Calgary musician hopes to turn classical music world upside down with debut album

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When musician Daniel Pelton was a teenager, his aunt surprised him by giving him a solid gold coin. She told him to keep it safe, promising that it would rise in value.

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“I think it was a loonie-modeled gold coin, but it was an ounce of solid gold,” Pelton explains. “She said to me, ‘Hang on there and one day it will come in handy.’ “

Fast forward to 2020. Pelton was in pre-production for a chamber music album and had already started collecting musicians. But when COVID hit, the grant he was waiting for collapsed.

“I hired a bunch of musicians, including big names like Donovan Seidle, and then all of a sudden the grant was gone because of COVID stuff,” he says. “I was like, ‘How am I going to pay for this? Then I remembered the gold coin my aunt had given me all those years ago. It was extremely helpful, as she once said.

Pelton was unwilling to reveal the coin’s value, but said it covered at least half the costs of what he would later call the Daniel Pelton Collective’s gold coin sessions in honor of this gift and that wise “save it for – a-rainy-day” advice from her aunt, who passed away a few years ago.

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It’s an unusual origin story for a classical music album that was created in a decidedly unorthodox way. Pelton is a graduate of the University of Calgary Music Program and an accomplished saxophonist who leads the jazzy horn group Long Time No Time. But he also enjoys classical music, and some of The Gold Coin Sessions’ compositions date back to his high school days. Others were written in the past year while he was composer in residence at the Calgary Public Library.

Due to COVID restrictions in place when much of the album was produced, each part had to be recorded separately. It is not an ideal setup for any genre but seems particularly unsuitable for chamber music. This meant that the string quartet that performed the majestic Prelude and Jig had to do it individually, as did the saxophone quartet that performed Don’t Know Tango and the three singers who sang the haunting Swells. Pelton himself did not perform on the album but oversaw all of the sessions, which took place at the National Music Center and smaller studios around town, including one in Pelton’s basement. But the musicians were more or less blind, Pelton says.

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“It would have been difficult with any music, but it was music that neither of these musicians had heard before and for which they had no frame of reference,” says Pelton. “They were all weird and wacky contemporary compositions. It wasn’t like we were recording Beethoven’s string quartet so we’re going to listen to some recordings of them and we’re going to put in some songs. Here is something you have never heard. You’ll never rehearse it in a group, so you’ll never really hear how it sounds in a group. Just practice your part and introduce yourself and I’ll have to tell you if you’re doing it right or not and try to guide you. If we’re lucky, that’ll be fine, and the next person who comes in can use your leads as a reference for what they’re going to do.

Pelton recruited musicians he knew from school, others he knew from the city’s music scene, and a few of his musician roommates. He also brought in heavy hitters, such as Andrea Case, who was principal cellist of the Cambridge Philharmonic in the UK, and violinist Donovan Seidle, who is assistant principal violinist of the Calgary Philharmonic.

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“With Donovan Seidle, I was lucky that my violinist roommate was helping him with some kind of violin and he came over to the house,” says Pelton. “When Donovan Seidle comes up the stairs to our little porch, I saw him through the window. I grabbed a string quartet that I had written and ran for the door: “Donovan, I wrote this string quartet! Would you watch it? What was really good was that Donovan looked at the string quartet and said ‘Oh yeah, we can record that someday.’ It was amazing because I didn’t quite think that way yet.

All of this might sound a bit hit and miss to the usually stuffy world of classical music. But Pelton is hoping The Gold Coin Sessions will play a small role in turning the world of classical music upside down. The last track on the album features Pelton strumming an acoustic guitar and singing his thanks to the listener for coming. It then turns into a long, comedic routine about a trombone player who may or may not be in a coma.

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Pelton says he would like to bring to classical music the same energy, irreverence, and the same artist-audience relationship that he enjoys playing with Long Time No Time. He said he had always loved classical music but often felt alienated from this world because there seemed to be an expectation that the audience’s reaction to performances would be static and polite.

“We think that way because that’s how we’ve behaved all this time,” he says. “I think that’s part of what really hurt the appeal of classical music, especially to young people. I think (we should) create a space where you can react as you feel. If the music makes you want to move, then move on. If you feel like you need to scream, then scream. If you need to jump, jump. It wasn’t that long ago, in the 1800s, when (Franz) Liszt was around, if you read the accounts of his concerts, women would throw their underwear on stage, people would hoot and scream. It was a great event. “

Some tracks from the Daniel Pelton Collective Gold Coin Sessions are available on Spotify. The full album will be released on January 21.

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