Fresh off conducting a concert in Thunder Bay last spring, Simon Rivard flew to Toronto for a live audition on the podium with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO).
He was one of five candidates invited to conduct three pieces of music, following a nationwide search, and it was his first time working with such a large orchestra.
“I decided to conduct everything by heart. I didn’t feel nervous enough and needed something to keep me alert. It freed me from the score and I was able to communicate better with the orchestra,” says Rivard, MMus’17, who won the coveted gig as TSO resident conductor and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO) conductor eight days later.
“Thinking back, it was insane but worked perfectly!”
Rivard studied orchestral conducting at McGill’s Schulich School of Music after training as a violinist at the Montreal Conservatory of Music and performing with the Montreal Symphony Youth Orchestra.
“I started learning the repertoire and getting my own ideas about how the pieces should be performed. I tried conducting and chose it as a career,” says Rivard, who grew up on Montreal’s South Shore.
Although he applied to several conducting programs in the United States, Rivard felt Schulich had the most to offer.
“McGill has a lab orchestra directed by Professor Alexis Hauser. Every week we would try out different pieces and I was able to conduct a fair amount of classical repertoire with a full orchestra,” he says.
Rivard was keen to expand his range of conducting experiences beyond classical orchestral music. He dove deeply into 20th century repertoire and the music of contemporary composers, studying with Assistant Professor Guillaume Bourgogne and conducting a series of concerts with the McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble, directed by his mentor.
“Simon is very quick to adapt to new musical experiences and willing to do things that are difficult. He chose to conduct a piece for his final recital – Phillipe Leroux’s Continuo(ns) – that’s very challenging for performers and the conductor. Simon managed to bring the musicians beyond their limits. He was brilliant, and the recital was very successful,” says Bourgogne.
He was equally passionate about pursuing choral conducting, serving as assistant conductor of the Ottawa Choral Society, and also worked for a month on Opera McGill’s production of Die Fledermaus. “That was crucial because Die Fledermaus was one of my TSO audition pieces,” he says.
He developed his chops as a student conductor by doing it all: “That’s always been the way I do things. McGill offered me the opportunity to be true to myself and do everything I wanted,” says Rivard, named by CBC as one of the “30 Hot Canadian Classical Musicians under 30” in 2017.
Before coming to Toronto, Rivard gained professional experience stepping in for Jean-Phillipe Tremblay as music director of the Orchestre de la Francophonie and then conducted over 30 concerts as resident conductor for the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra during the 2017-18 season.
He views all these varied strands of conducting experience as a prelude to an amazing opportunity to learn and grow as a conductor with the TSO and TSYO, while also showcasing his skills.
“The TSO is incredible, and I’ve never worked with such an open-minded, talented group of musicians,” says Rivard.
Last summer he was invited to participate in the first Conducting Mentorship Program at the Verbier Festival Academy in Switzerland. “I was mentored by some of the top conductors in the world and the TSO position opened the door to Verbier for me.”
In the TSYO’s first performance this fall, Rivard guided the young musicians through classical pieces by Brahms and Debussy, and Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
“The youth orchestra is so talented you can do an amazing repertoire of classical and contemporary music, and implement new ideas quickly,” says Rivard, who is passionate about music education and social transformation through music.
As he did in Montreal, Rivard is working in Toronto with an organization that offers free music lessons to children in need, and he wants to do more TSYO outreach concerts. “We would like our kids to perform in hospitals, prisons and socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The idea is to create the artists of the 21st century, not just technicians or artists, but socially aware performers,” he says.