How my dual musical identity shaped me

A folk and classical journey with Shane Lestideau



One of my favourite expressions goes like this: ‘There’s no path, just walking’. Sometimes I feel as though this describes my career as well. There has never been a sense of following a well-trodden musical path, much less of cruising down a highway, but always feeling the lure of the overgrown side-roads, the cross-roads, the distant fields and mountains.

I was a late-comer to the violin, not starting lessons until I was nearly 10. Prior to that, I’d grown up in an isolated corner of New South Wales, living without electricity or hot water, radio or television. Learning music wasn’t just about the violin in the beginning, I had everything to discover – Mozart, Bach, folk, blues, this Michael Jackson bloke everyone was talking about at school!

After completing a bachelor degree at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, I spent 10 years in France, enjoying an incredibly eclectic career performing with Baroque and Classical orchestras, Irish and Breton groups, and freelance recording everything from opera to heavy metal.

You’re never so Australian as when you go overseas, and I was known as The Australian Violinist, regardless of my efforts to become a local. However, one day it struck me that I didn’t really know what it was to be an Australian violinist; I’d never worked in my own country, only knew a handful of Australian compositions, and even my English was starting to get dubious. It was time to journey back and get in touch with my roots.

You have to spend time with each style individually before you know where it ends and the next influence begins

Australia has a wonderfully colourful music scene, more open and daring when it comes to original propositions than in Europe. Setting up Evergreen Ensemble was a chance for me to create a unique musical universe, which brings together old and new repertoire, folk and art music, as well as cross-cultural propositions.

We have such diverse musical experiences these days – through the internet, radio, live concerts, our multicultural families and friends – and I found it very natural to bring some of that diversity into the realm of this ensemble. The tricky part was to not loose touch with the essence of the individual musical traditions we’ve worked with: Scottish, French, Italian, Swedish, Australian. For that, there’s no shortcut. You have to spend time with each style individually before you know where it ends and the next influence begins.

The thing I love most about 18th Century Scottish music is its blurred boundary between traditional Scottish tunes on the one side, and Baroque and Classical compositions on the other. The Scots had a deep love of their own native melodies, and we’re sometimes surprised these days to read that folk tunes shared an equal standing with their Italianate sonatas and Mannheim-inspired quartets. The composers, players and audience members were the same for both styles, and there was a generous and accepting attitude toward sharing musical material between them.

I grew up playing Scottish folk fiddle and working as a Baroque violinist, so I felt well prepared to explore the repertoire. When I play it, I not only feel like I’m speaking my own language, but can experience the freedom of not having to quiet one side of my musical vocabulary to let the other one sing. I can let them both out for a marvellously fun duo!

I had only just started playing Scottish Baroque music when I met the renowned Rachel Barton-Pine, a Chicago soloist, who was touring France performing the Bruch Scottish Fantasy. Prior to that, she’d gone to Scotland to improve her ornamentation for the piece with my favourite Scots fiddler Alasdair Fraser, and had uncovered some of the 18th Century works in the process. We jammed on a few of them one afternoon in a little cabaret bar. And next thing you know, I’m recording a CD and leaving for Australia to set up Evergreen Ensemble!

I learnt the violin by ear with a Suzuki teacher and was well past the Vivaldi A minor concerto when I looked at music on the stave for the first time and learnt to sight read. Learning folk tunes without the ‘dots’ was a synch in comparison, and I spent hundreds of hours as a teenager learning entire Martin Hayes or Alasdair Fraser albums by ear, or tunes to play at ceilidhs and sessions. I adored the classical pieces, and found their virtuosic nature strangely addictive, but once I knew how good it felt to carry hours of shared repertoire around with me in my head and play with anyone I met, there was no giving it up.

I thought the only way I could keep on fostering my dual musical identity was by keeping the two parts separate. Letting classical colleagues know I fiddled seemed the best way to never get orchestral work again, and I would avoid saying anything about classical music in a folk circle in case it signalled the end of my credibility as a trade musician! There was a sense of never truly belonging, of doing things differently to others, of questioning the things which colleagues seemed to take for granted.

The classical and folk traditions have so much to offer one another, and it was this realisation which aided me in bringing them closer together in my own playing. Memorisation techniques, rhythmic bowing, integrated ornamentation and relaxed performance energy are some of the things which the folk tradition can offer a classical musician; while musical analysis, technical study and challenges of preparing long, recital-style performances can expand a folk musician’s horizons.

If they could be so open in their approach, why not me?

Though you can find an astounding array of individuals within the early music scene, it seems there are a few common features amongst us: a love of stories and history, for example; a willingness to go beyond the written page of music to interpret and improvise; an interest in human nature and how it’s been expressed differently over time. When I started looking back into the history of 18th Century Scotland, the thing that become glaringly obvious to me was the lack of categorisation of folk and Baroque styles and musicians. If they could be so open in their approach, why not me?

I appreciate the collegial spirit amongst the Baroque communities in Australia and abroad; musicians who are passionate and enthusiastic, and grateful to be able to share their talents and discoveries with like-minded musicians.

The Baroque music scene in Australia is a very vibrant place to be right now. My first performance in 2015 with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, for example, featured acrobats, choreography for the musicians, and festive French repertoire! My own programs with Evergreen Ensemble have incorporated storytelling, Puirt a Beul (Mouth Music) and Breton circle dancing into Baroque concerts; and a good dose of unscored improvisation, giving a fresh and edgy quality to the old repertoire which audience members loved.

The one ingredient I think is missing in this crucible is newly composed repertoire. The Baroque style continues to touch people in the 21st Century, but after you’ve heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the umpteenth time, you might find yourself asking (as I do): ‘What would the Australian Seasons sound like?’, or ‘How would a young Aussie composer from Sydney choose to compose for a Baroque ensemble in this day and age?’. So, I thought I would find out!

The Australian Baroque Sonatas Project was launched seven weeks ago through Pozible, and is crowdfunding the commissioning of four sonatas written for period instruments from the young Australian composer Alice Chance. We’ve asked her to write in a way which embodies the Baroque style, speaks of Australia, and yet doesn’t ignore the 21st Century context of the piece. She’s planning to compose music that could be played by a variety of instruments, and will include optional parts for electronic samples. I don’t know about you, but I’m itching to hear it!

Why crowdfund? Outside of receiving grants, it’s the best way of raising cash to finance creative projects. We’ve actually received half of the required sum in the form of a grant, but the remainder is coming through Pozible. I laugh (or cry) when I read the lists of subscribers and patrons on the front pages of old facsimiles, who funded music compositions and publications in the 18th Century. We are all still in the same boat, 300 years later!

There’s nothing else I’d prefer to be doing in life, and I think that’s pretty lucky

There was a small wave of Australian music students inspired by the early music revival in Europe during the 1970s onwards. They studied with teachers in The Hague, England, Germany or Italy, then returned to start Australia’s own early music movement. It’s continued to grow and flourish in the intervening years, but uni students are still drawn to the ‘Mecca’ of Europe before feeling as though they can call themselves fully-fledged Baroque players.

I share a vision with a handful of my colleagues which involves not only students knowing they can stay here and receive specialist training at a world-class level, but sees international students seeking Australian teachers and ensembles as the best representatives in their fields. If we constantly compare ourselves to the European scene, we’ll have missed the opportunity to find our own uniquely Australian approach to early music making.

Outside my project, I have two young kids, am writing a thesis on 18th Century Scottish Music, help to manage the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra, and have a busy freelance performing and recording schedule. My family is generally supportive of my work (except when I’m away for the fourth weekend in a row over summer and we were planning a family trip to the beach!), and I try to study when they’re not around (i.e. burning the midnight candle).

It can be frustrating and overwhelming at times, never doing the same thing from one day to the next; always having the responsibility of generating my own work or employment for others. Luckily, the satisfaction of pulling off a magnificent program in front of a full house, or nailing a recording session, outweighs those downsides! There’s nothing else I’d prefer to be doing in life, and I think that’s pretty lucky.

My advice to young musicians is this: learn to know your inner self. When we play, we can choose to allow others the privilege of hearing who we are inside, truthfully, and it’s one of the greatest things we can do as musicians. Stay curious, not just when it comes to other musical styles, but about everything. Sometimes our best discoveries in music will actually come through an article in the National Geographic, or a conversation with a taxi-driver, or from your students. Respect music for the great and magical thing that it is, but don’t get too bogged down in the unimportant bits – there’s nothing worse than working with a musician who takes him or herself too seriously!

Some projects can take years to bear fruit

Learn something about running a business (you are your business when you’re a freelancer), memorise your pieces, practice in a room free of devices, and don’t expect that you can get though a full career in music without also practising some kind of sport. You’re going to need your body to work well into your 80s, considering none of us will ever make enough money to retire! Don’t wait forever to have kids as there’s never a good time in relation to your career, and be patient with your important goals. Some projects can take years to bear fruit.

Keep your dreams on the crazy side of ‘do-able’ and collect people around you who are as enthusiastic about your ideas as you are.

Support the Australian Baroque Sonatas Project crowdfunding campaign. Shane will perform in A French Feast at the Melbourne Recital Centre this 12 July.


Images supplied.

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