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November 18, 2014

Stephen McHolm recognized as Distinguished Alum

During this year’s Fall Convocation, Stephen McHolm will be honoured with a Distinguished Alumni award.

The university presents Distinguished Alumni awards to MacEwan graduates who have made a difference in their communities or have made significant accomplishments in their careers. Stephen is an alumni of Arts Administration, now Arts and Cultural Management.

IMAGE-story-Convo-SMcHolmWhat makes Stephen a Distinguished Alum?

Under Stephen’s leadership, Honens has become one of Canada’s farthest-reaching arts organizations, launching the careers of emerging concert artists. In 2012, Stephen was honoured with the Rozsa Award for Excellence in Arts Management and in 2013, he was named an Honorary Fellow of Canada's Royal Conservatory of Music.

Everyone should be so lucky to love what they do

It was a freezing cold winter day back in the early ’90s, but Stephen McHolm remembers it like it was yesterday. “I saw a young guy that I knew was in the musical theatre program coming out the gym at the main campus, walking down the street and singing his heart out. He wasn’t listening to music. He was just walking down the street, singing away. I remember thinking back then, ‘what a crazy guy.’ Now I think ‘good for him’—everyone should be so lucky to love what they do that much.”

Happily, Stephen McHolm does love his work that much. As president and artistic director for Honens, he travels the globe representing an international piano competition with the largest prize of its kind and a unique artist development program. He regularly finds himself surrounded by the most talented pianists out there.

“It’s humbling and inspiring,” says Stephen, who began studying piano at the tender age of four, but quickly realized when he reached university that concert pianist would never be his job title. “Working with musicians who are so talented can either make you want to practice the piano more often, or never want to practice again. I’m in awe of their talent, but really, they’re just like you and me.”

Launching musical careers

The fact that he makes his career launching the careers of these talented musicians is something Stephen finds incredibly rewarding.

“It’s great to be able to share in what’s next for them,” says Stephen. “We look for ‘complete artists’—musicians who aren’t machines. They have a deep understanding of the music they are performing, but interests outside of the practice studio as well. When you get to see them take their first steps onto the world stage in places like Carnegie Hall in New York or Wigmore Hall in London, it’s so exciting.”

Stephen says that to do the best work for the people he calls 21st century artists for a 21st century audience, Honens needs to walk the talk and be an organization firmly planted in the current century.

Connecting contemporary, classical and pop

“We can’t just present the same old kind of concert in the same old way,” says Stephen. “I’ve learned that success involves breaking down the barrier of elitism. We do a lot of programming that links contemporary classical music, traditional classical music and even pop types of music together to make music accessible. It’s not about dumbing anything down, but celebrating the very best in a way that’s exciting and innovative.”

When addressing creative problems, like coming up with a new style of classical concert, Stephen’s advice is to listen to your gut.

“What I’ve learned is that if you think an idea is the right way to go, you should stick with it, but not be so stubborn that you don’t listen to people. I look back over the 16 years I’ve been with Honens and I know we’ve achieved a lot. Before each edition of the triennial competition, our team gears up for the 'best Honens ever.’”

So far, they've never been wrong.

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