In Four Bar Measure

Now in his 80s, composer Michael Pepa orchestrates a lifetime of worldly experience from his Cobourg doorstep.

As I was growing up, it felt like I was becoming a specialist in Grade five,” Michael Pepa begins. “I started violin lessons early on in my adopted town of Zrenjanin, Yugoslavia, where my parents settled after leaving Romania at the beginning of World War II. I was about to finish Grade Five in 1951 when my parents and I emigrated to a refugee camp in Italy. There, they put me in Grade Five all over again,” he says. “Luckily… my father encouraged me to continue with the violin.”

Pepa is seated in the back row of The Loft Cinema, a gull’s cry away from Cobourg’s Lake Ontario shoreline. It’s here in this space where the violinist/composer presents a series of concerts with his Les AMIS Ensemble, a group of 20 young musicians called upon to play as the repertoire requires. A soothing kitchen tang rises from the bistro, a stairway below, while Pepa furthers his recall: “After two years in the refugee camp, we were able to immigrate to Canada. We set down in Toronto and into the melting pot of the neighbourhood of Cabbagetown. Then guess what?” he begs. “Because I was unable to speak English, they assigned me to Grade Five. Imagine at age fourteen being the oldest kid in the class.”

Pepa today is the iconic image of the maestro. In the intervening years since first arriving in 1953, he has acquired a ‘Beethovenish’ look, complete with a fine sweep of hair now silvered as a badge of maturity. There are calm, mischievous yet simultaneously innocent airs about him; his narrow fingers flex as he speaks.

“I attended Jarvis Collegiate which had an orchestra that I was quick to join,” Pepa smiles as he recalls how his training gave him a lead playing Gilbert and Sullivan music for school performances. “Sometimes when the music teacher was delayed, I conducted the rehearsals,” he adds.

The ever-curious Pepa would be further inspired by attending the then Sunday ‘pay-what-you- can’ Toronto Symphony series at Massey Hall. “The urge was set for me,” Pepa explains. “Just like any other composer, I wanted to have my own work heard.”

The post war era – the 50s and 60s – were pivotal in reshaping long-standing traditions in the arts. Painting, dance, writing, spoken word and performances shed old borders in pursuit of new horizons. Zen Buddhism was introduced into the Western world and with New York City revving the engine, experimentation in all mediums went to the next level. Painters of the day – Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol were to visual art what Morton Feldman, John Cage, Philip Glass and here in Canada, R. Murray Schafer, were to pioneering sound atmospheres and untried dimensions of music.

“By 1963, I was teaching the art of violin playing,” Pepa describes. “Of course, I knew about Cage and Glass. In fact, I met Cage in Toronto at the New Music Concerts, but I was never into minimalist music. As far as Canadian composers go, I admired many of them, and still do, including the works of Murray Schafer and Harry Somers.”

During his four years of study at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Dr. Samuel Dolin introduced Pepa to the works of Béla Bartók. “Bartók’s compositions hit home because he came from a town a few kilometres from where I was born. His music really expresses local folk flavour in a manner which, in many ways, I have inherited.”

That very sense of folk flavour is drenched in the composition, ‘Katajjaq’, an enduring example of Pepa’s ear-to-ground instincts: imagine him performing the work with an ensemble in Croatia. In the midst of the piece arrives a wide-open horizon through which the elusive voice of the violin virtuoso travels, then pause…next comes a clatter, the surprise of runaway passages of untethered percussion. And somehow, we recognize it. “The word Katajjaq means throat singing,” Pepa explains. “My daughter introduced me to Nunavut where she lived and that is where the inspiration was born.”

The essence of Canada’s Inuit voices that prompted ‘Katajjaq’ runs deep with the expectations of new that are a signature of Pepa’s compositions. The composer chases his joy of Gypsy music, the Gregorian chant, his love affair with Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey without limits. “I’m always exploring new aspects of music. I have an appetite to learn,” Pepa tells. “Music is not that much different here than in Moldova. There is a thread, a line of creativity that runs through time; music is a cultural language of its own.”

As part of Canada’s recent 150th celebration, Pepa was invited to tour with an ensemble to perform his original works for audiences in the Balkans. He offhandedly speaks of an adventure on a similar tour when he travelled by train with the Hungarian orchestra. “From Budapest to the next venue was about 60 kilometres,” Pepa remembers. “Musicians took their instruments out and began to play Gypsy music. Then, a squat, uniformed man came our way. ‘Trouble,’ we thought. Then the man began to dance and sing until at last, between pieces of music, he stopped,” Pepa beams. “We had noticed that the train had not yet left the station and commented aloud. The man, startled, quickly took out a pocket watch and shouted some profanity about nostalgia and being lost in sound and more importantly that he missed giving the order for the train to depart. He happened to be the conductor!” Pepa regales in the memory.

‘Fantaisie Bohémienne’; ‘Waltz of the Mystic Bird’; the ‘Mutations’ for cello and strings; ‘Metamorphose’ for solo violin; ‘Squamish’ for violin and electroacoustic sounds are but a few titles in an oeuvre of over eighty works for which Pepa has received standing ovations around the world.

“As a composer, I like to tailor a work based on the strengths of the musicians. Sometimes, they will scan a new score I’ve just handed them. Then they stop. What’s this? They point to a particular notation.” Pepa grins with bad boy gullibility: “I challenge them to adopt certain passages as their own,” he entices.

This is what Pepa’s audiences crave. The compositions feel free-form, unstructured, while beneath is scribed a plan from the careful hand of the architect magician. “I like music to be an educational experience. In over 40 years of concerts around the world, while there is most often a resistance to new stuff, I like to create an expectation of something new for my audiences.”

The vestiges of a well-rehearsed fifth grade student who engaged with the violin from the beginning to become a seeker, experimenter, performer, a gutsy composer still strive to deliver something yet unheard to our ears, to a humanity that hungers for new. And after a 33-year teaching career dedicated to passing on the art of the violin, he muses, “I wish I could do it again.” Yet it doesn’t end here. Music has no summit. When Pepa is asked what he wanted to say with a certain composition, he borrows the essence of a quote from Gustav Mahler: “If I could say it in a language of the world, I would not write the music.”

His gaze is far away. “All I can hope for,” Pepa pinches two spare fingers together as if adding salt to soup, “is to move the language this much, one tiny incantation.”

On January 13, 2019, 21 musicians and four soloists will gather at Victoria Hall in Cobourg to celebrate the music and life of Michael Pepa. It’s the special occasion of his 80th birthday and in true expectations of the unexpected, the maestro promises us something new.

Story by:
Conrad Beaubien

Photography by:
Matthew Botha

[Winter 2018/2019 features]