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Glenn Gould @ 80: Four days of events about the legend, his genius and his way with the music of J.S. Bach

By John Terauds on September 21, 2012

I imagine walking towards Glenn Gould’s grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As the marker with the (imperfect) etching of the Goldberg Variations Aria comes into view, I feel underfoot the tremors of Gould’s laughter at the four days of fuss leading up to his 80th birthday on Tuesday.

Three decades after his death, this legend — that’s what we have to call it now — is about more than the music: It is about finding something new to say about the obvious; it is about the power of sending out a clear message in an age of mass communication; and it is about us, our times, our culture and our changing relationship with genius and creativity.

The laughter I imagine is a mix of triumph (Gould, for all his professed hatred of competitions, preferred having the last word), glee (at attaining the sort of immortality that the rest of us will never enjoy), surprise (that his personal noodlings in the safe confines of a studio continue to resonate) and derision (at the poking and prodding and second-guessing of his self and work by the insatiably curious).

Just as each person reacts individually and personally to a piece of music, so we do to the person making it. Over the decades, this has given birth to hundreds of Goulds, each representing a different aspect of music, genius, creativity and our relationship to art and artists.

So it’s no surprise that the events of the next four days are just as diverse as their ostensible subject.

GOULD THE GENIUS

A genius is someone who sees what no one else can and, once he or she has shown the rest of us how to perceive that thing or state, makes it impossible to go back to the way things were before.

Enterprising jazz pianist Ron Davis and a group of like-minded travellers have spent the last two years putting together something I’m tempted to call a Genius Jamboree at University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall.

Davis & Co call it Dreamers, Renegades, Visionaries: The Glenn Gould Variations.

It all begins tonight at 7 p.m. with the unveiling of a series of video portraits made by Robert Wilson (last seen in the city accompanying his show Einstein on the Beach at Luminato) celebrating the Toronto pianist, at the University of Toronto Centre, 15 King’s College Circle.

It continues Saturday and Sunday at Convocation Hall with a parade of speakers, performance artists and musicians of all ages and genres. Each has been allocated 19 minutes to do or say their piece.

Each day starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. (with a two-hour break for lunch).

There are some phenomenal pianists in the mix, including Toronto’s Chris Donnelly and the ever-individualistic Lang Lang. All are performing on the Yamaha CFII grand piano on which Gould recorded his final Goldberg Variations in 1981. The piano, which has sat in the lobby at Roy Thomson Hall since Gould’s death, has been restored by Yamaha Canada’s chief technicians, with the blessing of Gould’s personal technician, Verne Edquist.

But it’s not about piano, or Bach, or even Gould specifically.

The jamboree is supposed to be about the many faces of inspiration, of the endless ripples caused by the skipped stone of Gould genius.

The programming, which defies any sort of summary, is such a jumble that each visitor will enjoy a different mix of 19-minute segments and take away something different. Hopefully, no one will be left completely untouched, unmoved or unprovoked by the experience.

Again, it’s like our communal relationship with the Legend of Gould.

For more details, click here.

GOULD AND BACH

The Royal Conservatory of Music, Gould’s alma mater, is being much more focused in its birthday tributes on Sunday and Monday evenings.

They are about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Baroque-era genius who helped a geeky, unusually talented, proto-genius Modern Toronto teenager kindle the Legend of Gould.

The Monday concert, cheekily titled Glenn Gould’s Birthday BACHanalia, takes well-known pieces by Bach, most of them with Gouldian associations, and presents them in novel ways with the help of virtuoso French harpist Sylvain Blassel, harmonica player Howard Levy, the Dave Young trio, classical Indian artist Trichy Sankaran, Autorickshaw, bluegrass fiddler Mark O’Connor, faculty performers from the Glenn Gould Professional School and a handful of advanced students.

Gould’s ghost will be there, as well, closing the evening at the piano, thanks to the strange magic of Zenph Studios’ digital playback technology.

I expect my personal treat to be witnessing live Blassel’s ethereal interpretation of the Goldbergs on the harp. Here is a snippet:

For more on this particular programme, with begins in Koerner Hall at 7 p.m., click here.

I have a personal connection with Sunday’s concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m. at the intimate Mazzoleni Hall.

Conservatory teacher and Toronto concert pianist David Louie pushes aside the piano in favour of the harpsichord in an all-Bach programme that includes solo and chamber works performed with Toronto Consort members Alison Melville on baroque flute and Kathleen Kajioka on violin, Tafelmusik violinist Christina Zacharias, and cellist Margaret Gay.

There are only three pieces to hear, each representing a particular aspect of Bach’s genius. The most substantial is the elaborate puzzle of A Musical Offering. It is preceded by the F Major Italian Concerto and, in a neat twist, Louie’s own transcription for harpsichord of the famous Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for solo violin.

I will be introducing the concert with short remarks on the contentious art of interpreting Bach at the keyboard — and how Gould succeeded by throwing the rules of his day out the window.

For more details on this concert, click here.

MORE ON GOULD

In an article for The Guardian entitled “Glenn Gould: a wilfully idiotic genius?,” the BBC’s erudite Tom Service has interviewed several well-known pianists for their take on Glenn Gould’s recorded legacy. The results are predictably mixed. Check it out here.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past three months thinking and writing on different aspects of Gould and his legacy, including reviewing of a great new book on the subject by Toronto composer and writer Colin Eatock.

Here are the links:

• We all desperately want to have a conversation with Glenn Gould

John Terauds
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