Winston Purdy (1941 – 2017): Long-time “voice of McGill” silenced

Posted on Tuesday, November 21, 2017

As the “Voice of Convocation,” Winston Purdy performed in front everyone from Bill Clinton and Leonard Cohen, to Brian Mulroney and Nana Mouskouri. / Photo: Owen Egan

Winston Purdy, a professor of Voice at the Schulich School of Music since 1973, passed away on Nov. 14. He was 76.

On top of his distinguished career as a vocal soloist and pedagogue, Purdy was well known and respected throughout the McGill community for his role in singing the University Anthem, Hail, Alma Mater, at the beginning of almost every Convocation ceremony since 1999. “My 15 minutes of fame,” he joked to the Reporter in 2011.

“As a member of the voice faculty at McGill since 1973, Winston Purdy has inspired several generations of young singers,” says Stéphane Lemelin, Chair of Performance at the Schulich School of Music. “His devotion to his students, the depth of his musicianship and his passion for teaching were recognized by a Faculty Teaching Award in 2005. His warm and thoughtful presence will be greatly missed by all members of this community.”

Ironically, for a performer renowned for his rich baritone voice, Purdy began his musical training on the clarinet, and was a member of the National Youth Orchestra who played a movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concert in A with the OSM conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier.

Enrolling in McGill in 1959, he studied with Helmut Blume, Istvan Anhalt, Marvin Duchow and Alexander Brott. He graduated with a degree in Performance and Composition in 1964.

But after graduation, Purdy decided to make a profound career switch, leaving for Europe to study voice in Frankfurt, Germany and London, England.

Purdy joined McGill’s Faculty of Music in 1973 where he taught voice and vocal pedagogy, and established the Vocal Techniques course for music education students.

In 1999, he began singing at Convocation, taking over from his late wife, Kathleen Anderson – herself a Convocation fixture since the late 1970s. In an interview with the Reporter, Purdy said being able to continue in his wife’s footsteps made each ceremony “very significant for me.”

In the same interview, Purdy was asked if he had any performances that didn’t go as planned.  “The only really fun story is one I probably shouldn’t tell – but, what the heck,” he said with a chuckle. “I sing Hail, Alma Mater at the beginning. The wife of the composer Gustave Mahler was named Alma and I had always been tempted to sing, ‘Hail, Alma Mahler…’ Once, for the Music Faculty, I actually did it. My students noticed but I don’t think anyone else did. Now that the cat’s out of the bag I daren’t do it again.”

This past spring saw Purdy pass the Convocation torch to fellow music professor Tracy Smith Bessette, who first heard Hail, Alma Mater, last year when Purdy sang it at her own doctoral convocation. “I really enjoyed singing at Convocation, and my voice is still OK, but I find getting around to be more and more difficult,” Purdy told the Reporter at the time. “I shall miss it, but it’s good that someone younger takes over now and even better that it’s a staff member from the Music School.”

A number of Purdy’s students are singing internationally. Among his more prominent former students are Dominique Labelle, L.Mus.’86, a Metropolitan Opera auditions winner, who has recently sung the roles of Gabriel and Eve in Haydn’s The Creation at Carnegie Hall with the late Robert Shaw; and Althea-Maria Papoulias, B.Mus.’89, winner of the Maria Callas Memorial Scholarship and the Belvedere Competition, who is now a member of both the Vienna Statsoper and Volksoper.

Labelle, who also teaches Voice at the Faculty of Music, says the loss of Purdy leaves a huge hole at McGill and beyond the Roddick Gates. “When a singer passes away, the soul of humanity senses it,” she said. “When a teacher of singing dies, Heaven’s Gates rattle from the commotion it creates; a very special guest has arrived.

“Winston Purdy loved everything about singing. He was a beautiful baritone who cared deeply about music. He was also a splendid teacher who spent his lifetime exploring and researching the complex universe of the human voice, and its purpose in communicating the human condition,” said Labelle. “I first knew him as a splendidly enthusiastic teacher, and later, as a wonderful colleague at McGill… It is impossible to imagine the Schulich School of Music without him since he gave his whole life to it. He will be greatly missed and remembered most fondly.”

Visitations will take place on Nov. 26, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Rideau Funeral Home (4275 Sources Blvd.,Dollard-des-Ormeaux). A celebration of his life will follow at 3 p.m. Get more details online.

 

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