Vermont cellist Joshua Morris’s golden year

by Brenda Branswell

As a master’s student at McGill, Joshua Morris, MMus’17, often walked through the music library where a Golden Violin sculpture sits on display.

The display case includes the names of the winners of the annual Golden Violin Competition – one of the most significant music prizes in Canada, which comes with a $25,000 cash award.

“It was kind of a surreal feeling thinking ‘oh, my name is going to be inscribed on that now’,” says Morris about winning the 2016-17 prize, awarded each year to an outstanding string player enrolled in McGill’s Schulich School of Music.

The competition last fall was just the start of a “terrific” year for the St. Albans, Vermont native.

A cellist, Morris is part of the Milton String Quartet at McGill, along with violinists Roman Fraser and Maïthéna Girault, and violist Evan Robinson.

In May, the quartet won the grand prize at the prestigious Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, the largest event of its kind in the world. The group also earned the Senior String Division Gold Medal at the event held at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The quartet received $10,000 and $3,500, respectively, for those accomplishments.

“It was really amazing,” says Morris, MMus’17.

In December, the Milton String Quartet was one of two winners at the Schulich School of Music Chamber Music Competition, earning a weeklong exchange visit to a conservatory in Europe (the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria).

Morris started piano lessons when he was eight and cello at nine, but became more serious about playing the latter instrument.

After obtaining his undergraduate degree at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, Morris chose to do his master’s in cello performance at McGill.

“I knew I was going to like my teacher a lot and he’s been terrific during the time I’ve been studying,” Morris says of Brian Manker, an assistant professor, strings, cello, at the Schulich School of Music. (Manker is also the principal cellist with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and a cellist with the New Orford String Quartet.)

“It was a much more affordable option, too, because a school in Canada is a lot cheaper than it is in the U.S., on average, and also because of the city of Montreal,” Morris adds. “I’ve grown up right across the border from Montreal, so loved the city and was looking forward to spending time there.”

Morris is playing “extraordinarily well”, says Manker. And his playing has a lot of expression in it.

“He’s always trying to squeeze as much out of something in terms of musical expression as he can.”

Morris doesn’t mindlessly repeat things; he’s always trying to make something a little bit more interesting, Manker says.

He is sort of a high risk, high reward player in a way, he adds. He’s always trying to ride on that edge between playing well and perfectly “and all of those things that people try to do – which is very important in today’s world it seems” – and searching for expression, Manker says.

“So he’s always trying to ride on that sharp edge between the two things. He knows where it is and he’s good at finding it … That’s really the gift that he has.”

At last fall’s Golden Violin Competition, Morris performed three works, including a piece he composed. Most of his cash award is going to pay off his undergraduate loans, he says. The prize also includes performances opportunities and career coaching sessions.

“It was an amazing feeling because it’s been an enormous boost to me. It was incredible to win. It was really a strong performing year so I was really honoured to win it.”

Morris graduated this spring and enjoyed his time at the university. “McGill has been extremely good to me,” he says.

He’s not done with McGill yet. Morris is coming back for a graduate diploma in performance – a one-year program where the focus is on performance and playing recitals and concerts, he says.

“My goal is to keep going down the chamber music route. So I would love to be in a quartet for my future, whether it’s this quartet or another one. But I would love to have that as my career path.”

published in August, 2017