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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 1 September 2007

Alain Trudel: Destined to Conduct

by Wah Keung Chan / September 7, 2007

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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 everything.”

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 orchestra.

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 as possible.”

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 2008.

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

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