Alain Trudel: Destined to Conductby Wah Keung Chan
/ September 7, 2007
Cancer survivor. It’s hardly a label
one covets, but it’s one Alain Trudel — the happy-go-lucky trombonist,
composer, educator, recording artist and conductor — now proudly wears.
Just two years ago, using the same approach that carried him around
the world as an international musician, Trudel fought and prevailed
over a rare disease. Now in clean health, the 41-year-old is ready to
take on his passion, conducting.
“The mind is a powerful thing,”
said Trudel who prepared for surgery like a big audition or concert.
“For one month, I did the same breathing and yoga exercises I learned
from Richard Leblanc in my first day at the conservatory, visualizing
for an hour a day.” The positive outlook paid off. Trudel survived
the 11-hour operation (which normally has a high incidence of complications
or even death) with flying colours.
Before the cancer, Trudel was moving
into a promising conducting career. “He told me he was going to beat
it, because there was so much music for him to conduct,” recalled
Trudel’s first and only agent Barbara Scales of Latitude 45 Arts Promotion.
“After the surgery, the first thing I saw him do was use his hands
to beat 5 against 4, one of the hardest things in music.”
“I still got it!” Trudel smiled
up at Scales.
Looking back, survival seems never
in doubt. Trudel halfed his recovery time, leaving hospital after only
15 days and for his 3-month check-up, he cycled to Montreal from his
home in Chambly, a 30 kilometre one-way journey.
What motivated him? “I have three
wonderful children and a career that most musicians dream of,” said
Trudel. “I make music everyday—how many people make money out of
their passion and get to share their passion with people.” Even though
Trudel was choked up speaking about his mother’s death just 2 months
before being diagnosed, he was determined to survive, “It wasn’t
my time. What good is it to say ‘why me?’.”
It helps to carry the power of
positive thinking wearing a lucky horse shoe, as it seems he has done
all his life. The 15 pound of excised cancer infected mass, including
the right colon and other organ parts, had been growing inside Trudel
for 2 years, said the doctors. Had his cancer been discovered 8 months
earlier, the only available treatment’s sole side effect was
massive hearing lost; it would have devastated his career. Thankfully,
a newly discovered chemo treatment has no side effects. “I’m very
grateful, grateful in life for this positive attitude, grateful to my
doctors and for the support of my girl-friend and my friends. As an
only child, my close friends became my family.”
Trudel, as an only child, grew
up poor in Montreal’s Plateau district to a broken family of musical
parents, failed musicians actually. Trudel’s father was a “pretty
good” jazz drummer during the Golden age of jazz in Montreal (alongside
the likes of Primeau) and his mother was a cabaret singer. At age 3,
Trudel’s mother was first diagnose with cancer, and they lived on
welfare. Music was always present (Trudel’s mom love jazz singers
Sarah Vaughn, Ella and Tommy McQuade), but the frustrated parents never
gave Trudel music lessons. “My parents were heart-broken over music,
like jilted lovers, and didn’t want that to happen to me.” To this
day, Trudel’s father still asks if he is making a good living.
At age 13, when Trudel’s friends
joined a local brass band called Les Rhymiques, he followed. The trumpets
and drums were already taken, so Trudel started on trombone. Trudel
loved playing in ensemble, and the type of instrument didn’t matter,
and he didn’t know any better. Trudel was studying at Emil Nelligan
High School and then switch to Ecole Jean-Francois-Perreault at the
beginning of their music concentration program. “It’s a great program.
We started with 30-40 students and now there are 400.” The school
recently honoured its most acclaimed pupil by naming their auditorium
after him. The wide-eyed student soon graduated from valve trombone
to slide trombone, “playing for real.” From age 15-17, Trudel also
enrolled at the Conservatoire de musique (studying with Raymond Grenier),
being exposed to classical music for the first time. Living and breathing
music (practicing day and night) was his passion, and he slyly deflected
questions about school-work by saying that he did what was necessary
to graduate. “I always liked to be a generalist in music, learning
Trudel’s first 4 years as a music
student lay the foundations for his success. He learnt solfege, music
theory and started composing. Most remarkably, he taught himself perfect
pitch. “It’s training your memory to remember a vibration or intervals
around it. I started to remember an A and then tunes for each intervals,
pop tunes, Mahler and Shostakovich. After a year, it became natural.”
Being a brass player in the school
band or orchestra meant lots of idle time. While most boys might play
pranks, Trudel was exercising his talent of observation. “I
always wanted to be a conductor. It’s not the action of conducting;
I loved the concept of the music. You do research and compare the tempos
and the score.” By 16, Trudel was conducting the Conservatoire’s
Trudel’s big break came at age
17 when he entered the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO)’s international
audition for trombonists and won a position alternating with Dave Martin.
Victory at the MSO Competition came next. “It was mostly mental,”
recalled Trudel. “Learning to breathe from Leblanc was a gift.”
Trudel also attributed the ability to relax and the importance of playing
in front of people to his early success. Not one to rest on his laurels—he
admits to not knowing what he was doing at the time—Trudel kept learning
through observations, mostly of jazz players like Bill Walker, and also
of the MSO’s horn players James Thomson and John Zirbel. “I watched
them distributing the pressure from the top lip to the lower lip.”
As an educator—Trudel took over
as trombone teacher at the Conservatoire 12 years ago—he has a reputation
as a task master. “I teach the basics of producing a tone. This requires
patience, patience to do the small things perfectly. It’s coordination.
You breath in and buzz as you breath out. You need to focus (not too
much) while you buzz. You need to have an inner rhythm; coordination
is about rhythm. The deepness of the tone comes from relaxing the breath.
If you are tight, you are going to sound tight or have a weird vibrato.
Some people get the exhaling right but not the inhaling; they take too
deep a breath and get stuck. Breath deep, aggressively, but not violent.
If you can make that tone consistently, then you can go to scales.”
Trudel demonstrates by buzzing Bolero, and amazingly his pinched lips
vary like the aperture of a camera.
Trudel’s two years with the MSO
under Dutoit was a big eye opener; “I learned the practical way of
conducting, how to start, to rehearse, to focus on problem areas, to
get everything done.” Trudel had plenty of time to observe many visiting
conductors and understood why certain approaches work.
Trudel then took on the role of
principal trumpet with Franz-Paul Decker in Barcelona, Spain—“it
was pure music with him. I learned how to make an orchestra blend; I
never played so soft in my life.” Decker asked Trudel to take care
of the brass and the wind sections. “I conducted rehearsals for years.
You learn by doing it. You learn how harmony works with different instruments;
the low brass, high woodwinds and strings don’t tune the same way.”
After a year, Trudel left Spain
to pursue his solo trombone career. “His magnetic personality drew
the listener towards him,” recalls fondly Frances Wainwright who produced
his concert with DEBUT. Trudel soon called on Scales for what has been
a fruitful 20-year relationship. Recognized as one of the leading trombonists
in the world, Trudel traveled Canada, the USA, Europe and Asia, made
recordings, and premiered many new works written especially for and
by him. Yamaha even came out with a signature trombone and mouthpiece
in his name. “I tell my father not to worry, I do quite well.”
Scales meanwhile mentioned Trudel’s
interest in conducting, and he had his starts with the Victoria and
Windsor Symphonies, where he came runner up as artistic director. “I
was lucky that I was invited back every time, and you start to build
relationships.” In the last three years, Trudel has taken on positions
at the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (2004), principal conductor
of the CBC Radio Orchestra in Vancouver (2006) and now artistic director
of the Laval Symphony Orchestra (LSO). “Alain has an insatiable curiosity
about all genres of music from baroque to jazz to hard-core classical
to the avant-garde,” said Denise Ball, manager of the CBC Radio Orchestra.
Trudel’s approach to conducting
is remarkably fresh, based on talking and listening to his musicians
and soloists. “I tell my orchestras to always go for it, and not worry
about making mistakes. Great comes from taking chances. You have to
be faithful to the composer’s vision, but at the same time, you have
to bring energy. You are managing the good and bad energy of the music,
the group and the different sections.” Trudel motions with his hands,
“It’s like shaping and shaving a big ball of energy.”
When Trudel talks about developing
his orchestras through the repertoire, you see that he is quite a strategic
planner, “The CBC is a national orchestra where every concert is broadcasted
and we have to make it relevant so we don’t loose our funding. My
challenge is to get the orchestra to forget about wrong notes. The sound
of the strings has developed this year because everyone is playing up.
Laval is a very good private sector orchestra; I need to have them play
more often and bring it to as many people in the north shore of Montreal
The LSO begins their season, Trudel’s
official first, with Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, one of the
first classical pieces he heard as a youth. To prepare, Trudel read
Tchaikovsky’s letters to understand the turmoil he was going through.
“Musically, the first movement has the perfect mix of drama and fate.
I want the sound that is a little stuck, that comes out barely as a
whisper, but that is screaming inside. Then we build on it.” Trudel
vocalizes a sotto voce crescendo to demonstrate. “If we do it properly,
after the 1st movement, both audience and musicians are exhausted. The
2nd movement then makes perfect sense; we take that energy and back
it up a little, make it simple and build on that. Then there is a virtuosic
3rd movement and the last movement is crazy. The stoccato is more vocal
than traditional American style. I want the orchestra to sound sweet
even when loud, a bitter sweet.”
When you ask Trudel about favourite
conductors, he starts with Carlos Kleiber for being “so directly what
it is suppose to be” and then the later Claudio Abbado. But he smiles
when he talks about what he’s discovered about Wilhem Furtwängler.
“In videos, he looks like he’s having a seizure. I couldn’t figure
out what he was doing, so I tried letting my left hand hang around while
I beat time with my right hand, and my orchestra changed completely
to a more luscious sound. He’s the man.”
Later in the year, Trudel will
premier Charlotte, a children piece he is composing as an introduction
to the orchestra, which will be performed in Laval and across Canada.
“He’s including little tunes he wrote to help his kids with their
piano lessons,” said Scales. Although, he composes less now, Trudel
will also be reorchestrating Ravel’s L’Heure Espanole for
the Montreal Opera’s Atelier Lyrique which he will conduct in March
Music, for Trudel, is an outlet
and a shared human experience, “It shows you that somebody else has
felt what you are feeling, that you are not alone. As an only child,
who was afraid my parent would pass away, and traveling as a soloist,
I kept to myself a lot, so I really understand people who feel alone.”
For a supposed loner, Trudel still has a lot to say. n