Rising-star composer signs with top publisher

By Deb Van Brenk, BA'86, MA'87

Composer Tn

As a pre-schooler, Sarah Quartel found music everywhere, even in the tuneless rattle of the refrigerator. “I used to sing along with the hum of the appliances and create melodies and harmonies from what I heard.”

Today, Quartel, BMus’05, BEd’06, is one of Canada’s rising stars in choral composition, with commissions from around the world and, now, a new contract as Major Composer with the prestigious Oxford University Press (OUP). The signing confirms Quartel among the elite as OUP’s youngest Major Composer, its only Canadian and one of just two women.

“It’s a dream come true,” said the 34-year-old Quartel, noting the publisher’s commitment to music and musicians, its business savvy and an international reputation for excellence. The contract with Oxford dramatically expands the exposure her work receives by choral ensembles of all kinds.

For its part, Quartel has a “fresh, exciting style. She is already highly successful in North America and we are excited to represent her and her works around the globe,” said Ben Selby, OUP’s director of music publishing.

Quartel’s compositions have been performed as close to home as West Lorne, Ont., and as far away as Japan, by school choirs and community choruses, in small churches and soaring concert halls. The Oxford contract will make her work available to an even wider world audience.

Born in Chatham and raised in London, Quartel lives with her husband in Hawaii but still calls Canada home. This country, and southwestern Ontario in particular, has been her muse. Its changing seasons shape the heart of many of her pieces.

Quartel comes from a large extended family with deep musical roots. Her father, and her grandather, were church organists; her aunt, an accomplished trumpet player.

She began piano lessons at age four, and gained choral experience in church choirs and later in the Amabile children’s choir.

One year, the Fanshawe Symphonic Chorus, led by Gerald Fagan, held a competition for best new Christmas choral composition; the prize would be the chorus would perform the winner’s piece that season. Eight-year-old Quartel earnestly composed a song – she’s forgotten its name, but remembers each note and word of every part – and submitted her entry.

“I tied for first place, little me,” she recalled. “I remember sitting on stage in my crushed-velvet pink dress while the chorus sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ It was an indescribable feeling.”

Even so, her musical passions as a child and teen gravitated more toward piano and voice training than composition. Her piano teachers had links to Western, which gave her experience beyond just lessons. “I had exposure to really great music education as I was growing up,” she said.

Accepted into the Don Wright Faculty of Music after a vocal audition, she swung into the composition stream in her second year.

The personal attention students received at the school was energizing and inspiring, she said, recalling detailed feedback from Composition professor Peter Paul Koprowski and lecturer Kim Lundberg. “You walk into the room with a piece you’ve composed and they take it apart and, together, you rebuild it. As nerve-wracking as that can be, it was a tremendous experience because you got that one-on-one analysis of your work.”

When she tells fellow composers of her Western experience, they marvel she received such detailed critiques as an undergraduate, something their schools offered only at the master’s or PhD level.

“As I listen to her music, I understand the reasons she was embraced by the Oxford University Press. I am impressed by the effectiveness of her writing and the veil of beauty permeating her music,” said Koprowski.

Quartel also credits Jennifer Moir, Director of Western’s Les Choristes & Chorale, with shaping her perspectives on arrangements and choral singing. “Jennifer put brilliant scores in the hands of her singers.”

Quartel developed a style infused with emotion, personality, place and storytelling. Commissions began to trickle in, starting with the Treble Makers, a small West Lorne women’s chorus that asked her to write for its spring concert. The choir’s conductor, Sharon Little, sought out Quartel while looking looked for new, accessible Canadian pieces that would suit a small group. “It’s difficult to find music that is intelligent and has a range that’s not in the stratosphere,” Little said.

The resulting work, I Remember, became one of the choir’s favourites. “The first time we sang it – and we have a musically educated and involved community – there were people in the crowd in tears.”

The evocative piece made it into the OUP repertoire and has since become one of its most popular, with performances from groups such as the Singapore Symphonic Youth Choir.

“Sharon Little took a chance on me and asked me to compose a piece for the Treble Makers before I had really proven myself elsewhere. They put a lot of faith in me at a point in my life and career when no one else did.”

That comment took Little aback: “I never knew that. I didn’t know where she was in her composing career. I liked what I’d seen and she fit the local, Canadian, young, female, easy-to-find criteria. The Oxford University Press is the height of choral publishing companies in the world, and to start there is pretty awesome.”

Only the best of the best are among the OUP’s half-dozen major choral composers: including the likes of John Rutter (commissioned to write a piece for Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011) and Mack Wilberg (director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir).

Quartel’s favourite feedback comes from people who say her music unexpectedly moved them, such as the accountant from New Jersey who sent her an email to say he is ordinarily emotionally reserved, but cried when he sang one of her compositions.

“The reason I write is to make that emotional connection with myself and with others,” Quartel said. “When I’m writing, I don’t connect with a piece unless it first emotionally resonates with me.”

Meanwhile, Quartel continues to write from Hawaii, where her husband is posted with the Canadian Navy, as she prepares for the birth of their first-born. “Where do I go from here? Back to my piano, and I keep writing. Some of my friends have noted I haven’t written any lullabies, so maybe that’s next.”