JUNO Spotlight: Daniel Taylor

Nominated For:
Classical Album of the Year – Vocal or Choral Performance
(Four Thousand Winter w/ The Trinity Choir)

Daniel Taylor is one of the most recognizable names in classical music. Known for his pure and powerful voice, the countertenor has found acclaim on all corners of the globe. His career, spanning several decades, is documented in more than 100 recordings. Born and raised in Ottawa, he now resides in Toronto, where he serves as the Head of Early Music and a Professor of Voice.

Ottawa Life: What is your earliest singing memory?

Daniel Taylor: My first memories of singing were at St. Matthew’s Church in Ottawa when I was six years old. We had a terrific conductor named Jonathan Rennert that guided us through the year while Brian Law was on sabbatical. Richard Dacey had a great influence on my appreciation for music and on the sense of community it brings.

What initially drew you to classical music?

Initially, developing friendships through art.

Your undergraduate studies included classes in English and philosophy. Your Masters included studies in religion and music. Clearly, these fields of study influence each other, but how do they merge together for you personally?

I am interested in the intersection between performance practice, sacred music, the flow of energy and how these impact the spiritual and emotional being of the listeners and artists.

You have moved from being simply a countertenor to also being a conductor, teacher and now the Head of Early Music and Professor of Voice at the University of Toronto. How has your relationship with music and art developed through these additional roles?

As the Director of Historical Performance Area at the University of Toronto, I have had to undertake a steep learning curve navigating my way through the waters of administration and process, choosing to reward creativity and recognize exceptional students, as we move towards the goal of offering students excellent educational and performance opportunities. I am there to serve the students and to ensure that their journey is one which they will find inspiring. I believe students are our clients, and their needs should be carefully considered. Maybe there is sometimes a [feeling] of anarchy because I give them a voice to their thoughts and opinions, though the results have been overwhelmingly positive. The power of students is tremendous and I am there to help them tap into that great power.

While I maintain a performing career, which has me on the road travelling for about six months of the year – anywhere between 50 and 100 performances – teaching has allowed me to mentor students as they explore their own interpretive process. I also recognize that students find it exciting to hear of my work and how it specifically relates to their daily practice. It is one thing to tell a student about a technique, but it is quite another to show them. As a soloist, I am required to understand a composition and know my place in the work. This requires a very keen focus – like a sniper! As a conductor, I have to know every turn of every piece. As I have discovered, it takes a certain amount of belief in the self to be the Guest Conductor of the Tallis Scholars, the Gabrieli Consort or my own Trinity Choir. What is most important is to lead with love and not fear. Sometimes I forget this key aspect.

You have recorded the solos in Handel’s Messiah more often than any other countertenor in the world. Do you have a particular love for this work?

I remember how excited I was when I first recorded Messiah in San Francisco. It was a wonderful experience. My recording with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony (Universal Records) was live to DVD and on CD. That one was fairly tense, since we only had our live shows being filmed. There was a similar experience with Ivars Taurins and Tafelmusik, although Koerner Hall is a bit more intimate with about 1,000 seats. With Frieder Bernius and the Kammerchor Stuttgart (Carus Records), I feel like I had the time to offer moments that were quite thoughtful.

Classical forms of music remain relatively unchanged, even if they are hundreds of years old. How do you find self expression in music that is static in its composition?

Music before 1800 offers a purity of emotional expression which may well be beyond music of today. The basic sound is very clear and has sunshine and [is still] rather athletic. The ideal I approach is that the soprano surface is quite seductive and yes, womanly, and that this will draw the listener in, beneath the surface. There is a goal here, an ambition, that the sounds, though full of power and seduction, have a profound emotional core that we [as musicians] can reveal. Our voices and our bodies are instruments at the surface of the music.

What do you think is the importance of upholding the tradition of classical music?

Well, we have discussed love, beauty, and emotional healing. Perhaps we can agree on that.

Given the breadth of languages you have performed in and the endurance of the centuries-old works that you take on, could you comment on the transcendental nature of classical music?

This music offers us a glimpse of what may be found outside this world, echoes of the ancient that reveal this magnificent – yet neglected – repertory.

Inverse to the last question, you have performed in Sakamoko’s avant-opera Life, and have collaborated with Ralph Fiennes, Cirque du Soleil and Jeremy Irons, among others.

Could you talk about these projects a bit?

Sakamoto’s Life was performed in rock concert stadiums in Tokyo and Osaka over seven nights, drawing almost 100,000 people. The work with Ralph Fiennes was in our recording studio in the UK – after a few discussions about our poetry choices during some time out in Toronto, London and New York. Ralph is an extraordinary actor with a profound link to language. Although the disc with Jeremy Irons won a Grammy, it was the tours of that project with genius cellist Matt Haimovitz, his brilliant and lovely composer wife Luna Pearl Wolf, combined with actors Christ North and Malcolm McDowell, that brought our listeners together. You could feel the tension at Carnegie Hall!

Do you see these as projects that further classical music’s influence into the mainstream and into the future?

I only hope that our audiences will continue to grow, especially since the support for the arts has increased under our current government. This is, of course, a sharp contrast to the recent policies announced south of the border, which targets and plans to wipe out the National Endowment for the Arts. It is also distressing to watch when individuals are targeted because of their religious practice – as they were in Quebec City – or simply because of where they were born. As musicians, we have to step forward and uphold our shared values – I am a great believer in the principles of the Broadbent Institute and the commitment to an inclusive, equal society that celebrates diversity.

Who are some non-classical artists that you respect?

Lhasa de Sela and Amina Alaoui are very high on my list.

Do you pursue arts outside of music?

I go to museums, listen to folk music, go to live theatre. I also enjoy hiking.

You have performed the world over. What do you consider to have been the greatest honour you have received so far?

The Queen’s Jubilee Medal, [performances at the] Adisq, Junos, Opus and the Grammys. Singing at the Basilica San Marco in the Vatican Square was an honour, [as were my performances] at the Sofia in Istanbul, the Beijing Forbidden City Hall, Carnegie Hall, or perhaps the Met. The greatest honour, however, comes with simply sharing music every day.