LIZ UPCHURCH memories of Martin Isepp

LIZ UPCHURCH memories of Martin Isepp


b. 1931, d. Christmas morning 2011.

As a musician I have been blessed in my life with incredible teachers who have inspired and guided me. However, the most extraordinary mentor I’ve had in my life was Martin Isepp. 

As a young pianist in the 80’s studying at the Royal Academy of Music my aspirations were in solo and chamber music. I was also hugely drawn to the vocal repertoire, but not to opera. My penchant for playing for singers meant that there wasn’t really a suitable course for me to officially train in that area, certainly not if I wanted to play solo piano. “Are you a real pianist? Or do you want to accompany singers and become a....(gasp) repetiteur?” Yes, the word repetiteur sent me running in the other direction. So, I continued working on my double major of solo and chamber music, squeezing in vocal repertoire wherever possible. In those days you were a pianist or an accompanist. The term Collaborative Pianist hadn’t been born yet in the United States. 

I met Martin in 1992 at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. I spent a glorious 6 weeks studying Schubert and Wolf. In those days you simply had to pay for your flight. What luxury for a poor student! What a gift. Martin’s manner was gentle, yet firm; he always had a twinkle in his eye...particularly when things got a little too nerve-wracking. He had a magic key that seemed to solve all mysteries concerning this repertoire. I was truly in awe of his knowledge. By simply being in the room he made you want to be the best musician and interpreter you could be at any given moment. Nervous singers were instantly calmed by him. His words of praise were like no other. 

During this time he asked me if I wanted to join him in Italy working on an opera, Cosi fan tutte. “An opera??”, I thought. “Could he be serious? Can you really be a discerning pianist and play opera?” For me, opera had been a word associated with elitism and many other misinformed stereotypes. What was the worst thing that could happen if I went? Too much pasta? Too much red wine? Too much opera?? Oh! And that awful thing called recitative!! Little did I know that I had struck gold. Who else could have opened the doors to Mozart opera so magically, so enticingly, so easily as the veritable Martin Isepp? The operatic conversion was complete. The rest, as they say, is history, as my career is now virtually all-consumed by this glorious art form. I am most happy to blame this dear man for it.

 I worked extensively with Martin on Lieder repertoire and opera over the last 2 decades. At each opportunity to work together, I understood more and more how privileged I was to hear his guidance through repertoire that he adored. Guidance that he was born to communicate to us all on behalf of Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, Wolf and of course, his beloved Mozart.

He joined the musical team at Glyndebourne in 1957, where he remained as part of the very foundation of its music-making for decades. In his career he was as much recitalist as vocal coach and conductor; he spent a good deal of his life teaching all over the world. 

He was a tremendous role model to me as a young pianist, and to so many before and after me. There are few people in this profession that I have met who haven’t been under his wing at some point. As head of the Ensemble Studio at the Canadian Opera Company, I was able to bring Martin out for several projects over the years, each with their own fond memories. 

He claimed that the travelling was starting to wear him out. However , I knew I could entice him to make the journey once more if it was going to be Mozart, definitely for da Ponte and absolutely for Cosi. Of course he came. Yet again it was a remarkable voyage for all concerned. I asked him how many productions he had worked on with this opera and he said it was around 267! Astounding! Yet he was the one still pouring over the score in the breaks, no doubt discovering some little nugget to share with us all. It was where my operatic journey with Martin began and also where it ended. 

Making music with him was an utter delight and privilege. His kindness and ardent love of music will be missed by so many. How blessed we were to have you in our lives, dear Martin. Can we ever thank you for what you have graciously given so many of us? Your words will stay with me forever. 

The Obituary of Martin Isepp can be found here.

This tribute by Liz Upchurch, pictured left, is the head coach/pianist at the Canadian Opera Company

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