Faculty of Music

John Holland

head shot john hollandJohn Holland doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet, even in summer. The singer/director emailed to update on some of his activities. He was course director and conductor for all the York University choirs, while working on his doctoral degree on Czech vocal and choral repertoire,

On the other side of the baton, Holland was soloist with the York Baroque ensemble, Toronto Chamber Choir, Orpheus Choir of Toronto, Opera By Request, and Ottawa Bach Choir. He was married in May, and joined Ontario Youth Choir as an assistant conductor in August.

He is working with the Czech Ministry of Culture on a project in 2014 called The Year of Czech Music, with some of the top musicians and scholars in the world, including Simon Rattle and Magdalena Kozena. Holland will contribute writing, organizing events and perform in the Canadian premiere of the Dvořák opera Jakobin.

The following e-interview gives some idea of what makes John tick, and how he keeps on ticking with so many demands on his time.

E: How do you balance conducting and singing?

H: There is so much music going on in my life that finding the balance or normalcy can be difficult.

The key is to know your instrument, its limits and strengths, and how far your body can be pushed. One of the big problems in the singing world is that we are all eager to do everything all at once, and it is important to find time to rest one's body and mind, as well as one's voice.

One of my harsh realizations on this was when I had been conducting a run of The Gondoliers, and the day after had to sing a Messiah, and my arms were so sore that halfway through I could barely hold my score up.

Another key is to make sure to do the 'right gigs'; things that will expand your repertoire, and get your name out there. One has to be selective in this. Young artist programs, such as C.O.A.A. and Opera Nuova (which I did three times) are wonderful ways to expand repertoire and network with the best people. 

E: What is different about preparing for each?

H: Ironically, one of the hardest things to remember while I am conducting is that I am not supposed to sing along. I have a passion for vocal and choral music, so I want to join in the fun as much as I can! However, vocalizing is not accepted.

One of the nice complements I receive is how animated I am as a conductor. I 'perform' for the choir just as I would for the audience. I use my energy and character to get the best out of them.

Score study also varies between the two forms. As a classical singer, I focus on my single line of music. As a conductor, I have to focus on the vertical as much as the horizontal. The scope of your vision within the score opens so that you follow multiple lines all at once.

Singing can be a solitary form of music making; my voice is my instrument, and I focus on how I perform. As a choral conductor, my instrument is the choir in front of me.

E: How does conducting university-level choirs compare to other choirs?

H: Conducting the choirs at York was truly a great honour, and a wonderful stepping-stone experience. I previously conducted the West Elgin Choral Society in Dutton, Ont. and two Gilbert and Sullivan productions. While these two experiences were major opportunities for me, they were very different than what I had at York University this year.

With the West Elgin Choral Society the levels of musicality stretched from beginners to seasoned singers. The most difficult aspect with that group was choosing repertoire as the rehearsals were only once a week.

With the York Choirs, I was essentially given 'the keys to the Cadillac'. Comprised predominantly of upper-level voice students, the chamber choir was the elite choir on campus, and gave me the leeway to pull out Czech choral repertoire by Dvořák that had not been performed here before.

The concert choir was a larger group. I was surprised by the high level of musicianship, which afforded me the option to do a larger work by Dvořák. Because the ensembles were the highest level I have conducted, they also required my best. It was a tremendous growth period for me as a choral conductor. 

E: Why did you choose the repertoire you did for your PhD focus?

H: It came from two different sources. My grandfather was Czech, and he loved the traditional polkas and folk songs, and I heard them growing up, but never really translated this connection into the classical repertoire.

As a singer, one is always looking for repertoire that distinguishes one from others at auditions and recitals. During my last year at Western, my grandfather asked, “You sing in Italian, German, French, how come you don't sing in Czech?”

I had basic knowledge of the language, and decided to take his advice. I was overwhelmed with the repertoire that I discovered: songs and choral works by Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček.

Dvořák composed symphonies, concertos and chamber music that sit at the apex of the genres. He didn't compose his vocal and choral music with any less quality, so why are these works so neglected? When I couldn't find answers, I knew this was a field that should be explored.

Secondly, Dr. Don Neville recommended me to prepare a two-hour lecture on Dvořák's opera Rusalka for the Canadian Opera Company's London Guild, and I became smitten with a score full of leitmotif and melodies that equal the beauty of the Song to the Moon. This opened the door for me into the almost hidden world of Dvořák's operas.

This past summer, I took two trips to the Czech Republic.  One was for book research with Dr. David Beveridge. The other was to sing the role of Vodník in Rusalka, and explore Czech art song with Dr. Mirka Zemanova, a Janáček scholar, and Dr. Timothy Cheek from the University of Michigan, who are the leading scholar/coaches on Czech song. These experiences opened a wider world of study. I have spent the year on all aspects of Czech music, especially the Czech Baroque.

E: How did what you learned at Western help with your current singing and conducting?

H: The skills I received at Western have been essential for my work as a singer, conductor and a researcher.

Professors Baerg and Chiles taught me the ways of being a professional singer, and the diligence that goes into the process of learning music, and performing at the highest level. They emphasized the importance of not only being hired, but re-hired. Learning from professionals was the best way to become a professional.

Dr. Stokes and Dr. Neville were great influences in my academic career, and acted not only as mentors for me, but also as ideals to aspire to.

My choral conducting skills have benefited from many with Western connections; Dr. Victoria Meredith, Ken Fleet, and Dr. Robert Cooper. Whether by teaching or by demonstrating, they showed me the way of choral musicianship, and harmony between voices. My skills and coordination of conducting all came from them.

I can never thank Western enough for starting me on the path to a multi-faceted musical career.