He would say it was the moment he heard John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme played live by his soon-to-be junior high school band. He was mesmerized. This exposure catapulted him to become a Black Canadian conductor and proud LGTBQ2s+ community member and musical advocate. And not with just any musical genre, but with orchestral and classical music.
“I'd heard it before, of course, and had obviously seen the movie. But it was the live instruments playing,” recalls the CBC Centre Stage host. “I just remember seeing and feeling that and knowing. The feeling was I have to be part of that,” he says. Imagine the barrelling crescendos and excitement of the classic movie theme moving you in spirit. Its intensity propelled Bartholomew-Poyser to choose music as a school option. And he also went on to create a project on orchestral conducting and the composer Berlioz. After that, he was bitten by the classical bug and never turned back.
At the tender age of 13, Bartholomew-Poyser understood music’s healing through heartache. The death of a beloved aunt who served as a pillar and matriarchal figure alongside his mom left him shattered. This brought Bartholomew-Poyser to ask his band teacher for music that would help with his healing process. He found solace in Mozart’s A Requiem. It also stands as his favourite piece to this day. Even though he wasn’t truly immersed in all of music’s capabilities, he knew there was an aura of something special. “It's something that psychologists called affective attunement where the music that you're listening to mirrors your emotional state and thus makes you feel less alone.” He shares, “And this happens for every shade of mood we have and every shade of music to match that mood. So I didn't overtly know that music had that power, but I had tapped into it at a very early age and was able to allow music to help me heal from that very early loss.”
Fast forward to the present day, and Bartholomew-Poyser has an incredible and distinguished resume. He went on to earn his Bachelors in Music Performance and Education from the University of Calgary, where he also earned a Diploma in Advanced Wind Band Conducting. He also holds a Master of Philosophy in Performance from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. His accomplishments are plenty. From debuting in the 2020 season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Regina Symphony Orchestra to being the Cover Conductor with the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Centre in the 2019/20 season. Another notable mention is the 2019 full-length documentary Disruptor Conductor by CBC. Its focus was on Bartholomew-Poyser’s endeavours to bring orchestral music to those without access. It was informative and created with flare. On the whole, Bartholomew-Poyser is focused and passionate about his work, has a commanding presence and carries an element of joy and fun throughout his pursuits.
Presently, he sits as the Barrett Principal Education Conductor & Community Ambassador at the TSO and enjoys every minute. As the Community Ambassador, Bartholomew-Poyser leads community outreach via speeches, workshops and community building. On the other end, as the Principal Education Conductor and alongside his TSO team, they brainstorm and plan educational experiences for young people in the orchestra context. In addition to all of that, he conducts the orchestra and is well-respected across North America. So, needless to say, he has his hands full.
When we discussed classical music, I mentioned that some have difficulty seeing beyond Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. However, I’ve learned about Black composers and that there’s so much more to orchestral music. The TSO has been consistently conducting various concerts showcasing just that. From 80s pop music to blockbuster film soundtracks, there’s a little of everything for everyone. “We have tons of different styles of music that we're playing, so people can really find the style of music they like. Next year, for example, for a school program, we're doing a reggae roots orchestra. It's a concept that's all about reggae. With myself and Jah'Mila, who's a Halifax reggae artist from Jamaica who toured with The Roots. That’s orchestra.” A smorgasbord of sonic goodness. And let’s not forget, the TSO caters to the littles too.
In April, I had the pleasure of bringing my four-year-old son to the first installment of the Young People’s Concert series. The reading of the iconic children’s book Peter and The Wolf and the world premiere of Kiwis Can’t Play the Violin, coupled with the mimicking sounds of the orchestra, made for a fun and interactive performance. My son was captivated by the sounds and tuned into “the big cello.” It was his first orchestral experience. The tapping of his little fingers and his wonderment were beautiful to see. It was also enough for us to want to attend the next show in the series, mad.sad.glad this month, led by Bartholomew-Poyser. “It's going to be fun. That's part of the goal of this series is for kids to come…we have relaxed performances, but also, we're just kind of relaxed in the actual concert too. I'm telling stories, maybe even trying to tell some jokes. Who knows, I may or may not be fine. I'll do my best (laughs). But that's kinda the gist. The goal is that the concert will take you through anger, sadness, and gladness, all in one show.” It is a fantastic experience for the kids, but it’s also a perfect concert experience for the neurodiverse community.
Digital concerts, educational videos, music classes, open rehearsals—there’s so much to find on the TSO website. Beyond that, Bartholomew-Poyser is happy to see progress in the orchestral world with an increase in Black conductors and the inclusion of Black composers. However, he knows that there’s so much more work to do. “We still have a ways to go. But all in all, I would say that there's a general awareness over the entire industry of the need to continue encouraging people and including different types of music—because it's fun!”
You can catch the TSO’s Young People’s Concert series performance of mad.sad.glad at Roy Thompson Hall on May 15, 2022.