After “retirement,” former federal policy advisor Joanna Estelle is earning international accolades as a classical composer
by Iris Winston
Many people are happy to retire at the end of a successful career. This could have been the story for Joanna Estelle, a senior financial officer with the federal government for some 37 years. Instead, she continued with her longstanding love of music and composition and is now internationally recognized as a classical composer.
Part of that standing was demonstrated on May 5 when she was at New York’s Carnegie Hall to hear Trio Casals perform one of her works, Bobby’s Song.
The presentation of the piece she had written in honour of her uncle, murdered as a child, was special for many reasons, she says. “The performance itself was incredibly important, of course. Trio Casals are A-list musicians who perform all over the world. They are very talented and can express what I’m trying to express through my compositions better than I could.”
But, she adds, on this occasion, even more meaningful than the quality of the presentation was the presence of many of Bobby’s other relatives who came from Edmonton, Vancouver, Boston and Long Island for the concert. “We’re all related to Bobby,” she explains, as she talks of the family connection through her mother’s relatives. “It was very special for all of us to have this unknown nine-year-old honoured on a world stage. That meant everything to me.”
This moment was far from anything Joanna could have imagined in her youth, she says. Her goal as a teenager had been to study music. But her parents discouraged her from considering a
career in music. More accurately, she says, they forbade her from becoming a professional musician.
“My parents were Ukrainian immigrants. They were very strict and felt music was an unsuitable career for a nice young lady. They were concerned about my ability to support myself and, back in the 1960s, the music scene was pretty crazy. They were worried about my becoming part of that world of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll.”
While music remained very important to her, as an obedient daughter, she followed her parents’ direction. In 1972, she completed a degree in psychology and English at Brock University in St. Catharines, where the family lived at the time. Ironically, “while my education was interesting, it didn’t get me anywhere in terms of employment,” she says.
Her solution was to continue studying part-time, this time focusing on management accounting. “I was trying to be very practical,” she says, “but it was challenging for me. I am artistic by nature and had to go against my spiritual aesthetic. But I persevered and did quite well.”
In fact, Joanna’s study of finance led to a long, stellar career in the federal public service, with positions as a financial officer and analyst in the House of Commons, at Rideau Hall and in various other departments. Her financial expertise was also to prove very helpful when she eventually turned to a career in music.
“It was good training for me in terms of managing the business side of music,” she says. “While the quality of the art is paramount, music has changed over the decades and one has to think as a business person as well as an artist.”
Joanna’s transition to music as a profession took place in stages. “Though there was always a lot of music in my life, I didn’t study formally at the university level until I was 51 years old,” she points out.
Two decades before this, she had come to Ottawa as part of the federal public service. At that time, she met music professor Laurence Ewashko and his family at church and they became friends.
“He is a highly respected musician around the world,” she says. “As well as being a long-time professor of vocal and choral music at the University of Ottawa, he has been the conductor of the Vienna Boys Choir and the chorus master at the National Arts Centre.”
In a casual conversation, Joanna asked him if he would like to hear a song she had written. In response to his interest, she hauled a box filled with papers bearing her compositions out of a closet and played him a sample.
“He was the first person to recognize that I was a musician,” she says. “Out of that incident came my first performance with the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, which he conducted before he founded the Ewashko Singers. At the time, I didn’t know how to do choral arrangements, so he asked another University of Ottawa music professor, John Armstrong, to do arrangements of two of my pieces. The Cantata Singers then performed them at two concerts. That’s how it all started.”
As she approached 50, she was deciding between further financial studies and finally studying music. The decision was made for her when the Université du Québec en Outaouais cancelled the master’s degree in business program for which she had been accepted, because there were insufficient English-speaking applicants.
“It was interesting how the universe unfolded,” says Joanna, who completed her first degree in music at the University of Ottawa as the silver medalist in the arts faculty. In 2009, after retiring from the public service, she continued her music studies at the postgraduate level at York University in Toronto and later at the University of Sheffield in England.
Soon, her talent was being recognized nationally and internationally and her second career exploded. Her compositions and lyrics have been performed in a variety of prestigious venues in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. A number have premiered at the National Arts Centre, been broadcast by CBC and are available on YouTube. She was signed by PARMA Recordings of Boston in 2016, and her first CD, Emergence, was released in 2018 on Navona label. Her second major recording, Transmutation, featuring her Songs from the Heavens, based on Byzantine liturgy, is planned for release on the Navona label and international distribution by NAXOS in CD format as well as digitally later this year.
Meanwhile, such groups as Trio Casals and such orchestras as the London Symphony in the UK are recording and performing her compositions and arrangements and she is regularly commissioned to produce more original material.
“I’m just as amazed at all that has happened to me in this second career as everyone else,” she says. “I would never have thought that something I wrote would be performed at Carnegie Hall.”
The most recent performance is, in fact, the second occasion that Trio Casals has presented one of Joanna’s works at Carnegie Hall.
“I’m very fortunate to have been put in contact with a number of first-rate musicians, mainly through PARMA Recordings,” she says. “My goal is to write the best music that I can and then to work collaboratively with all concerned to achieve a quality performance that, hopefully, will uplift listeners.”