even if you don't think they're that talented, because if somebody really has a desire to sing, there's always something there," says an optimistic Simons, who was told he would never have a big voice. For beginners, Simons finds two shorter sessions a week make for more rapid progress than a longer one – supervised practice he calls it.

The care Simons takes in judging each personality and his insistence on having students develop their own voices instead of imitating those of others, make him a much a sought-after teacher. "I've never been so busy!" exclaims the 79 year old teacher whose better-known students include the likes of Stephanie Marshall, Olivier Laquerre, Matthew White, Michelle Sutton, and Marie-Annick Béliveau.

Although the pace is not likely to slow down anytime soon for Simons, you won't hear him complaining. "I'm still learning," declares the born teacher whose instinct and good ears are sure to serve him and his students for a while yet.

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