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Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra conductor talks relevance of classical music

By Jill Girgulis, November 21 2017 —

Until this year, I’d never experienced a live orchestra performance. I realized what I was missing after attending a concert by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) for the first time in September. The CPO performs around 80 concerts each year, including two on Nov. 23 and 25. I spoke with the CPO’s resident conductor, Karl Hirzer, to discuss the upcoming concerts, how classical music is relevant to any generation and why attending an orchestral performance is an experience worth having.

The Gauntlet: Give a summary of the upcoming Nov. 23 and Nov. 25 performances and elaborate on your role.

Karl Hirzer: This week the CPO will perform a program consisting of two classical blockbusters on Thursday, Nov. 23 and Saturday, Nov. 25. We’ll be joined by the internationally renowned American pianist Andrew Brownell for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” followed by one of the most iconic pieces of music ever written — Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Saturday will be the more fleshed-out concert version, as we’ll open the show with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.” My role will be to conduct the orchestra through these performances, hopefully without falling off of the podium in excitement.

Gauntlet: How was the program selected for these particular concerts?

Hirzer: We designed this program back in January of this year. I was asked to put together a selection of “Greatest Classical Hits.” These concerts usually do well as they consist of famous, recognizable melodies. Oftentimes, the audience may not actually know the specific origin. Beethoven was a natural choice, as it begins with perhaps the most well-known motif in all of music and continues on through four movements of distinct individual character that somehow create a lucid narrative or journey for the listener, culminating in the joyous triumph of the finale.

For the first half of the program, we wanted to invite Andrew to perform as soloist with us. He happened to have the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody in his repertoire and it was a perfect fit. This piece is a set of variations for piano soloist and orchestra based on a super famous lick from a notoriously difficult solo violin piece. It begins and pervades the work and will be easily identifiable by the audience. “The 18th Variation” is also a beautiful, lyrical moment of the piece that has been used in many films and TV shows and even blatantly ripped off as part of the theme music for the BBC’s Planet Earth. Then, with the addition of “Capriccio Espagnol,” we get a Russian first half with two works that compliment each other nicely, followed by the Beethoven warhorse as the stand-alone German representative in the second.

Gauntlet: What do you hope audience members will get out of this performance, especially first-time CPO attendees?

Hirzer: I hope that newcomers will be instantly hooked. In earnest, I would hope that exposure to a high-octane program like this would convince attendees that classical music is actually incredibly exciting. But even in a program where we have a lot of virtuosity on display from our musicians, there will also be moments of sheer sublimity. And it’s this coexistence of such contrasting expressive states within one work of art that makes these pieces of classical music such timeless masterworks.

Gauntlet: How does the role of an orchestra in North America differ compared to other parts of the world?

Hirzer: In Europe, classical music and the arts in general are considered to be a much more integral part of life and community than in North America. Artistic programs and organizations will receive lots of government funding and are held in a respectful high regard by locals. Not to speak pejoratively of our view of the arts here in North America — we just view it as something that’s maybe a bit exotic as opposed to something that is absolutely necessary to be maintained through continuous performance. Of course, the music that we play is mostly from that part of the world and it’s only natural that since it came to life there.

Having said all of this though, there’s an aspect of discovering the unknown that is somewhat prevalent in North America. It’s a really exciting notion that people coming to hear us this week will have never heard Beethoven’s Fifth in its entirety. To have a part in giving someone that first experience is pretty cool. Regardless of the public relationship with classical music, having a top-tier orchestra like the CPO in our community brings such robustness and dynamism to our arts scene, both from a domestic and international perspective.

Gauntlet: What is the CPO’s biggest challenge and what’s one way you think it could be addressed?

Hirzer: I would say our biggest challenge is simply that we’re not reaching as many audience members as we could be. There is sometimes a sentiment that classical music is esoteric, archaic or not easily accessible for those who have no past experience with it. I will say that like any art form, the more that you expose yourself to it, the more you can develop a relationship with it. It’s like reading Shakespeare for the first time or drinking wine — your palate and appreciation will develop with repeated exposure. While this may help the listener gain a deeper understanding of the music, this repertoire is so universal that anyone can listen to it and have whatever kind of reaction they happen to have. There are no rules, no specific method when listening to or trying to get into a piece of music. In some ways, the abstraction of how we react to all music in general is one of the indefinable reasons as to why it has such a hold over us and plays such an important part in our lives as people.

Gauntlet: What’s one thing about the CPO that most people wouldn’t know?

Hirzer: We’re playing Sled Island this year with Owen Pallett. It should be pretty sweet.

Tickets for this week’s and future concerts are available at calgaryphil.com. Tickets start at $25 for the Nov. 23 performance and $20 for Nov. 25.
Interview edited for clarity and brevity.

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