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The piano manBy Trevor J. Adams | Mar 11, 2010
Simon Docking never intended to come to Halifax. A decade ago, he probably couldn’t have told you much about the city. The Australian-born pianist could practice his art anywhere—he’s performed throughout North America and Europe, plus Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. He studied piano in Australia and earned his doctorate in piano performance in New York. That’s where the road to Halifax began.
He met his soon-to-be-wife Jennifer, a Toronto native. They settled in her hometown but in 2003, her career led them to Halifax. Docking quickly became a fixture on the city’s music scene. From 2003 to 2008, he curated Kumquat, a new music series co-presented by the Scotia Festival’s Music Room Chamber Music Society, Saint Cecilia Concert Series and Dalhousie University’s music department.
Performing solo and in ensembles, Docking is one of the city’s busiest concert musicians. In the next few months, he plays four major shows in Halifax, with the Saint Cecilia Concert Series on March 12, The Music Room Chamber Music Society on March 31 and two with the Scotia Festival of Music in June.
A Haligonian-by-choice, with a wealth of international experience, Docking has some interesting opinions on this city and its art scene—and he’s not shy about sharing them. Read on for Halifax Magazine’s exclusive interview with this extraordinary musician.
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Did you grow up in a musical family?
I wouldn’t say I grew up in a musical household but my parents are music lovers and they began taking me to concerts when I was eight or nine. After that, I wanted to take music lessons and that began pretty quickly. I really encourage parents to take their kids to concerts like that. It makes a big difference for kids. It’s good to see that done a lot around here.
Was there an “A-ha!” moment where you knew this was your calling?
There was no road-to-Damascus moment, where I suddenly realized this was what I was going to do with my life. I was initially interested in composition as well but every musician reaches a point where you have to decide which way you’ll go. Will you compose or play? It seemed pretty early on that playing was the way for me.
What were your big musical influences?
I had a teacher who got me playing serious examples of contemporary music. I was 16 and that’s probably the moment that put me on the path to the musician I am today. That’s the kind of music I really enjoy playing now.
Which composers really get your attention?
There are so many composers who I follow. I’ve enjoyed Elliott Carter’s music for years. His music is very complex but fun. He’s kind of like Mozart in that way—I mean, the music sounds nothing like Mozart’s, but in the way that it’s put together with all these different layers, it’s like Mozart.
How does Halifax compare with what you expected before you came here?
I didn’t know what Halifax would be like. I had no clear ideas and no real preconception of the city, so I came in with quite an open mind. And with all honesty, we love it. There’s a wonderful sense of place here.
Did moving to a smaller city require much adjustment?
We both grew up in big cities—me in Sydney and her in Toronto—and then lived in New York, so Halifax is really the smallest place we’ve ever lived. And we love living in a small city. We don’t own a car and we can walk everywhere we need to go. We have a five-year-old daughter; Halifax is a great place for kids. There are a lot of opportunities for them, a lot for them to experience.
Do you find as many opportunities here for you as an artist?
In a way, Halifax feels bigger than it is because it’s the capital for the whole region. Things happen here that wouldn’t happen in other cities this size. I remember the first year we were here, going to the Atlantic Film Festival and being so impressed with a world-class event like that in a city this size. And the music scene is great—so much going on, and so many visiting artists. And it seems to keep expanding. There are so many concert series and festivals.
What makes the city’s musical scene unique?
There’s a long tradition of experimental music here. It seems to have become a Halifax specialty and you see that in a lot of different styles of music here. You always have students here, which adds to the vibrancy and then they tap into the experimental tradition and build on it. Students are this constant source of energy. In Halifax, you need to create your own opportunities. You have to go out and make things happen and when you do, a lot of doors open. It’s nice to be able to do so many different things musically in this town.
How does the level of support for music here compare to what you’ve seen elsewhere?
Funding and support for the musical community are as good here as they are anywhere. Funding is no more of a pinch than in big cities. Here you can make your own opportunities and build things more than you can in other places, where everything seems to be very entrenched.
How is Halifax served for musical venues?
I love The Music Room [on Lady Hammond Road] and the Lillian Pearcy hall [at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts on Chebucto Road]. Those are great spaces. Halifax really needs a 600- to 1,000-seat recital hall, dedicated to music. But Halifax is by no means the only place where this conversation is happening.
What do organizations like Saint Cecilia mean for the musical scene?
It’s hard to put into words how important Saint Cecilia and those organizations are. We’re not on the big touring network here. Saint Cecilia works hard to bring in people we wouldn’t otherwise see, which is great for students.
What can audiences expect from the Saint Cecilia show on March 12?
I love to collaborate with the Pendrecki Quartet. I’ve known them for years and we get on well together. I’m friends with them. It’s nice to collaborate with people you have a relationship with. Collaborations often have this first-date feeling when you play for the first time. The March 12 concert is interesting because the Pendrecki Quartet is playing a brand new piece too. I can’t wait because by the time they play it, my part is done and I can just listen. I’m genuinely excited about that—I don’t get to do that too often.
What challenges you as an artist?
I’m terrified of playing Pierre Boulez’s Sonata No. 2 at the Scotia Festival of Music on June 3. I’ve been working on it for months and months and it is not an easy piece. I have had the privilege of meeting the composer and getting to ask him a few questions. It will be the biggest challenge of anything I’ve played.
What else do you have coming up?
On June 10 I’ll be in the Scotia Festival of Music playing Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (for piano, wind and percussion). It’s modelled on birdsong; a really innovative, unique piece of music that an audience can enjoy and relate to.
What else keeps you busy?
I do a mix of teaching and performing and also play in the Toronto-based ensemble Toca Loca. About half of what I do is local, which is pretty nice. A lot of musicians have to spend more time on the road.
Do you consider Halifax to be your home now?
We’re settled here. My parents are still in Australia but they visit often and think it’s a great place—and they’ve been here in every season!