As a teenager in Deep River in the mid-’ 70s, the daughter of two scientists, Cynthia Steljes, regularly travelled two hours to Ottawa for lessons with Rowland Floyd, then principal oboe of the National Arts Centre Orchestra.
As a victim of cancer, diagnosed last June, Steljes personally selected clarinetist Shalom Bard to be her replacement in Quartetto Gelato, the immensely popular group she founded in the early 1990s with her husband, violinist and tenor Peter De Sotto. From beginning to end, Steljes, who died at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital Dec. 29 of pleural mesothelioma at age 46, was committed to every detail of her musical life. She organized every detail of the quartet’s concerts and recordings, and even on her sickbed, she strove to ensure the group would thrive without her.
Known for mixing classical pieces with slinky tangos, fiery gypsy music and opera selections, the group has released several bestselling recordings, toured the world — and, in a way, beyond. Two of the quartet’s discs were brought aboard the space shuttle Columbia by Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk in 1997.
Floyd, who taught her all those years ago, remembers a great talent. “ In my mind, Cynthia was one of Canada’s great oboe players. It’s a huge loss,” he said yesterday.
Though Floyd taught Steljes for only a few years before she went on to the University of Michigan and the Royal Conservatory, he says she developed a beautiful sound and graceful phrasing at a young age. He remained impressed when he attended concerts Steljes later gave with Quartetto Gelato. One of her party pieces was a fiendishly difficult set of variations on a theme of Bellini “ that only a handful of people in the world could play, including Cynthia,” Floyd said.
Ottawa cellist Julian Armour, director of the Ottawa Chamber Music Society, remembers Steljes as “ a superb oboe player, a really fine, subtle musician, never overplaying, and she had wonderful control of the instrument. She was also just a lovely, wonderfully intelligent person who seemed to have it all.”
Armour regularly presented Quartetto Gelato at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, and though the group performed light pieces rather than meatier classical repertoire, “ they reached everyone. They’re such good musicians that classical music aficionados would like them and people hearing classical music for the first time would also enjoy it. They didn’t do anything at all that diminished or cheapened the repertoire.”
In an interview with the Citizen in 1995, Steljes explained the group’s approach: “ We are striving for the same standards as any full- time string quartet in terms of musicality and cohesiveness. We rehearse up to six days a week and we put passion into whatever we play.”
Ottawa Citizen12 Jan 2007 BY STEVEN MAZEY