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Robert Turner: Biography

Robert Turner
1920 - 2012
Region: Prairie

Robert Turner

In a birthday blast for Chopin's and Schumann's 200th and Robert Turner's 90th birthdays, Music Director Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened this season with Turner's OPENING NIGHT (A Theatre Overture). Kevin Bazzana program notes describe this work as "melodious and evocative, eclectic but accessible;" L.H. Tiffany Hsieh in La Scene Musicale heard "a sunny outburst of energy and festivity;" and John Teraud's Toronto Star review recalls "this rhythmically lively piece is a sparkling sackful of sequined syncopations. It put a smile on the evening that would last all the way through to Mahler's reorchestration of Schumann's Symphony No. 2."

In cooperation with the Prairie Region Canadian Music Centre, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Music Director, Alexander Mickelthwate appropriately chose for performance October 29th and 30th, SHADES OF AUTUMN. This 1987 work was written while Turner was in residence at the famed MacDowell Artist's Colony in New Hampshire.

Robert Turner's exhilarating and profound music stems, in part, from his minute analysis of the music of fellow international composers. In Europe and the U.S., through study, travel and personal discourse, he has shared ideas and learned from Messiaen, Britten, Berio, Andriessen, Stockhausen, Copland, William Schuman, Elliot Carter and Roy Harris as well as the many conductors and performers who have played his music. "He delighted in yearly travels,... especially sojourns in the southern climates of Italy and Spain, where we attended countless live concerts, visited museums and art galleries, explored the old homes of writers, painters and composers, and haunted the stacks of bookstores and libraries. His musical allusions and painstaking selections of the texts for vocal works reveal Turner's sophisticated affection for humour and illusiveness derived from these vital events, peoples and places he experienced as much as from the arcane cultural sources and influences he discovered in books and other composers' scores." (son, Dr. Alden Turner)

In the 1960's - 1970's Toronto Symphony Orchestra audiences heard several performances of OPENING NIGHT, the CONCERTO FOR TWO PIANOS, and three different conductor's interpretations of the 12-tonal work, THREE EPISODES. Zara Nelsova, cello and Grant Johanneson, piano toured major cities from Vancouver to Montreal with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra premiering CAPRICCIO CONCERTANTE. During the 1980's and 1990's Rivka Golani premiered the CONCERTO FOR VIOLA with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; the National Arts Centre Orchestra with Rivka Golani premiered A GROUP OF SEVEN which was subsequently performed by orchestras in Vancouver, Edmonton and Hamilton; Kazuhiro Koizumi conducted the profoundly moving SYMPHONY IN ONE MOVEMENT "Gift from the Sea" and Uri Mayer with the Edmonton Symphony performed SHADES OF AUTUMN. THIRD SYMPHONY, premiered by Bramwell Tovey and the Winnipeg Symphony, received several nominations and awards (Juno and WCMA). In 2003 and 2006, THE HOUSE OF SHADOWS, an 8-minute section of an unperformed opera, was heard by symphony audiences in Vancouver (Bramwell Tovey) and Winnipeg (Andrey Boreyko).

Robert Turner's "undoctrinaire openness of response seems to be the key to his work", wrote Peter Garvie (former CBC colleague) in 1969. "His music is not written to illustrate a thesis. He simply brings his resources as a composer to the problem set by a particular piece, and the problems are human as well as technical. This means that he has been able to compose attractive and popular pieces like the overture OPENING NIGHT or the concertino for jazz ensemble, ROBBINS' ROUND, as naturally as his SYMPHONY FOR STRINGS or his thoughtful chamber works. He has not had to write below his style for one or screw it up to rhetoric for the other...Robert Turner's output is thoughtful and distinguished. His music has no dogmatic allegiance (he uses serial technique freely when it suits him), but nourishes its roots in human experience and its power to communicate directly. It can be gay without being slick, and deeply felt without losing balance and clarity. These are considerable gifts."

In 2006, composer Sid Robinovitch wrote, "One of the features of Dr. Turner's music that is most apparent to me is its distinctively North American quality. I believe that his music has achieved what is characteristic of the great composers of this continent such as Copland, Harris, and Ives: it has absorbed the concrete realities of the world around us and, through wide-ranging artistic reflection, presents a mature vision of what we are all about."

Robert Turner was born in Montreal on June 6, 1920, the son of William Turner, an immigrant from Kirkaldy, Scotland, who eventually became Manager of the Royal Bank of Canada branches in Notre Dame de Grace and Montreal West, and Myrtle (Snowdon) Turner, whose family were prominent British Loyalists who settled in Quebec in the 1830s. Robert studied piano from an early age, owing in part to his father's musical interests in traditional Scottish folk music as well as Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; also, both his grandmothers were proficient amateur pianists. He developed an interest in composition during these lessons, and his first pieces were written without any formal instruction. During high school, Robert’s advanced piano studies with Frank Hanson and Walter Hungerford at the McGill Conservatory of Music led him to study composition and orchestration with Irvin Cooper, who encouraged him to attend McGill University, despite the increasing reservations and declining support of his parents. In his youth Robert enjoyed playing hockey and skiing as well as tennis, canoeing and swimming at his parents' summer home at Morin Heights in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec.

As a scholarship student at McGill, Robert Turner studied music theory and composition with Claude Champagne and Douglas Clarke; he received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1943. Following two years of military service in the cryptology division of the RCAF during World War II, he resumed composition studies with Douglas Clarke. In the summer of 1947, he attended Colorado College to work with Roy Harris; here, he met Sara Scott, a composition major from the University of Louisville studying with Harris. Sara was also specializing in tympani and mallet instruments at university, and playing in the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. During 1947-48 Robert studied composition with Herbert Howells and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music in London. In 1949 Robert and Sara married and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he majored in composition with Roy Harris at Vanderbilt University's George Peabody College, graduating with a Master of Music degree in 1950. Although Robert Turner had completed numerous compositions during these years, the earliest he acknowledges is his String Quartet No. 1, written in the summer of 1949, and premiered under the aegis of Aaron Copland, at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. This first major composition was acclaimed by both Copland and Leonard Bernstein. At Tanglewood, he was studying composition with Olivier Messiaen, and Sara was studying tympani and playing in the orchestra conducted by Bernstein.

In 1952 Robert Turner joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as Music Producer in Vancouver. He also completed the requirements for the Doctorate of Music from McGill University, and received this degree in 1953. From 1952 to 1968 Dr. Turner established a most distinguished reputation among his associates as a music producer and composer throughout Canada. During these years, he was responsible for major CBC programs involving the performance of high quality 'live' music, both classical and contemporary, introducing audiences to a very diverse range of unfamiliar and innovative compositions, written or performed by the finest national and international musicians. In addition to producing weekly programs for the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Avison, Turner supervised chamber music recitals, opera and oratorio productions, and symphony broadcasts for the CBC national network, including performances of works such as Copland's The Tender Land, Frank Martin's Golgotha, Barbara Pentland's The Lake, Douglas Moore’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, and piano works by Arnold Schoenberg played by the renowned Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. Turner's first major commission was received from the Vancouver Symphony, and resulted in his writing what has become a classic among Canadian compositions, Opening Night: A Theatre Overture (1955), premiered by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Irwin Hoffman in 1955. Other early pieces subsequently appearing year after year on symphony and radio programs are Nocturne (1956/65), A Children's Overture (1958), Symphony for Strings (1960), and Three Episodes (1963).

In 1968, after having spent a year in Italy composing his first opera, The Brideship, Dr. Turner decided to devote more time to composition, and accepted a professorship at the University of Manitoba’s School of Music. He found his work with student composers to be most gratifying. Many of his former students continued studies at graduate schools in Canada and the United States, and/or established reputations as composers in their own right: Peter Allen, Glenn Buhr, Bruce Carlson, T. Pat Carrabre, John Greer, Holly Harris, Rupert Lang, Diana McIntosh, Ron Paley, Robert Rogers, Linda Schwartz, David Scott, and John Winiarz. Turner’s appointment also afforded him opportunities to pursue his wide-ranging intellectual interests in Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, European history, the history of literature in English, modern fiction and poetry, and contemporary theories as well as practices of art and aesthetics. During these years Robert and Sara enjoyed extensive travels and sojourns throughout Europe and North America, and the company of their three children -- Alden, Martin and Carolyn -- all of whom have chosen careers in the arts.

In 1985 Robert Turner retired from teaching, and he is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Manitoba. His second opera, House of Shadows, was completed in 1986, and many of his most significant orchestral works were written in the years following this retirement: Shades of Autumn (1987), Third Symphony (1990), Manitoba Memoir (1991), House of Shadows (1994), and River of Time (1994). During the 1990 season, in celebration of Turner's 70th birthday, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performed five of his major orchestral works under the direction of Bramwell Tovey.

Robert Turner has composed over 70 compositions in all forms from symphonic and chamber works to operatic, vocal and ensemble pieces, including three symphonies, four concertos, three string quartets and two operas. He has fulfilled a great number of commissions from prominent national and international organizations and soloists, most notably the Canada Council, the Manitoba Arts Council, and C.B.C. Radio. His orchestral works have been successfully performed under many distinguished conductors: Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Karel Ancerl, Gary Bertini, Sergiu Commissiona, Franz-Paul Decker, Charles Dutoit, Agnes Grossmann, Derrick Inouye, Sir Ernest McMillan, Seiji Ozawa, Simon Streatfeild, and Bramwell Tovey.

In recognition of his distinguished, creative, and innovative contributions to Canadian music and culture, Robert Turner received the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada (1993), the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2003) and was appointed to the Order of Canada (2003).

2010 Alden Turner, Ph.D

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