Here's the transcription of the first part of my interview with Amelia LeClair. More to come. Don't forget that Cappella Clausura, the group she directs, is performing this weekend!
Interview with Amelia LeClair at the Cafe Algiers, Cambridge, MA, on 4/22/09
A: So ask me a question.
Q: Where were you born?
A: [laughs] Paris, France.
Q: I didn’t know that.
A: Paris, France.
Q: How long did you live there?
A: I lived in France until I was six.
Q: Wow, this is already fascinating!
A: And then I came to this country when I was six, and I didn’t speak any English, and so I learned English, and then I moved around quite a lot throughout my childhood, because my father worked for the government, the U.S. State Department.
Q: And did you do anything musical as a kid?
A: I had piano lessons for two years, from the time I was about nine until the time I was eleven. And I fell madly in love with the piano right away, and madly in love with music right away. But unfortunately I was taking piano lessons in a very remote country where it was really cheap to do so, and whenever we came back home, we never had any money, so that was the end of my piano lessons. So that’s the sum total of my piano lessons, nine to eleven.
Q: So where were you taking piano lessons?
A: Columbo, Sri Lanka, where I lived.
Q: Wow. I had no idea that you were born in France and lived in Sri Lanka. Where else have you lived?
A: Beirut, Lebanon, for three years. Algiers – Café Algiers! – for one year, but I don’t remember that, because I was one. Bordeaux. U.S., mostly Kensington and Virginia – Maryland and Virginia, because we needed to be near Washington, D.C. And then my father moved to Canada when I went to college. I did all my high school in the U.S. And when I went to college, my parents moved to Canada, and by then I was pretty much done with traveling with them because I was too old to go with them. My father went to Vietnam when I was in high school, and we had the option then of either going to Thailand or staying home, and my parents made the unfortunate decision that we should stay home in the States, which was really boring.
Q: So you enjoyed the childhood of traveling?
A: Loved it. We all loved it.
Q: That’s great. Where was college?
A: College was Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York, which was not the place for me. I’m being kind. We didn’t get along.
Q: But did you stick it out?
A: I didn’t finish it, no. I quit twice, in typical sixties fashion.
Q: And then you went back.
A: And then I went back…by the time I went back I was 22, I went back to UMass Boston and paid for myself. And I graduated from UMass Boston.
Q: And then what?
A: Then 25 years of work and marriage and children. And then I went to NEC (New England Conservatory.)
Q: And was there – what happened during those 25 years?
A: I worked, I had kids, I didn’t play music –
Q: No, I mean, to make you then be like, “NEC is next.”
A: Mostly I was a very frustrated musician, because I didn’t – you know, I took lessons here and there, I sang here and there, I sang with some choruses, I sang with some small groups, I played the piano, I taught myself guitar. But it was all self-taught kind of stuff. I was never really accomplished as a trained musician. So I was very, very surprised when I auditioned for NEC – I didn’t know it was an audition, that was the fun part. I met Simon Carrington, ostensibly to talk about whether or not he would accept a student. And we chatted, and I’m sure that because we were so close in age (laughs) he was probably thinking, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have someone in the country that I could chat with?” And so I suspect he took me on because of that, you know, but also I seemed to show some musical talent. And he said, “OK, I’ll take you as a student.” And that was the beginning of my conducting career.
Q: Wow. So then Masters at NEC?
A: Masters at NEC in conducting. It was the hardest thing I ever did. I was fifty when I went.
Q: What was the experience of being around all the younger people like?
A: I loved that. I loved that.
Q: OK. It wasn’t ever…didn’t ever make you want to bang your head against the wall?
A: The only thing that I found amusing was that most of these kids, or a lot of these kids would show up for chorus early in the morning with major hangovers, and having spent the whole night being up all night, and unprepared. And of course I was fully grown up, and I was prepared all the time, and in fact probably over-prepared, because I would stay awake all night just preparing, you know. And these kids would just kind of coast along, and I thought, well, you know, that’s what they do. They coast at that age. Especially if they have a lot of talent and a lot of training, and because I hadn’t had a lot of training, in fact I had had so little, I felt consistently under-prepared and under-qualified and all that kind of stuff. So it was very, very hard.
Q: How much of that do you think was in your head, and how much of it was really…?
A: Well, for example, I knew that if I had had to play the piano, and truly audition for NEC, I wouldn’t have been able to get in. Because I can’t play the piano for beans.
Q: And they require their conductors to all play the piano?
A: Pretty much. Yes. You have to show some proficiency—
Q: Not at Westminster!
A: Really? Oo, well I should have tried there!
A: Now when you auditioned for Westminster, what did you have to do?
Q: We had to do a theory test, and some sight-reading tests. We might have had a piano proficiency. I can’t imagine it counted for anything, I really can’t.
Q: I think the most important things would have been the interview and the audition with the Westminster Choir. That was really the –
A: That was the big deal.
Q: People would come in and they would look at how you conducted the Westminster Choir for ten minutes.
A: Oh, so you’d have to conduct. I mean, you had to have some conducting chops.
Q: Yes. Well…you had to – they had to see your rapport with the choir. They had to see that – they had to see something. Even the choir could not always tell what it was they were looking for. But it was not necessarily technical proficiency, although that was always a good thing to see.
A: Right, right. But the way you work with people. Yes. Well, I do think what Simon saw, and I asked him after I graduated, I said, “So, Simon. Why’d you take me?” And he said, “It was your eyes.” And he wasn’t being flirtatious by saying that. I think what he saw was that I was really passionate about it, and I really wanted to do it.
[to be continued!]