With the conducting world on an indefinite hiatus, I have been able to spend more time at the piano and return to an unfinished project. For the past month and a half, I’ve been immersed in Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, a set of 30 variations based on the bass line and harmonic progression of an original aria. The work was commissioned and composed in 1741. I was recently asked by a student which variation was my favorite, and began my response with, “it must be how a mother feels about her children…” Each variation takes on a life of its own, unique in its musical, technical, and emotional content, and yet is part of the whole and crucial to the overall narrative of the work.
It is important to consider the sacred connotations in all of Bach’s works, even those that were conceived within a secular context. Without any sacred text, it becomes hard to justify this empirically. However, there are other ways in which we can deduce the sacred connotations inherent to Bach’s music. Certainly, it is evident in the pathos of the music, a pathos that Bach felt he could use interchangeably, whether it be for the concert hall or a church service. For example, the first two movements of the Cantata, BWV 146 “Wir Müssen durch viel Trübsel” are direct quotations from the keyboard concerto no. 1 in d minor, BWV 1052. Bach’s use of numerology throughout his works is another salient example. There are often references to the numbers 1, 2, and 3, a representation of the Holy Trinity. These are numbers that can be found in abundance throughout the structural framework of the “Goldberg” Variations.
Ironically, perhaps the most profound spiritual statement of the Goldberg’s comes in its most “secular” variation. The Quodlibet concludes the set of 30 variations by quoting the tunes of two folk songs of Bach’s day. Ralph Kirkpatrick referred to this variation as a prime example of the composer’s “pious humility.” The variation sums up the work in its unification of both of its human and divine elements. The Aria da Capo is also something to behold. It is both familiar and new, subtly reminding us of the person we were and the person we have become after traversing such a magnificent spiritual journey.
Creativity always finds a way to manifest itself. Sure, the coronavirus has put most musicians temporarily out of work and cleared our schedules for the foreseeable future, but it is not all doom and gloom. Life quickly adapts. The survival and creative instinct, which is connected to our love instinct, emerges triumphant, even as the threatening coronavirus looms large. As my own instinct to create has found other outlets, including practicing new piano repertoire, studying languages, and the opportunity to observe conductors and to broaden my repertoire through the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, I am curious as to how my colleagues and the rest of the music world are navigating these challenging times. A paradigm shift could be ahead. Perhaps the music world will come out ahead and re-brand itself; new projects could emerge, there could be a shake-up in the job market.
I am reminded of Bartok’s orchestral masterpiece The Miraculous Mandarin in which he courageously explores the dark side of humanity. Bartok’s message and credo are clear, and ultimately optimistic, but only after he has taken his listeners through the brutal and horrifying journey of the unfortunate Mandarin. I will not go into the subject matter, a story which initially caused scandal and was banned on moral grounds – but for those who do not know the work, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a profound testament to the creative power that dwells within us all.
Today marked the culmination of 18 months of research performed at the University of Toronto and the official last day of my DMA in orchestral conducting. I formally submitted my dissertation to the School of Graduate Studies for publication. “The Art of Conviction: A Film-based Study of the Rehearsal Techniques of Herbert von Karajan” will be published online this coming June 2020.
Under the guidance of my advisory committee Dr. Jeff Packman, Prof. Uri Mayer, and Dr. Gillian MacKay, I devised a research project that centered around a famous 1965 filmed rehearsal of the Schumann Fourth Symphony, Op. 120 with the Vienna Symphony led by Herbert von Karajan. Throughout this project, I had the chance to perform detailed video analysis of the film and to evaluate and reflect upon video analysis’ utility in our age. It was also an opportunity to further discover and trace Karajan’s Central European Conducting lineage. The thesis examines the literary works and recordings of famous German conductors including Richard Wagner, Felix Weingartner, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. I also came across a hidden gem: Karajan’s “Die Probe,” an essay discussing a few of his philosophies and attitudes towards the rehearsal process.
Did you know Schumann’s Fourth Symphony exists in two versions, the 1841 and 1851 versions, and that there is a debate dating back to Brahms as to which one is the superior? Karajan navigates this issue with great sophistication. As I argue throughout the video analysis, his interpretation attempts to blend the two versions.
The film, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, is a fascinating portrayal of Karajan and his pedagogical approach to rehearsal, and stands as the only full-length rehearsal of the conductor available on film. It also serves as a window into the Central European Conducting Tradition led by one of its most celebrated members.
Recently I had the opportunity to conduct Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 with the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Walter Hall at the Faculty of Music. This is a work I have had my eyes on since my student days as a pianist. It is a delightfully inspired work and I am fascinated by how remarkably prodigious it is. Mozart wrote the work as a 16-year old, yet it doesn’t have any of the hallmarks of teenager both in its mastery of technique and the maturity of its musical content. I am reminded of an interview by Austrian conductor Karl Böhm who said, and I paraphrase, that you can already tell Mozart was spiritually perfect by the time he wrote his First Symphony at the age of eight.
This work is for strings alone and is sometimes referred to as one of his “Salzburg Symphonies.” It can also be performed by string quartet, however, there a glorious glow and presence to the sound when performed by a larger ensemble. Such an ensemble can heighten some of the musical genius of the work and give it greater expressive qualities, especially when performed in a larger hall.
I recently had the opportunity to give a public masterclass at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Mississauga on a beautiful Steinway D where I worked with three piano students, two of whom were my own. My student Grace Hu played the Rachmaninoff Prelude in Gb Major, Op. 23 No. 10 and the first movement of the Beethoven “Pastoral Sonata”. I have to thank Grace for introducing me to the Rachmaninoff. It could possibly be one of my favorite works for the piano by the composer. Most striking is its unusual climax which comes towards the end. Although the last statement of the theme is expressed in a lush accompaniment, it is marked under a piano dynamic. The effect is an overwhelming tenderness. The Beethoven is challenging work in its attention to detail. What a great sonata though. I sometimes wonder why it is not programmed more often.
The second student Otto Popescu, who currently studies with Dr. Asher Ian Armstrong, played Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann. My favorite thing about this piece are the penetrating harmonies which move me to the quick. I am not the biggest fan of Liszt’s compositions per se and I have always tended to stay away from them in my own programming, but I have always admired his ability to explore new worlds of harmony. Vallée d’Obermann is an effective concert piece: it is virtuosic and full of great melodies. The music depicts the tortured pathos of the troubled Romantic artist who searches for the why in his life. Otto is only 15. I look forward to hearing him play the work in another 20 years (about the same age as when Liszt wrote the work.)
Catherine Cheun, also my student, played Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 545. This is often considered a work for children, although it is important to remember Mozart was in his 30’s when he wrote the work. There is a maturity to the music that is both attractive and challenging to pianists of any age. Musically, too, it poses great challenges to find the character of each melody and to sing at the instrument.
The evening ended in a fun Q & A with the audience about many aspects related to piano performance and teaching. I was asked to play something, too, and I turned to an old war horse: Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie.
Over the past couple weeks, I have been rehearsing Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite for 13 instruments with members of the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Last night we performed it together in Walter Hall at the Faculty of Music. This work is a cornerstone of the American symphonic repertoire and resonates with me deeply. It’s hard for me to say whether this is simply because of the music itself or whether it evokes my own subjective feelings for my native land. Perhaps it’s both. The Suite is an arrangement by the composer following the immense success of its premier as a ballet in 1944. I look forward to programming this work as much as I can, whether it be in the pit or on the stage. It is quintessential Americana, and above all, great music.
This was an opportunity to conduct that came up somewhat unexpectedly. Originally, I was asked to fill in for a rehearsal of Gary’s new work, which ultimately led to the concert engagement. Gary Kulesha has established quite a reputation as one of Canada’s leading classical composers and has held positions as composer-in-residence with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company, to name only a few. His works are known for their high level of complexity: harmonically, contrapuntally, as well as the technical demands placed on the instrumentalists and ensemble. Although composed especially for the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the composer didn’t hold back any of his penchant for musical or technical virtuosity.
Studying a new work is always fun as it challenges my inner ear to conceive and interpret the score from scratch. One generally eases into their relationship with a new work following each rehearsal. Running about 12 minutes, it was an uninterrupted 3-movement work that explored the potentialities of the 11th chord, historically the most challenging chord for composers to incorporate into their music. Part of my challenge as conductor was not only to familiarize the orchestra with the score but to get them to believe in the work. This could be one of the reasons I enjoy conducting new music so much: the fact that the music hangs in the balance. How will it be received? Will it survive in the repertoire? The conductor therefore is imbued with great responsibility. Sometimes new works don’t always get a second performance.