Long-time Symphony Nova Scotia conductor-in-residence Dinuk Wijeratne returns to Halifax, reflecting on what the city still means to him
The idea of home fascinates Dinuk Wijeratne.
The Juno-winning conductor, composer, and pianist was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Dubai, studied in England and New York, and moved to Halifax in 2005 to join Symphony Nova Scotia as conductor-in-residence. Now he lives in Toronto, where there are more opportunities for his wife Samantha Berardesca, a speech pathologist, and easier travel connections for performing and conducting gigs the world over. But he maintains strong musical connections to the city.
When he was a boy, a career with any sort of link to Halifax seemed unlikely.
He started studying piano at the age of nine at the suggestion of his mother, but didn’t like it.
“We were a very arts-oriented family,” says Wijeratne, by phone. “My mum is a dance teacher. My dad plays a pretty decent jazz piano by ear. I was just going through the motions. It’s a good argument for parents forcing their children to do things.”
He was 12 when he heard Mozart for the first time, filling him with passion for music. “I read about the history of music and was fascinated,” he recalls. “I started composing music at that age. When I won the Juno [in 2016 for classical composition for Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems], one of my friends from my Dubai days reminded me that as a teenager, I said ‘I am a composer.’ I forgot I told people that.”
Dubai offered a music scene nothing like Halifax’s. “Growing up in Dubai, you couldn’t access live music easily, there were no live concerts,” he explains. “It was an advantage because you were exposed to a wider variety of stuff with a more neutral perspective.”
When he started discovering music, it was cassette tapes from every genre. Mozart one moment, Sri Lankan traditional music the next. “There was a lack of bias,” he says, noting his constant struggle to reconcile his identity and the ideas of how one defines home, comes out in his music.
His mother, Vino, whom Wijeratne says has “been one of the biggest inspirations throughout my life,” worked two jobs so he could study composition at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. Next came studies at Julliard in New York City with John Corigliano, the five-time Grammy winner and Oscar-winning composer of the score for The Red Violin.
Wijeratne says Corigliano changed his life artistically.
“I think one of the signs of a good teacher is that you notice that their pedagogy unravels over your life-time, through the course of your career. John was all about clarity of concept. He was ruthless about making me define and be clear about what it is that I wanted from any musical moment.”
Wijeratne believes karma helped bring him to Halifax, where his mother, a dance teacher at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, had settled the year before.
While studying conducting at New York’s Mannes College of Music in 2005, the talented young musician auditioned to be conductor-in-residence with Symphony Nova Scotia.
Bernhard Gueller, music director of Symphony Nova Scotia from 2002 to 2018, says what stood out about Wijeratne, amid the stiff competition, was “his clear, elegant and very musical way or style of conducting. He has a very efficient beat. This beat shows exactly what he wants.”
The orchestra responded well to Wijeratne’s leadership, especially when they discovered his composition skills, continues Gueller, praising Wijeratne’s “sensational rhythmical imagination and wonderful orchestration, which means a great sense for orchestra colours.”
When his three-year post as conductor-in-residence wrapped up in 2008, Wijeratne decided not to purse more conducting jobs: “I wanted to be creative and write.”
Among the pieces he created was The Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra which Symphony Nova Scotia premiered in 2012.
“Dinuk is a fantastic bridge builder between Western and Asian music,” says Gueller. “The tabla concerto is a great example of this bridge building. It’s structurally a great composition. How he integrates this Asian percussion instrument in the sound of a western orchestra is masterful.”
Gueller nominated the piece for a Nova Scotia Masterworks Award in 2012 and 2016. Wijeratne was also nominated in 2015 for Love Triangle, created for the Gryphon Trio, and won in 2017 for Polyphonic Lively, a world premiere full of multicultural influences, that opened Symphony Nova Scotia’s 2016–17 season.
That season Wijeratne was appointed the symphony’s composer-in-residence, the first person to be both conductor-in-residence and composer-in-residence at a single Canadian orchestra. The in-demand composer has three years of commissions ahead of him, including another world premiere with Symphony Nova Scotia this month, co-commissioned by SNS, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and the Calgary Philharmonic.
Wijeratne wrote his Clarinet Concerto for his close friend and longtime collaborator, Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, who will perform it on a program that also includes Beethoven’s Seventh on March 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax and on March 24 at 2 p.m. at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth.
The 27-minute piece for clarinet and orchestra came out of a visit with Azmeh to Syria in 2009 that had a huge impact on Wijeratne. “It is part response to the conflict, part autobiography, Kinan’s story and mine, part immigrant story,” he says. “It addresses many questions about the nature of home. How do you reconcile multiple identities, the dual identity of Asian/Western?”
Azmeh has known Wijeratne for more than 18 years since they were students at Juilliard. “I have always been in awe of Dinuk’s creativity, both as a composer and pianist,” he says. “He is an incredibly hard-working man with sensibilities that stretch far beyond the classical repertoire. He is able to travel through different musical worlds seamlessly and channel what he has in his head straight to his fingertips on the piano, or to the manuscript paper on his desk with honesty and incredible originality.”
Their collaborations began early in their friendship. “We resonated with each other’s curiosity and love to explore different musical possibilities,” explains Azmeh, noting they have travelled across the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, France and Germany with their Art of the Duo project.
“This clarinet concerto is the fruit of a wonderful friendship that is built on trust and years of explorations. It is unique in its concept and approach to the instrument and to the concerto genre in general. I trust it will be an incredible addition to the clarinet repertoire for generations to come.”
Wijeratne sees himself first as a composer and only plays his own music now, but he tries to make time for each musical pursuit. “I’m a richer composer for conducting, and a richer conductor for playing.”
He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2004 with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and performed there in 2009 alongside tabla legend Zakir Hussain.
He’s worked with artists as diverse as soprano Suzie LeBlanc, hip-hop artist Buck 65, DJ Skratch Bastid, Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Tim Garland, Victor Mendoza (a leading artist in the Latin-jazz and world-percussion scenes), and Halifax’s Onelight Theatre Company.
For the last 13 years, he’s been mentoring young musicians as music director of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra. He is stepping away at the end of April with the NSYO concert Dvorák’s Eighth and Dinuk’s Farewell on April 28 at 7 p.m. at St. Matthew’s United Church in Halifax.
Wijeratne has been at the helm for the decade Anne Lee has been with the group. The Charles P. Allen grad, who was born in South Korea, began studying piano and violin at seven and focused on violin at 12. Now studying music at Dalhousie University with an eye to a professional career, she looks to Wijeratne for guidance.
“As I’ve gotten more serious about music, I realize how much I’ve learned from him about life and emotion through working on epic pieces of music,” she says.
“I really like the richness and sensitivity he brings as a conductor and the way he engages with musicians,” she says, adding as one of three NSYO concertmasters, her role is to be “the conduit of Wijeratne’s ideas to her section and more broadly to the whole orchestra.”
Wijeratne is pleased to be premiering Clarinet Concerto in Halifax, where the orchestra feels like family and the city feels like home. “The ties will always be there,” he says, adding he is grateful to the community that gave him his start.
And he is hopeful for the future of music in Halifax and Canada. “I am lucky to live in this country, in any other country there would be more pressure to conform,” he says. “People are excited by cultural fusion here.”