When Ottawa-born pianist Christina Petrowska-Quilico was only 10 years old, she performed Joseph Haydn’s Concerto in D Major with Toronto’s Conservatory Orchestra – and amazed the audience. By the time she was a teen, the New York Times was using such descriptors for her talent and skill as Promethean, phenomenal, “dazzling virtuosity” and “playing to perfection.”
Quilico went on to become the extraordinary adult talent one imagines possible when listening to a child prodigy perform. The praise and accolades, including four JUNO nominations, have continued to flow throughout the almost six decades she’s been recording and performing a diverse repertoire of solo, orchestral and chamber music on four continents.
In 2006, the tribute to her talent went out of this world. One of her 50 albums, a recording of the piano concerto written by David Mott specifically for Quilico, debuted in outer spacewhen astronaut Steve MacLean took it with him on the space shuttle Atlantis. It became the first CD to put human music in the heavens. Quilico, who’s also a professor of piano performance and musicology at York University, walked into her class the morning the debut was reported in the news. “All the students were clapping,” she says. “I asked them what I had done. They said, ‘You didn’t see the newspaper?’ I had no idea. It was very exciting.”
The focus of her excitement now is in anticipation of her scheduled soloist performance of Claude Champagne’s piano concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and maestro Victor Feldbrill on Oct. 21 and 22, 2017, at Roy Thomson Hall. Curated by Feldbrill and called With Glowing Hearts, the program explores Canada’s rich history of classical composers.
“The concerto I’m playing was written in 1948 and it’s wonderful,” says Quilico, who’s performed more than 35 concertos. “I get to do flashy stuff, and romantic stuff, and it’s nice to be able to play music that reflects that era of Canadian music. I love all music, but I really love playing concerto. I get a real high with an orchestra.”
The concerts also bring together two of the most respected champions of Canadian contemporary composers: Feldbrill and Quilico, who has premiered more than 150 contemporary pieces, including the work of such renowned Canadian SOCAN member composers as Violet Archer and John Weinzweig. That devotion earned her the 2007 Friends of Canadian Music Award from the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) and the Canadian League of Composers. And in 2010 she received the inaugural Harry Freedman Recording Award for composers as a co-recipient with composer Constantine Caravassilis. “I’ve wanted to support Canadian music because there are so many wonderful composers who get lost by the wayside,” says Quilico, who’s been especially recognized for her virtuosity in interpreting challenging contemporary compositions.
“I’ve wanted to support Canadian music because there are so many wonderful composers.”
In turn, Canadian composers have been so taken with her interpretation of their works that many, including SOCAN members Mott, Larysa Kuzmenko, Steven Gellman and Heather Schmidt, have written music specifically for her. The late Ann Southam, known for her minimalist style, was another composer who trusted Quilico profoundly with her compositions. “I really fought to have her music in the beginning, because music has its flavour of the year and at the time, and in the 1980s the flavour wasn’t minimalist,” said Quilico. The two first collaborated in 1982 when Southam asked Petrowska Quilico to do a demo recording of Rivers. “I found it quite slow,” said Quilico. “I was seven or eight months pregnant at the time, so I figured she wouldn’t yell at a pregnant lady. I called her and said, ‘You know, I’ve changed your stuff around quite a bit.’ She said, ‘Well, let me hear it.’ She just loved it and said ‘You can do whatever you want with my music.’”
The two developed a 30-year friendship and collaboration. In 2018, Quilico will be releasing an album of Southam’s early work. “There are some really neat surprises that are going to happen on that album, and it shows the wealth of her creativity,” says Quilico – who, between teaching, performing, and recording, keeps a hectic schedule.
As of September 2017, Quilico had already performed more than half-a-dozen-times in the year, including a recital featuring the solo piano works by her late first husband, Michel-Georges Brégent, at the 50th anniversary celebration of Montréal’s Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec. She released Worlds Apart, a double-album recording celebrating Canadian composers. She’ll also give a concert of solos by women composers for Winnipeg’s Groundswell series, Global Sirens, on November 28, 2017. And she’s working with David Jaeger, who’s setting to music a selection of poems she wrote in her youth.
It turns out the child prodigy was also a talented poet, whose work was published in the New York Times. “I did speak to one of the editors, who said, ‘You have to make up your mind. I love your writing, but if you go into writing, then you can’t also be a concert pianist,’” she says.
Luckily for Canadian composers and the classical music genre, Quilico chose to be a concert pianist. “I found playing was really easy so I just went along with it,” she says. “Music is sound and emotion and there are no boundaries. It’s always changing. I like it. It gives me a sense of adventure.”