Home is where the heart is
Jon Suters, Dinuk Wijeratne, and Nick Halley. Photo by Jennifer Almquist

Home is where the heart is

Every seat in the Great Hall of the Norfolk Library was full. The audience ranged from toddlers held in their parents’ arms to gray-haired couples eagerly waiting to experience the music of the Dinuk Wijeratne Trio. Percussionist Nick Halley, bassist Jon Suters and Dinuk Wijeratne on piano, spent the next hour dazzling the grateful crowd with original compositions, superb musicianship and stories that wove a theme of “home” throughout the evening. 

To award-winning composer, conductor and pianist Wijeratne — who was born in Sri Lanka, raised in Dubai, educated in the UK and  at Juilliard, and now lives in Ottawa — home is many places: “Dubai was a melting pot of South Asian and Middle Eastern culture. Simultaneously I was being trained as a Western musician. I heard Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 randomly when I was 12, and then I was hooked. It was my first spiritual experience.”

Wijeratne began the performance by saying: “Home is an ephemeral window in time, and perhaps the bittersweet quality of home is when we suspect that window in time has passed. I wrote this piece, “Homecoming,” in 2015 as a commission for piano and oud for the opening of the Museum of Immigration in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was also the year I gained my Canadian citizenship.”

Recalling the origins of his composition “Damascene,” which was performed by the trio in the library Nov. 13, Wijeratne smiled: “I had traveled with the great Syrian clarinetist, Kinan Azme. We spent a few magical days in his home city of Damascus. It was a very precious time; it seemed like time had stopped. We have all had that feeling when you are perfectly at home in a new, strange place. Is home a state of mind? Is it the people we love? Or is it purely geography?”

A world-renowned musician, Wijeratne made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2004 playing with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. He has been described by The New York Times as “exuberantly creative”; the Toronto Star called him “an artist who reflects a positive vision of our cultural future”; and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra referred to him as “a modern polymath.” 

Wijeratne has conducted the Calgary Philharmonic and the Qatar Philharmonic in Doha. His work “Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems” won both the 2016 Canadian Juno award for Classical Composition of the Year and the 2016 East Coast Music Award for Classical Composition of the Year.

For percussionist Halley, the performance was a return home. When Norfolk Library director Ann Havemeyer introduced the threesome, she noted that the first time she heard Halley perform in the library, he was 10, singing Beatles songs with Chorus Angelicus, a children’s choir started in 1991 by his Grammy-award winning father, Paul Halley. 

Halley smiled and said: “It is meaningful to be back in Norfolk, and to feel the warm embrace of this special community. It is heartening to see so many familiar, gorgeous faces, everyone aging so gracefully. And the fact that they took the time to come and hear us, to support the amazing work that Eileen [Fitzgibbons] and Ann [Havemeyer]and the others at the library are doing makes this sort of homecoming that much more encouraging.” 

Fitzgibbons is the events coordinator and children’s librarian for the Norfolk Library, all of whose music and arts programs are funded by The Norfolk Library Associates, which started in 1974.

Halley and his young family now live in Halifax, Nova Scotia: “By the time I got to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2008, Dinuk was already ‘Halifamous’ and well on his way nationwide. So I heard a lot about him long before he showed up to a gig of mine. Of course, I was terrified of him at first, but soon discovered what a gentle, magnificent soul he is. Playing-wise, it was love at first sight: of course, being so rhythmically compelling along with everything else, his music is any drummer’s dream, but I think he even liked me right off the bat, too.”

In 2010 the young Halley founded Capella Regalis, a Canadian charity dedicated to training singers, which includes a boys choir, a girls choir, and a professional men’s choir, offering a free music education and performance program for children and young adults in Nova Scotia. In 2012, Halley was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of his contribution to Canada and Nova Scotia through the arts. For the 2013-14 season, Halley was the host of CBC’s national radio program, “Choral Concert.”

When asked about his dreams, Halley mused: “In one sense, I’m living my dream with Capella Regalis. I just want to keep building it. We’ve started an endowment, for instance. I would like to take them to England. Bring some coals to Newcastle and such. There is so much music I love within that genre; we will never get through it in my lifetime. I want future generations of kids to continue encountering that world of beauty.” 

Suters is as tall as his standing bass. He lives in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, with wife Samantha Halley (Nick Halley’s sister) and their children: “Each of my five children has been encouraged to play music and all of them have some facility with at least a couple of different instruments as well as vocalizing. We have homeschooled them all and music is a big part of our approach.”  

Suters plays piano, guitar, string bass, cello, didgeridoo, banjo, mandolin, lute, violin, trombone, saxophone, drum set and percussion, and steel drums. 

Suters has taught at Berkshire Country Day School, Indian Mountain School, Salisbury School, and Simon’s Rock of Bard College: “Teaching has enabled me to constantly go back to the fundamentals of music making and demonstrate and talk about them with students. I teach bass guitar, drums/percussion, keyboards, fiddle, brass instruments, and this has helped me to understand the relationships between the different instruments in an ensemble.”

When asked about his musical influences, Suters replied: “I am also a classical guitarist and grew up listening to my virtuoso piano prodigy brother play all the greats, so basically everyone from Bach to Scott Joplin, plus the usual rock influences: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, classic jazz greats like Miles and Coltrane and more modern ones like Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock. Brazilian composers and musicians like Villa Lobos, Garoto, Paulo Bellinati, African artists such as Youssou N’dour, Ali Farka Toure, and Indian musicians such as L Shankar, Talvin Singh, and Shakti.” 

Suters has appeared on stage with James Taylor, Taj Mahal, Doctor John, Rickie Lee Jones, Martin Sexton, Madeleine Peyroux, Eugene Friesen, Paul Halley, Ed Mann (Frank Zappa) and Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers. 

One evocative composition, “Chloe” by Wijeratne, is based on Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities.” The composer illuminated the ideas behind the music: “Chloe reads like some bustling street scene, full of shady characters. There are twins wearing coral jewelry, a blind man with a cheetah on a leash — all very odd scenes. They don’t speak. When I read that the city of Chloe ‘has a voluptuous vibration to it,’ I knew I had to write this piece. Calvino wrote, “‘f everyone acted on their impulses, the carousel that is Chloe would come to a stop.’”

In each piece, the music flowed into the room like ocean waves, rhythmic and soothing, Wijeratne played piano with crystalline precision and emotion, the bass of Suters poured through the notes like honey. Halley’s wild percussions, played mostly with his fingers on drum kit, frame drums bendhir and riq specifically — “and the odd bells and whistles, doctoring up the kit with old shirts and weird stuff like that,” laughed Halley — provided the structure beneath the music. Playing together, the three musicians created an instinctual harmony in a language unspoken.

Composer and philosopher Wijeratne explained the spiritual origin of each of his compositions. “Lebanese/American Poet Kahlil Gibran, in a poem called ‘Upon Houses’ from his book ‘The Prophet’ describes the home not as an anchor, but as the mast of a ship. At first the home is a place for consolation, safety and comfort. Thereafter, home becomes the beginning of a journey of curious exploration. I find that to be a beautiful sentiment, so I wrote this piece I call, ‘Whose Windows are Songs and Silences.’”

The trio’s final piece ended with an immediate standing ovation. Half-asleep children and their parents and grandparents were clapping; the players held hands and bowed deeply. Fitzgibbons, who organized the event, felt the concert “was an exciting evening full of complex chords and improvisations... wrapped around with old friends and new.” 

The combination of global musical traditions, jazz improvisation, poetry and literary influences, musicians at the top of their game, and the warm “welcome home” from the Norfolk community created an evening no one will easily forget. 

Wijeratne played the keys at Norfolk Library. Photo by Jennifer Almquist

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