The Sultry, Enchanting and Brilliant Amanda Forsyth / by Xi Wang

The National Arts Centre Orchestra’s Reigning Queen



As quick to laugh as she is quick to judge, mostly herself, Amanda Forsyth is a dedicated musician, creative artist, stylish beauty, and engaging personality.

Born in South Africa, Forsyth came to Canada when she was very young with her father, composer Malcolm Forsyth, and her mother Lesley, a former ballet dancer. The University of Alberta, near where the family lived in Edmonton, offered a Suzuki music program in cello and so, at the tender age of three, she was enrolled to begin her musical training and take her first steps towards what has already been an impressive career.

“As a kid, music was just something to do initially but my parents saw hints of talent, even at that age, so they encouraged me in that direction. And I was a bit of a stage bunny so I loved the performing aspect. I was a typical kid so I didn’t always want to practice but luckily had enough natural talent to make it seem I had.”

As she got older, music became her outlet for expression, and her joy. “The work and discipline of music are a gift to children. Music opens their minds, their imaginations, and gives them something they have control over. When a child plays, they have control over the sound and feeling their music creates.”

Later, she was off to London to continue her music instruction. While many will recognize this as a natural progression in her education, and some might think it was exciting, for the 13-year old Forsyth, it was a challenge.

“The time I spent with my teacher was wonderful, but the times away from the music were hard. I had to carry my cello back and forth on the tube and back then it was as big as I was. My dad lived in London with me for that first year and I remember once he was supposed to meet me to help carry my cello up the hill to home but he was late so I tried to do it alone and by the time he found me I was struggling and near fainting.”

During her two and a half years in London, Forsyth studied music, continued her regular education, saw regular concerts, and met many inspiring musicians as part of her musical development.

She recalls attending one concert right after a music lesson so she was still carrying her cello. “I put the cello in the cloak room and then after the concert met the performer and I was so excited I left without it.” On the way home she realized her mistake and had to return, then find someone who could give her access to the locked theatre.

Though the instrument she played then was certainly common compared with what she plays now – a 311 year-old Carlo Guiseppe Testore – even then she was very attached to her instrument.

“When you are a musician, your instrument becomes your voice. With the cello especially, and the way it is played, its sound and feel resonate through your body and it becomes part of you. I could get very poetic about it all but there is a bond between musician and instrument. Our instruments become entities all on their own; but also part of us.”

Returning to Canada at the age of 15, Forsyth continued her training at the Vancouver Academy of Music, and then completed her education at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. At 21 she began her working career with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and then went on to become the youngest principal ever selected by the Calgary Philharmonic. In 1998 she joined Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra as principal cello and soloist. She is also a cellist with the Zukerman Chamber Players and performs around the world, both with the Chamber Players, and as a guest soloist.

To earn the role as principal artist with an orchestra, musicians go through an intensive screening process beginning with an application, and then auditions. The auditions, which can run through many, many rounds, are done from behind a screen so the judging is based solely on the sound and accuracy of the musician. Forsyth has experience on both sides of the screen – as an artist auditioning, and as judge. “It’s strange in a way because music is such an emotional thing, and with this style of audition, you never get to see how the artist feels about their work or what they are giving it.”

Initially her move to Ottawa came from wanting a change and a desire to be more central for touring. “I don’t know that I’ll ever really feel at home anywhere is home forever, but Ottawa is certainly home for now. It is a beautiful place to live with green spaces and culture. If I could be picky I’d want just a few more of the things they have in Toronto and New York in terms of fashion and food, but….”

As part of the orchestra, soloist and part of the Chamber ensemble, Forsyth says there are distinctions. As part of an orchestra, members dress all in black and very similarly in order to present one body, one unit. Though the uniformity goes against everything her personal style and flair suggest, she understands and supports the logic and tradition behind it. “As a member of an orchestra it’s not about my own musical interpretation; it’s about following the conductor’s direction to achieve their interpretation. You become part of the singular voice the group puts forward.”

As passionate as she is about her music, Forsyth finds it hard to hide her emotions. “I have a very high standard for myself, and a high standard for the music I am involved with. When things aren’t done well there is a choice, I suppose, to let it go and move forward, but for me that feels as if I have to play like I don’t care, and I do, very much, so I find it hard to be stoic in the face of things gone wrong.”

As a soloist though Forsyth finds an outlet for her artistry and creativity. “What’s so amazing about playing solo is that the music is never the same twice. Music is a living thing, constantly changing and evolving, and as a soloist you can be influenced by your emotions, by the energy from the audience, and you can let that carry the music in a new direction.”

But such energy and interpretation can be challenging and Forsyth says coming home from a tour she sometimes desperately needs a break and will insist on taking on tasks she normally doesn’t fuss with herself – like folding towels. “You flatten and fold, flatten and fold. There is a way to do it and when it’s done, it’s done and there aren’t a lot of interpretations and you don’t go back and wonder if you gave it all you had, or if it was done right. If it’s folded, it’s done, and that’s it..”

Applause for a performer is certainly part of the job and some may say the icing on the cake. For the person who is often her own harshest critic, though the applause is noted, it does not convey the meaning she seeks. “Even as a child people would tell me I had done well and I’d want to know how, what had I done well, what did they like or not like? As a musician I am always trying to improve and grow so those are the things I’m always wondering.”

Forsyth says when she sees a performer who moves her she is always inclined to tell them her reaction and why, not necessarily because it is customary in the industry, but because it reflects the kind of input she herself seeks. Forsyth says the expression “good job” is one that has always made her crazy, number one because it tells her nothing, and number two because, although she does practice and put a great deal of effort into her music, to her it is not a job. “I recognize I am very lucky to do what I love and am passionate about. There is certainly effort involved but it is not work.”

Another artistic outlet is through the Zukerman Chamber Players, which Forsyth says has been an exceptional experience. “When we play together we are all equal. There is a level of trust and faith between us and when that exists, something magical happens with the music. Someone can take a note and play it just a little bit longer, and suddenly we’re all moving with it and improvising and being spontaneous. We can play the same piece every night of a 20 stop tour and the music is not the same on any two nights.”

Though some may think a life of travel would be exciting, most often it is quite grueling, with tours lasting a week or more and stops in different countries every night of the journey, to the tune of about 40 different places a year. Forsyth though does try to take time to be a tourist and to appreciate the places she sees. “I try to research where we’re going and find out what is famous or important to see and then make time to go visit things. I feel bad if I have to leave a place and I haven’t had a chance to see what’s around me. We’ve been to some really interesting places like Istanbul, Mumbai, Seoul…. and I always have my camera along to take pictures so I won’t forget.”

In her travels, besides sightseeing, Forsyth takes the time to teach Master’s classes whenever and wherever she can. “Teaching itself is a great experience and having the ability to teach these Master’s classes in far off places means I am meeting exceptional young musicians all over the world.”

Does she get lonely on her travels? “My cello rests beside me, Yoji is under my seat, and that makes everything right.”

Yoji, a Maltese dog, is her constant companion. “Yoji has been with me for five years now and travels with me everywhere and very well.”

Her other constant companion in her travels is, of course, Carlo, her cello, named for the maker who brought the instrument to life. Being such an important part of her music, Forsyth says she constantly worries when she travels with it. “Even as a kid, we’d get to the airport and I’d throw up right away because I was so worried about my cello.” These days the worry can be even greater. “Some people don’t realize what Carlo is so it can be handled quite roughly. I am constantly watching to make sure nothing happens.”

When she is not on the road, Forsyth doesn’t spend much time far from her house, the home she shares with husband, violin virtuoso, violist and conductor, Pinchas Zukerman. Through extensive renovations, with the creative inspiration of her friend and interior decorator, Lee-Ann LaCroix, she has made their home into a retreat where she can escape the chaos and bustle of her life. “I have too much clutter in my head and too much chaos sometimes in my life so our home is very soothing, very peaceful and clutter free. We don’t have ornaments or knick knacks; it’s all very calming really.”

So, what does the artist do in her free time? Combat karate and weightlifting, of course. Forsyth says that, because as a musician she spends so much time sitting, when she has the chance to get up and move she feels she has a lot of energy to release. “I love being with my trainer and master, Mark Slater. As an artist I am very aware of my body so I can mold myself to do what I’m told. I love being able to get my heart rate up really high and then see it come down again quickly.” Former strength and conditioning coach of the Ottawa Senators, Slater is more than capable of reigning in and directing Forsyth’s energy. Protected athletically as a child for fear of injury to her hands and arms, as an adult she enjoys the freedom of being able to let loose and go a little crazy physically. She says it gives her the balance she needs.

Forsyth has had the unique experience, more than once, of playing a composition written especially for her – by her father. “Playing the work of a living composer is such a wonderful experience. When you play something that has been studied and played for many years, there are already traditions and interpretations in place. When you are performing a work that has never been done before, you are creating the artistic outcome; you are responsible for interpreting the piece and that is so much more challenging and rewarding artistically.” In 1997 Forsyth was honored with a Juno for her performance of Electra Rising, a cello concerto her father composed for her.

“Music is the most complete art form there is. Film needs music, dance needs music, but music doesn’t need anything to support it; it can create and deliver a message all on its own. Music for the listener can be an escape, a chance to relax. For the performer, it is an outlet and an expression of who and what they are at the moment.”

Though there are always going to be different levels of listening in an audience – enjoyment, learning – the goal for Forsyth is simple. “My father once said that if he could change or influence someone’s outlook or feelings, even for a minute, then he had succeeded in writing something worthwhile. The same is true for me with performing.”

Though clearly Forsyth is an incredible talent, she is humble about her success and grateful for the gift she has been given. “Without music as my yoga, my prayer, what I go to every day, I don’t know where I’d be. I know whatever else is happening, it is there waiting for me. It inspires and moves me, and hopefully that sense of being sustained and enriched carries forward to those who are listening. I believe in my talent but I never fully trust it and I certainly never take it for granted. I feel I’m always very vulnerable as an artist and a musician so I am always working and honing my craft.” And perhaps that is part of what has made her the remarkable talent she is.