Q&A with Sarah Nematallah

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Inaugural recipient of the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award


Established in 2005, the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award is a $25,000 prize given to graduating students of the Faculty of Music who are deemed to have the greatest potential to make an important contribution to the field of music. Violinist Sarah Nematallah was the inaugural recipient of the award in 2006. A founding member of the award-winning Cecilia String Quartet (2004-2018), Sarah has been active as a performer and arts administrator for almost two decades. She currently leads Xenia Concerts, whose mission is to offer professional and barrier-free music and arts performances to those who have little or no access to traditional concerts.

The Cecilia String Quartet was one of Canada’s premiere chamber ensembles, performing to national and international acclaim over their 14-year career. Their numerous accolades include prizes at the Osaka (2008) and Bordeaux (2010) international competitions and a signature First Prize win at the Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) in 2010. A milestone achievement for the quartet, notably the first Canadian quartet to win the BISQC since 1992, it propelled them to international success, performing in over 30 countries across 5 continents and in marquee halls including London’s Wigmore Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. They went on to record four albums on ANALEKTA, earning a JUNO nomination for their 2016 recording of Mendelssohn string quartets.

Cecilia Quartet was committed to education and outreach throughout their career. They delivered hundreds of educational presentations around the world and returned to the Faculty from 2016-2018 as Adjunct Professors and the James D. Stewart Ensemble-in-Residence. Their outreach performances were diverse, often presenting for groups with limited access to the arts including homeless youth and veterans, prisoners, and hospitals and long-term care homes.

Xenia Concerts began in 2015 as a 3-concert pilot series by the Cecilia Quartet to deliver professional and accessible performances to those affected by autism and disability. The quartet consulted extensively with members of the Toronto autism community and medical and arts professionals, as well as their partner Meridian Hall (formerly Sony Centre), to customize both the musical and physical elements of the concert experience to be truly accessible. The series has expanded quickly and is now a registered charity under the direction of Sarah Nematallah. Xenia continues to present their core offering of sensory-friendly concerts, and have recently started to partner with other organizations who identify as having reduced access to the arts to present concerts tailored to their specific needs. In recent years, Xenia has started to branch out across Canada, working with organizations in Ottawa and Calgary to present performances.

We caught up with Sarah on the 15th anniversary of her graduation and winning of the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award.

This interview with James Conquer has been edited and condensed.

What was your plan after you graduated and won the award?

I was planning to co-form a string quartet that I intended to aim really high with. I believe Toronto was a great place to come from if you wanted to be a musician, and I wanted to go out into the world and represent Toronto with a string quartet. In the beginning, we decided that the only way you can do string quartet is if you commit to it 100%. You have to rehearse 5 days a week and do residencies and perform together. Winning the award gave me a lot of confidence and a little bit of a financial cushion to feel that I could take that risk of doing that kind of work, which was not going to be very lucrative in the beginning. At the time I didn’t think it was a big risk but looking back I realize it was enormous.

Did you have a moment with the quartet where you felt you had something special?

It was more “you have a little bit of something,” and then if you pour enough work into it, it develops into something truly special. I think the people who were there in the beginning and spent the most time with the group were very passionate about it and chamber music in general, so maybe that was a special thing that I felt, that people were really devoted to what we were doing.

I think UofT has fostered a culture of chamber music love and there is a great respect for chamber music at the University. A lot of people come out of string performance degrees feeling really passionate about it.

You’ve performed all over the world – is there a concert that sticks out?

So many! One time we performed in California at a school for the blind and that was an experience that affected a lot of us because in a way, their enjoyment and appreciation of sound was very pure. We were very committed and enjoyed the non-standard performances and it was a lot of what we did, and we cared about it. I think it was important for us to connect with people who do not have a lot of access to the arts.

When we went to places like that, we felt that it showed how important music is to people, because for some of them, they don’t actually have a lot of music. You don’t think of that now because you can turn on YouTube and listen all the time, but there are a lot of reasons and a lot of places where people don’t have access to music in the same way that mainstream society does. When you play in those places you see, immediately, how powerful and important music is, and it gives you the energy to fight for that cause when you come back home.

Another memorable one was when we did a week-long residency playing and teaching at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. That school has a small classical music program and it was great to connect with people that were so far away from us geographically and be embedded in a different cultural milieu. And have music bring us together, for me that was a really cool one.

What inspired you to come back to school and do a Masters in Music Education?

I was trying to develop my career in the arts, and I knew that additional education would be useful. I did not want to do a performance degree, at the time I was touring internationally and had a lot of performing going on, I wanted to explore writing and research. I was interested in music and language connections during my degree, I did a pilot study on metaphor usage in music teaching. I will add that I was very lucky that the teachers were understanding because I had to miss a lot of classes to play my concerts!

How did you start Xenia Concerts?

Xenia Concerts was one of the last big projects that Cecilia Quartet took on and, in a way, it was one of the most beautiful things we accomplished. We were on tour in California and we played a concert at Stanford University organized to be accessible for children on the autism spectrum and their families. We started hearing stories and chatting with families about how they would love to participate in these kinds of events more frequently and they just can’t because traditional classical events don’t really allow for the kind of behaviour that they need to feel free to do. I thought it was very sad, and a very quintessential example of an inability to access the arts.

We were very careful to do the research, to connect with people, and hear what the needs were of the community and used that information to shape the concert experience. Early on we got a partnership with Meridian Hall [formerly Sony Centre] and worked with them in the beginning to customize the audience and performance spaces – they have been a fantastic partner throughout, and we are still with them. Now we are branching out across Canada, still doing the sensory friendly concerts and have started partnering with other organizations that have been identified as not having arts access.

I love going to these events because I get to see how grateful people are and how happy music makes them. It is a real reminder of how important the arts are in society, because when you see people who actually don’t have art in their lives you can tell how hungry they are for it, and how much of a difference it makes. And, how it makes life better and creates social interactions that couldn’t happen before. Or, it creates inspiration where there was none before, or it calms where there was none before. When people say, “Are the arts really that important?” - it is important for all those reasons.

How did your experience as a performer lend itself to your administrative career?

The administrative side was something that I learned sort of sloppily along the way. With the quartet I had to manage budgets, plan tours and write grants which were useful when I started leading Xenia. Xenia taught me more about organizational governance, legal issues, and season planning from the perspective of a presenter.

How do you find this online world that we find ourselves in now [due to COVID-19], is it challenging to deliver your mission?

One of the important things about our live concerts is that lot of the families that come to them can’t get out that much. We provide a safe space where they can go interact with people, not only to enjoy music but also to enjoy each other. That is missing from online right now. That being said, we have had some success with our online concerts and gotten positive feedback. We are lucky because Xenia presents chamber music, so it made it possible for us to pivot quickly, whereas it is very hard for an orchestra to do an online concert. Xenia embodies one of the great things about the quartet and chamber music specifically, the versatility and creativity of chamber music and the ability for it to go where other music can’t.

Do you have any advice for this year’s award winner?

Use the award as your ammunition to take a risk on something that you really want to do. Because it can end up being really cool.