It often surprises first time visitors how easily the Edmonton Youth Orchestra navigates through the most complex works.
But a large portion of the praise goes to conductor Michael Massey, 71, who has the ability to turn a workday performance into something incredibly special.
It is not only his encyclopedic knowledge, thoughtful preparation, artistic vision and leadership that is important, but a nurturing ability to inspire.
Former EYO cellist Mark Moran described his mentor this way, “You learned how to love the classics. Michael Massey had such energy and he loved classical music. You learned so much when he explored why a composer wrote a piece of music. And he knew how to draw the energy from you.”
Those who know the British-born conductor are quick to mention that he has forged a solid national and international reputation as both a superb orchestral trainer and as a man and pianist of great integrity.
Over time, his 40 years at the helm of the EYO have earned many laurels: 2002 Inductee into Edmonton’s Cultural Hall of Fame, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and the 2016 Alberta Order of Excellence, the highest honour bestowed on a civilian.
At the height of his career, Massey is slated to receive the St. Albert Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award for his indefatigable support of young musicians as well as his accomplishments as a concert pianist.
“I’m humbled by it all. I didn’t seek accolades but it’s very nice to be recognized for the work I’ve done,” said the soft-spoken Massey.
His statement is a genuine reflection of the man – serene, refined with an old-world graciousness and charm that is rare in the 21st century.
“I hope I’ve made a difference to Alberta’s young musicians and inspired them to continue as musicians whether it’s professional or not. And maybe instil a love of music that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. That’s my job – to open their eyes to this wonderful music we play.”
While most classical conductors search for a career leading finely honed professional players, Massey’s hallmark is to express his creativity with emerging artists.
“Professional conductors look for a fancy product. But when it’s done, it’s done. Make no mistake. That’s wonderful too. But me, I get more rewards from young talented musicians. What we do is feed inspiration. We feed their futures. The joy of having kids come up to me at break and say, ‘Gee, I love that’ is wonderful.”
Massey’s foray into music began as a young lad in Britain under the tutelage of Miss Oakes, a lovely piano teacher who rode to his house in a motorbike.
In the late ’50s, the family of four immigrated to Edmonton and settled at an apartment on 95 St., one of Edmonton’s beaten down areas. Enrolled at McCauley School, the sensitive 12-year-old simply did not fit in.
“It took me nearly two years to get over hating it. I’m sure I must have put my mum through agony.”
His attitude changed overnight when his parents scraped together enough money to enrol their son in music lessons with Jean-Pierre Vetter.
“He changed my life. He was wonderfully elegant and Swiss. He studied in Paris and was a cultured man and teacher. It was an overnight transformation establishing me as me. It was unusual, but it was the environment that changed my life.”
Massey graduated from the University of Alberta’s music program in 1967 having studied under Alexandra Munn, Violet Archer and Mark Jablonski to name a few.
His next journey was a two-year stay in Geneva, Switzerland studying under Louis Hiltbrand, the go-to teacher of the times.
“When I went to Switzerland I didn’t push it,” Massey said. “I went to learn as much as possible. I was learning a culture. I was learning a new language, one that was crucial to my development as an artist. I loved that I could exist in another language. To me that was more valuable than a PhD.”
He criss-crossed the Atlantic several more times even spending time in London, England. The overflow of pianists encouraged him to resettle in Edmonton.
By 1974, he was accepted as Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s resident pianist, a post he continues to hold. Three years later, he bought a house in St. Albert and was named the EYO conductor.
Through the decades, Massey has influenced numerous stellar musicians ranging from cellist Gianetta Baril, Juno Award winning clarinettist James Campbell and cellist Amanda Forsyth to international trumpeter Jens Lindeman and concert pianist Jason Cutmore to name a few.
In a past interview Jacob Kryger, a former EYO percussionist now in ska band Thursdays, reflected on Massey saying, “He always seems to be really happy and enthusiastic in what he does. He brings in a brighter atmosphere, and when he conducts he really gets into the music.”
Massey has often stated nurturing young minds was his dream job.
“I’d do it all over again if I had to and I’m very privileged to do it. How many people love their job and don’t want to stop doing it. And I’ll keep doing it as long as my body still functions. I hope I’ve made a difference.”