One of several top-flight female cellists to have emerged from Canada onto the classical music scene in recent years, Shauna Rolston is notable for her independent and adventurous spirit. She has built a substantial Canadian and international career on innovative performances of well-known cello works and premieres of unusual new pieces. Although still in her early thirties in the first years of the twenty-first century, Rolston is already considered a veteran performer. She began her professional career when she was 14 and took the stage at New York's Town Hall—a prime launching pad for international classical careers—two years later, at age 16.
Born in 1967 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Rolston was the daughter of two classical musicians. Her father, Thomas Rolston, a violinist, set up Canada's first Suzuki music instruction program. Her mother was a pianist. Both taught music at the University of Alberta. Perhaps with an eye toward an eventual family trio, or as a way to avoid imposing their own instruments on their daughter, they gave Shauna a one-eighth-size cello for her second birthday. Before long it was clear that she had the makings of a serious musician. She was enrolled for lessons with Claude Kenneson, who later wrote a book about musical child prodigies. At age five, Rolston gave a concert in London, England.
Rolston's independent outlook was partly formed during her teen years, after her parents became directors of the music program at the Banff Center for the Arts, located in the Rocky Mountains at Alberta's western edge. Instead of entering a master-apprentice relationship with a well-known cello teacher, Rolston became surrounded by musicians of various kinds and by creative figures from other fields of endeavor. "From that point until I went to Yale, I didn't actually have a formal cello teacher," Rolston told the Desert News in Salt Lake City, Utah. She did take lessons with several world-class cellists, Janos Starker and Pierre Fournier among them, although she turned down a chance to study at the Juilliard School in New York with top American cellist Leonard Rose. While other cellists her age were deep in technical drills, Rolston, at age 12, was commissioning a brand new work for cello from Canadian composer Violet Archer.
The New York Times was enthusiastic about Rolston's 1983 Town Hall debut, in which she performed Violet Archer's Improvisation for Solo Cello among other works. Rolston also made her first recording, The Romantic Cello, that year. In 1986 Rolston was designated a Young Artist to Watch by Musical America magazine—one of a series of honors that have come her way. In 1993 the national newsweekly Maclean's designated her as a Canadian Leader of the Future.
Before jumping into the international concert circuit full time, Rolston earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University, where she majored in art history. She then earned a master's degree in music at Yale, studying with cellist Aldo Parisot and serving as his teaching assistant. During that time she also served as artistic director of music at the Yale Club in New York City.
The recording that really put Rolston on the map was a 1995 CBC release on which she performed a technically difficult cello concerto by British composer Sir Edward Elgar, backed by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Classic CD magazine compared Rolston to one of the all-time great cellists, Jacqueline du Pre, and declared that Rolston had offered one of the finest performances of that work in the past two decades. By then Rolston had made appearances on four continents, performing much of the standard classical repertoire of music for cello. Many critics were awed by Rolston's technical prowess, and the Toronto Globe and Mail praised her "distinctive wiry tone," although some concurred with an Ottawa Citizen reviewer who felt that "she needed more expansive warmth in her playing."
In addition to performing her mainstream repertoire, however, Rolston became an unusually strong advocate of contemporary classical music. She commissioned new pieces from a wide variety of composers including Gavin Bryars, Luciano Berio, Mark Anthony Turnage, and other top names on the contemporary music scene. One new work in particular, Douglas Schmidt's Smokin' F Holes (the f holes are the curlicue-shaped holes in a cello that add resonance to the instrument), attracted wide attention. Written for amplified cello, accordion, piano, and drum kit, it was intended to highlight Rolston's technical abilities. A video that accompanied the piece, a novelty in the classical music world, showed her playing her cello underwater.
Rolston has pursued varied activities in her personal life, spending time on non-musical pursuits such as in-line skating and yoga. "I have a lot of friends who aren't musicians," she told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I like to immerse myself in a world that is not exclusively what I do." In 2001, however, she married another musician, French flutist and conductor Patrick Gallois. The marriage resulted in a lot of transatlantic commuting—Gallois, besides living in France, is the music director of an orchestra in Finland.
One of three successful female cellists to emerge from Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, Rolston has naturally been compared to the other two, Amanda Forsyth and Ofra Harnoy. An ongoing issue has been whether young female performers should take steps to highlight their physical attractiveness, an increasingly frequent occurrence in the formerly buttoned-down world of classical music. Unlike Forsyth, who has been photographed in sexy poses on album covers, Rolston has opted for a more conventional look. She is not untouched by the new trend, however, and sometimes appears on stage in black leather pants instead of the usual long gown.
Rolston's life was a whirlwind of musical activity in the early 2000s. Her recordings ranged from difficult contemporary material to the 2004 CD Shauna and Friends, which features arrangements of popular songs for cello ensemble. She won a Best Classical CD award at the West Coast Music Awards in 2002 for This Is the Colour of My Dreams, and in 2003 she performed a piece by Toronto composer John Oswald that called for her to play the one-eighth size cello she received when she was two years old. Between concerts, Rolston has served as professor of music and co-head of the string department at the University of Toronto.
For the Record …
Born in 1967, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; daughter of Thomas Rolston (a violinist and conductor) and Isobel Moore Rolston (a pianist); married Patrick Gallois (a flutist and conductor), 2001. Education: Yale University, B.A., art history, 1991; Yale School of Music, M.A., music, 1993.
Received first cello at age two; made New York debut and released first album, The Romantic Cello, 1983; recorded Edward Elgar's cello concerto for CBC label, 1995; commissioned numerous works beginning at age 12; professor of music and co-head of the string department, University of Toronto; co-director, summer music programs, Banff Centre for the Arts.
Awards: Musical America magazine, named Young Artist to Watch, 1986; Maclean's magazine, named Canadian Leader of the Future, 1993; West Coast Music Awards, Best Classical CD award for This Is the Colour of My Dreams, 2002.
Addresses: Office—University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1A1. Website—Shauna Rolston Official Website: http://www.shaunarolston.com.
The Romantic Cello, Sefel, 1983.
Morawetz, Bruch, Fauré, Dvorak, Bliss, CBC, 1991.
Saint-Saëns: Chamber Works, Summit, 1994.
Cello Sonatas, Summit, 1995.
Elgar and Saint-Saëns: Cello Concertos, CBC, 1995.
Intimate Baroque, Summit, 1995.
Strauss, Debussy and Barber Sonatas, CBC, 1995.
Squeezplay, Squeezplay, Inc., 1997.
Les Disques SRC Collection, CBC, 1999.
Shauna Rolston, Cello, CBC, 2001.
This Is the Colour of My Dreams, CBC, 2001.
Shauna and Friends, 2004.
Alberta Report, February 3, 1997, p. 32.
Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), January 4, 2004, p. E4.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), December 10, 1997, p. C1; June 4, 1998; February 20, 2004, p. R6.
New York Times, October 23, 1983, p.61.
Salt Lake Tribune, January 3, 2004, p. D2.
Ottawa Citizen, January 8, 1997, p. C7; January 9, 1997, p. C6; November 21, 2002, p. E7.
Toronto Star, October 16, 1985, p. F3; March 3, 1989, p. D19; March 28, 1998, p. M19; February 20, 2000.
Shauna Rolston Official Website, http://www.shaunarolston.com (July 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim