Jan Simons —Winner of the 2005 prix Hommageby Danielle Dubois
/ February 15, 2005
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
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.