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Mohawk roots, classical style


Suzanne Methot, Windspeaker Contributor, Toronto







Page 16

Violinist Tara-Louise Montour arrived at the restaurant just after noon. She'd already done three media interviews and she had about an hour for lunch before she had to be at the CBC television studios nearby. After that it was more media and then rehearsals in preparation for her guest appearance with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra on March 13.

Life is busy these days for the 31-year-old musician. The week before her Hamilton concert, Montour flew to Thunder Bay, Ont. to record a CD with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (TBSO). It was a nerve-wracking experience, because Montour had just one-and-a-half hours on the last day of the three-day recording session to set down her signature tune,Farewell to the Warriors, and the orchestra didn't have the right kind of drum.

"It's supposed to be a Native drum, but orchestras don't necessarily have that kind of sound," Montour explained. "They have all the traditional [European] percussion instruments, but nothing really fits. If I have to commission a drum for this piece, that'll be my next step."

The orchestra ended up renting a drum, but it was too loud, so the producers and engineers, on loan from the CBC in Toronto, had to adjust the microphone levels. Then they had to find the right position for the drum, so it would sound balanced with the rest of the orchestra. In the end, Montour said, they spent 45 minutes of her session doing various takes and listening to the playback in order to get the right drum sound. That meant she had less than an hour to actually record her piece.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that things will turn out well," Montour said of the CD, which will be released in September. Montour is the only soloist featured on the recording.

Farewell to the Warriors had its Canadian premiere in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake in 1999. It was a homecoming for the violinist, who was born in Kahnawake but raised in Montreal by Vanda Intini, a ballet dancer, and Michel Perrault, a composer, who adopted her when she was five weeks old. The publicity surrounding the concert prompted her birth family to come forward. Montour met her birth mother just one week before the Kahnawake premiere.

"There was a lot of emotional stuff going on," Montour said, "so I was somewhat nervous."

Since the premiere, Montour has played at schools on the reserve, which seems to have created a new generation of Mohawk classical violinists. Montour now has a student at Kahnawake.

Working with youth and playing music for Native communities continues to be part of Montour's game plan. Montour started playing violin at age three and attended Montreal's McGill University, received a master's degree in music from Northern Illinois University, and has studied in Italy, Switzerland, Ohio, and New York. She toured northern Ontario as a guest artist with the TBSO in 2002. During that tour, the TBSO played in Sioux Lookout, Kenora, Fort Frances, and the Pelican Falls First Nation. Montour made a point of speaking to the crowd before each concert, especially at the schools.

"It was probably the first time a lot of those kids had heard an orchestra," Montour said, "and then to hear a violin piece that's based on a Native theme played by a Native violinist. There was total silence every time we played the piece."

Tara-Louise Montour commissioned Farewell to the Warriors from composer and violinist Regent Levasseur, who was once Montour's coach. It's a 15-minute-long piece composed for a chamber setting, using strings, harp or piano, and one drum.

"I was looking for pieces that had Native influences or ideas in them," Montour said, "but there was nothing out there."

Levasseur found a recording of Farewell to the Warriors -a Chippewa song sung by the women as their men went off to war-at a library. The library's copy was recorded in 1908, but the song is centuries old.

"It's quite a short song," Montour said, "about 30 seconds, so what Reget did was develop it into a theme and variations form. The first time you hear me play, that's the actual song, exactly as it was sung. Then he launches into 15 variations on that theme.

"I'm very happy with it. It's a beautiful piece and I love to play it, and it brings up all kinds of emotions every time I play it," Montour said.

Montour had to chase down grant money to pay for the commission, which cost about $10,000. The forthcoming CD with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra is the first "studio" recording of the work. (It was actually recorded in the TBSO's concert hall, which Montour rates as "one of the best in the country.")

Montour plays an Italian Testore violin that dates from the 1700s, the same era in which the world-famous Stradivarius violins were created. It has a deep, rich tone that matches Montour's fluid phrasing.

"It took a long time to find this instrument," Montour said. "I got it in New York 12 years ago, and I tried about 300 instruments before I found this one. The way I was able to draw different sounds, different colors out of it, it responded beautifully with my technique and the sound I had in my ear, what I wanted to project. When I found it, I knew it right away."

But 300-year-old violins don't come cheap.

"My mom took a mortgage out on her house so I could have this violin," Montour said.

Montour's appearance with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra was initiated by guest conductor Geoffrey Moull, who is the conductor for the TBSO. Montour was concertmaster for the TBSO until 2002, but she gave up that full-time gig to pursue a career as a soloist. She now makes a patchwork living by teaching, freelancing as a substitute violinist with both the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Laval Symphony Orchestra, playing with the McGill Chamber Orchestra and doing solo guest appearances across North America. She'll have a regular paycheque for the next little while though, because she just snagged a one-year substitute eaching position at Montreal's Pierre Laporte High School for the Arts in the Professional Music and Dance program.

But like any artist, Montour doesn't do it for the money. She plays music because she doesn't want to do anything else.

"I have to follow my heart. I don't think I'd survive very long at a nine-to-five job. My calling is to play music," Montour said over the din of the restaurant's lunchtime office crowd.

Montour was raised in an artistic household, and she was surrounded by constant stimulus: the multicultural city of Montreal, the francophone culture of her adoptive father, the Italian culture of her adoptive mother, and the Mohawk culture of her ancestors. She speaks English, French, Italian, and is learning Mohawk. And she's comfortable with who she is, which seems to threaten those who are less secure in their identities.

"I've been asked the identity question before, what I identify with," Montour said. "I identify with everything that I am. I'm a musician, I have Italian influence in my life, I have a Native background, and French all around me. That's who I am as an individual. If someone asks me do I think I am more Native than somebody else, or less Native than somebody else, well, I don't even see that as a question that's worth an answer. This is who I am, and these are the various elements that make up me. I think a person becomes much richer with all of these added elements."

Montour's mission is to create a musical conversation between those various elements.

"I want to bring classical music to more Native communities," Montour said. "And I want to bring the beauty of Native people to the rest of the world through the pieces I commission. It goes both ways.

"I hope I can bring something of value to the arts world," Montour said. "I do value my Native background, and I want to stress that. But I'm not making a political statement-I'm making art."