Photo credit: Cheryl Mazak

Hannah Nepil speaks to Amanda Forsyth, lead cellist of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, ahead of their collaboration with the RPO at the end of the month.

There’s a matter-of-fact quality to Amanda Forsyth’s voice when she says, ‘it was the worst and best time of my life.’ The Canadian cellist is describing the run-up to the 2011 world premiere of A Ballad of Canada, the last piece ever composed by her father, Malcolm Forsyth. He was suffering from pancreatic cancer at the time and had been told he had two months to live. ‘But he lived for nine and the reason was that he had this premiere and he wanted to be there. And he was. Somehow he managed to get, with his oxygen tanks, to Ottawa,’ Forsyth recalls.

As principal cellist of the Ottawa-based National Arts Centre Orchestra, she will take part in the UK premiere of A Ballad of Canada at Southbank Centre next month in a concert that also features the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Her hope is to familiarise UK audiences with her father’s soundworld, one filled with infectious tunes. ‘My dad was not good at writing scritch-scratch music. He tried to do the scritch-scratch for a while and I said “no, this is ugly”,’ says Forsyth. ‘He was better at writing melodies.’ Elements of jazz (he was a trombonist) and a myriad of cultural influences also crop up regularly in his music.

As the cellist informs me, her father was born in South Africa, but emigrated to Canada in 1969, and you could almost deduce this from listening to his work. ‘There’s something definitely African about my dad’s music. For example, in his use of glockenspiel, wind chimes, marimba,’ says Forsyth. ‘But my dad was very proud to be Canadian; A Ballad of Canada is definitely Canadian.’ This is partly what makes it so intriguing, given that talented Canadian composers tend to be eclipsed by their US contemporaries, perhaps as a result of what Forsyth calls ‘the Canadian inferiority complex’.

Forsyth was two years old when her family arrived in Canada. Musically inspired by her father, who composed several pieces for her, she studied cello from the age of three and became a protégé of the British cellist William Pleeth: ‘I was only his second child pupil after Jacqueline du Pré,’ she tells me. Now, she is married to the celebrated violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman, who will conduct her father’s piece at the Southbank Centre next month. The two of them regularly perform together and frequently swap practice tips at home. I tentatively ask if that makes for a harmonious domestic environment. ‘He’s the maestro, but I’m pretty bossy,’ she says. ‘They don’t call me ‘Demanda’ for nothing. If I’m in the kitchen making coffee and he’s practising something, I’ll say, “that’s flat”, or “that’s the wrong note”. He likes it. And then he can boss me around at other times. It’s give and take and that’s why it’s all good.’

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, under Pinchas Zukerman, perform the UK premiere of Malcolm Forsyth’s A Ballad of Canada at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 27 October 2014 at 7.30pm.

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