Toronto composer Kevin Lau recalls how his composition professor at University of Toronto praised his first composition assignment, then was puzzled at how different the second effort was.
“Why are you writing in a different style?” the teacher asked.
For Lau, it was the first time that anyone had suggested he needed to follow a single line of creative thinking. It didn’t change his mind, but it was an introduction to how people like to put every artist into a clearly labelled box.
Lau is among a substantial group of young performers and composers who have no particular time or interest in traditional categories, but are trying to find novel ways of expressing and fostering two basic human characteristics: a love of storytelling and a need to express the deepest emotions in music.
If that approach results in something lighthearted, so be it.
You can catch one of the many different facets of Lau’s work on Saturday, Feb. 4, when the student-born Sneak Peek Orchestra presents the premiere of Foundation, a three-movement cello concerto, at the very capable hands of cellist Rachel Mercer.
Here is what Lau has written in the concert’s programme notes:
I have been fascinated by stories—by storytelling in general—ever since I was a child. Myth is the distillation of those stories that we have—collectively, over centuries upon centuries—deemed as essential to our being, and are thus a magnificent window into the human condition. In my cello concerto, Foundation, I have sought to explore one of the core precepts of myth through music: the traveler who encounters something unexpected (unknown, chaotic) which upsets the balance of her world, and how she chooses to act in the face of this challenge.
Lau experienced his big seismic shift at age 16, when his parents sent him to a music camp.
This was the first time that he found himself surrounded by other musicians. It was also his first experience at playing chamber music — Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1.
“I found myself enjoying it so much and felt so unselfconscious,” Lau says. “When I came out of it, I felt so sad. I realised (music) is where my heart is.”
He describes himself as having been “an averagely diligent piano student,” from his first lesson, at age 5. He followed a maths-and-sciences track in high school and, in his spare time, began composing his own orchestral music, thanks to new-at-the-time software that was able to play back his work.
“My father has a big classical music collection,” Lau recalls. “I was brought up on the big symphonies.”
Despite a focus on playing the piano, Lau found himself playing the music in his head as much as the music that his teacher had assigned.
“I like imagining my own world, whether fictional or musical,” Lau states, acknowledging his other passion: reading.
The teenage Lau still had some lingering doubts, so, when time came to apply to University of Toronto, he sent in two forms: one for Astrophysics, the other to Music. He chose the latter, at the last minute.
“I had a simple dream,” he says. “I just wanted to have my music performed by an orchestra.”
He didn’t waste any time. In 2002, during his first year at UofT, he won a young composers’ competition organized by the Hamilton Philharmonic. Unlike most competitions, which come with a mainstage performance, Hamilton’s also came with a commission for a second work.
“That was an amazing deal,” Lau smiles.
And he has never looked back. In 10 years, Lau already has 46 instrumental works of art music, from orchestral to chamber, to his credit, along with scores to five feature films, 14 short films and a long list of arrangements, from a solo violin-with-strings reduction of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei to a set of Christmas carols.
Here’s an example of one of his popular arrangements: a solo piano rendition of two themes from the video game Final Fantasy VII, played by Lau himself:
Traditionally, a composer of “serious” music would look askance at film or video game scores. I ask Lau if he makes a distinction between art music and pop.
“I try not to,” he laughs. “Categories are superficial. My natural disposition is not to view categories in the way most people view them.”
Lau believes people can be entertained and edified at the same time. “I like to dig below the substrates of both areas and find things that can connect between the art and entertainment words,” he explains. “Serious music expands the boundaries of the vocabulary, while pop music plays to the attraction of the familiar.”
In case I’m doubting the interplay between art and pop, Lau cautions that, “simple ideas are not that simple when you hear them.”
He brings up the “Allegretto” second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 — which also happens to be on the Sneak Peek Orchestra programme.
“Do you talk about melody? About rhythm? About harmony? It’s just one-five, one-five,” he says, referring to the two main chords that the movement opens with. “But you put all these together and you have an emerging property that is both heroic and tragic. There are layers of emotion buried in this simple thing.”
Here’s the legendary Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic performing that movement, to provide a better idea:
You can check out audio samples of Lau’s work on this website, here.
From what I’ve heard, Lau does strike a nice balance between the challenging and the familiar — something we should be able to hear at the hands of the orchestra and Rachel Mercer on Saturday night.
By the way, Lau is one of the co-founders of the Sneak Peek Orchestra, along with Toronto organist, conductor and longtime friend Victor Cheng.
Besides the premiere of Lau’s concerto and Beethoven’s Seventh, Saturday evening’s programme also includes Toronto composer Rob Teehan’s Juno-nominated Dreams of Flying, for orchestra.
For all the details of the concert, which happens at St. Gabriel’s Passionist Church, near the Bessarion subway station on Sheppard Ave. E., and more information on the Sneak Peek Orchestra, click here.
Here is soloist Conrad Chow along with Victor Cheng conducting the Sneak Peek Strings at Kevin Lau’s University of Toronto doctoral recital of violin rhapsody, Joy, at Walter Hall: