The Blue Engine String Quartet was formed in 1997 as the core ensemble of the Nova Scotia chamber music series, Blue Engine Music, a registered not-for-profit society. The quartet players are also members of Symphony Nova Scotia. From classical roots, the Quartet has expanded its horizons to perform innovative works that draw a wide-ranging audience to some of the East Coast’s most interesting chamber music programs. The Quartet and its guest artists has delighted Halifax with the music of such diverse musical minds as Shostakovich, Brahms, Copland, Steve Tittle, Arvo Pärt, Kurt Weill, Queen, The Turtles, Elvis Costello, Steve Reich, R. Murray Schafer, Christos Hatzis, P.D.Q. Bach, and Leonard Cohen. Guest artists have included percussionist D’Arcy P. Gray, violinist/singer Chris Church, internationally acclaimed vocalist Jeri Brown, concert pianists Peter Allen and Walter Delahunt-Haley, the Saint John String Quartet, actor/writer Peter Duschenes, and singer/actor Cliff LeJeune. In their 1998/99 season, the Quartet performed a highly successful concert of string quartets by women composers (Fanny Mendelssohn, Elizabeth Raum, and Lucie Vellère, among others) in recognition of International Women’s Day. They have also honored composers from the Holocaust in a moving concert entitled “Thwarted Voices” at Halifax’s Pier 21.
Consistently recognized both as musical innovators and as impeccable musicians, the Quartet has been awarded artistic grants from both the Canada Council for the Arts and the Nova Scotia Arts Council. The Blue Engine String Quartet is frequently broadcast on CBC Radio and has also been featured on CBC Television. Some broadcasts include Mendelssohn’s Octet with the Saint John String Quartet of New Brunswick, with whom they toured the Maritimes in 2000. This concert programme was recorded for CBC Radio’s “All the Best.” In August of the same year, they played with clarinetist Margaret Isaacs and soprano Sung Ha Shin-Bouey at the Indian River Music Festival on PEI, also recorded by CBC Radio. They were also featured in a BBC Television documentary about the music of renowned actor and musician, Dudley Moore.
Equally at home on stage at the East Coast Music Awards (where they performed at the PEI event), the Quartet with guest artists Cliff LeJeune and Christopher Palmer created a popular concert of the music of Leonard Cohen at the Indian River Festival. They’ve also performed Christos Hatzis’s “Nunavut” at the Scotia Festival of Music’s 1998 season and recorded this work in for CBC Radio.
The Blue Engine String Quartet has been the resident string quartet at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts in Halifax as well as at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. They are Artists in Residence for the 2003-04 St. Cecilia Concert Series, performing and talking about their music-making with Halifax audiences.
Highlights of the 2002-03 season include a performance of The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello with Cliff LeJeune on the St. Cecilia Series, and performances and recordings at the University of New Brunswick’s concert series with pianist Peter Allen. The Quartet appeared as soloists on International Women’s Day (IWD) in a sold-out celebration of Nova Scotia women artists hosted by the Aeolian Singers at Pier 21 in the presence of the Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, and the Right Honourable Chief Justice Beverly McLachlan, and included on the choir’s CD, A Woman’s Voice. On IWD 2002, they performed for Her Honour, Lieutenant Governor Myra Freeman, at Government House in Halifax, for a gala celebration of the 25thanniversary of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
During 2003-04, The Blue Engine String Quartet were featured soloists on the Mahone Bay Concert Series, and have just finished recording their Leonard Cohen show with Cliff LeJeune, for release next year. This show was presented to great acclaim in Ottawa on the National Arts Centre’s “Atlantic Scene Festival” this past May. In addition, the Quartet has recently completed a Christmas television special for Vision TV, produced by New Scotland Pictures Inc. and titled Quartet Plus Four For Christmas (with guest singers Jeri Brown, Lina Boudreau, Cindy Church and Mary Jane Lamond).
The Quartet performed the historic “Lost Composers” concert in November 2003 (“Kristallnacht”) at Pier 21 in Halifax, again featuring composers whose music was suppressed during the Nazi regime, where premiered performances of Paul Kletzki’s String Quartet in a minor, Opus 1 and Reinhard Oppel’s String Quartet #2 in D Minor in the presence of the composer’s son. This performance was broadcast by CBC Radio.
“… a deep commitment to their music” (The Coast)
If It Be Your Will: Songs of Leonard Cohen (Independent)
Blue Engine String Quartet, Paul Simons piano, Cliff LeJeune vocals
Response from Leonard Cohen to If It Be Your Will . . .
“To Cliff Le Jeune, Paul Simons and and the Blue Engine String Quartet:
Thank you for this sublime gift.
Stephen Pedersen, Arts Reporter, The Halifax Herald Limited
If ever anyone other than Leonard Cohen was meant to sing his songs, it has to be Cliff LeJeune. He’s lived with them for 15 years, and by now, listening to him sing them on If It Be Your Will, it is apparent that they have settled in to his artistic psyche where they have matured and undergone acute distillation.
LeJeune will not describe himself as a singer. He’s an actor who sings, he insists, and that, to judge by this fine collection of 15 Cohen songs recorded with Blue Engine String Quartet and pianist Paul Simons, gives us Cohen’s words with an actor’s crystalline diction and an interpretative emphasis that makes them all the more moving.
Cohen’s own recorded interpretations are flat, monotonous even, gaining their extraordinary power from the sheer brilliance of the poetry, of Cohen’s compassion and of his instinct for telling phrases and striking images – like that of Joan of Arc entering the fire that consumes her like a lover. LeJeune’s interpretations are anything but flat. He commits himself to a fiercely projected melancholy. He captures attention.
The arrangements, written by Symphony Nova Scotia bassoonist Chris Palmer are careful not to get in the way of either Cohen or LeJeune. They are transparent, and the playing, by Blue Engine and Simons is exquisitely expressive. They respond with the artist’s instinct for seizing the moment, letting it all hang out for a note or two or a telling a phrase, then seamlessly settling into the background.
The 15 songs include “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Suzanne”, “The Law”, “Song of Bernadette”, “Story of Isaac”, “Paper Thin Hotel”, “Everybody Knows”, “Tower of Song” and the title track, last of the set, “If It Be Your Will”.
It’s a disc to sit down with when the house is quiet and the images can play like flame in the fireplace.
LeJeune brings Cohen out of Blue Engine
Stephen Pedersen, Arts Reporter, The Halifax Herald Limited
If anyone could be said to “own” the Leonard Cohen Songbook, it would have to be Halifax actor-singer Cliff LeJeune. He’s been singing those oddly electrifying songs on stages across the country for 15 years.
And now, although he says the thought of having a CD out there terrifies him, he has recorded 15 of them with the Blue Engine String Quartet (violinists Jennifer Jones and Anne Simons, violist Margot Aldrich, cellist Hilary Brown) and pianist Paul Simons. The CD, produced by CAC Maritimes, is called If It Be Your Will.
“I’ve been a bit of a basket case the last few days,” LeJeune said over coffee. “I think I’m more nervous about Friday night than at any time in the process. It’s the whole idea of having recorded them and put them down.”
LeJeune is an intense performer. Over the 15 years since he and director Bryden MacDonald put the first of three Cohen/LeJeune collaborations together for the Stephenville Festival, he has seen the songs grow from being merely relevant to being strangely definitive.
“What struck me from the beginning,” he said, “was the way people have responded. It’s always been so huge and so generous, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s done in costume (as in Sincerely) or in T-shirt and jeans (as in the Avalanche version he did for late night cabaret at the Festival Antigonish).”
It was the images in the poetry that first caught LeJeune’s attention, images like Joan of Arc going to the stake as though the fire was her lover (“Joan of Arc”).
“I see images of my life in the songs. Otherwise I wouldn’t be singing them. I like to sing with my mind going through those images – for me the images are like a loaded gun. Then I discovered that Cohen’s melodies are (also) incredible.”
“I’ve worked in musical theatre where opera singers coach the cast and when I complained that I could’t understand what they were saying, they said the words weren’t important. But for me the way I build a song has as much to do with the lyrics as with the melody. With Cohen it feels like a hand in a glove.”
People have walked out of the Cohen shows, especially Sincerely a Friend, because they found the lyrics too racy in a song like “Paper Thin Hotel”, where the poet speaks of hearing his lover making love to another man in the next room and discovers that he is not jealous, despite the pain.
But what attracts LeJeune is what he calls “the combination of human aspects of life dispersed among religious references as in “Paper Thin Hotel” and “Joan of Arc” or “Song of Bernadette.”
LeJeune’s collaboration with Blue Engine String quartet began when they suggested a concert in 2000. The quartet, all of whom play in Symphony Nova Scotia, wanted their SNS colleague Chris Palmer, who plays second bassoon, to arrange the songs. Money from the old Nova Scotia Arts Council was obtained for the arrangements, so Palmer and LeJeune set to work.
“I don’t think the quartet was expecting the overwhelming response we got. But it’s been that way everywhere, even in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre (as part of 2003’s Atlantic Scene),” LeJeune said.
LeJeune moved to Toronto in 2000 in order to find work. But it has been a hand-to-mouth existence. He’s recently done Pelagie, and Tomfoolery and Beauty And The Beast, and in April/May he has work in Sudbury.
It has been thin pickings, Le Jeune says. “I’m almost living on the street–no fixed address. I have no idea what I will be doing in the fall.”
But this Friday, he knows what he will be doing. And despite his nervousness at the concept of a CD, he’s also really excited. “I never, not in all my 48 years, thought that I would make a recording,” he said.
“I received this CD on Saturday. It is sublime. There is an interpretive drama that this CD’s musicians and the phenomenal singer does to Cohen’s music and words that puts it at the top of my ‘covers’ list. Those involved in the making of this CD and Leonard himself should be very proud of the result. You should get this CD!”
Anonymous, Alaska, USA