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Interview: 'Avoid success at all costs,' cautions pianist and conductor Gregory Oh

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(National Youth Orchestra photo)
(National Youth Orchestra photo)

Toronto pianist and conductor Gregory Oh is a bundle of contradictions — none more potent than his decision to end a music curatorship at the Music Gallery that has lasted more than 10 years. He uses these contradictions to pursue a musical road less travelled.

“My students are so much more knowledgeable about new music than I am,” says Oh, who has led a small-ensemble course at University of Toronto for the past eight years. He is afraid that he’s getting set in his ways, of not being on the cutting edge anymore.

Later, when asked about what’s coming up in his post-Music Gallery life, Oh responds: “I’m just someone who likes to keep reinventing myself, I guess.”

The London, Ont. native has a powerful intellectual curiosity (in musicians it often seems most common at either end of the historical timeline: Early Music and New Music) mixed with seemingly boundless energy. He is remarkably focused, able to gobble up chunks of challenging, freshly-minted scores in the company of his band Toca Loca one week, and play with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra the next.

He has embraced his inner contradictions. “For better or worse, as much as I fight it, I’ll always be a weird mix of grasping the contemporary and being a traditionalist,” he says as we sip overflowing cups of maté at El Almacén on Queen West.

The final concert he has curated for the Music Gallery, happening on Friday night, is an apt illustration of this personality: New York City composer David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic story for voices and percussion — a remarkable piece that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

It is a mixture of very traditional means to tell an old tale in a contemporary way.

Oh has admired this work, and Lang’s creativity, for a long time, and was able to assemble four excellent local singers to carry this demanding piece, which requires the vocalists to play percussion as they chant and sing. Doing this heavy lifting on Friday are soprano Katherine Hill, mezzo Patricia O’Callaghan, tenor Lucas Marchand and bass Dallas Bergen.

The evening opens with Grex, a nu-jazz vocal octet founded by Alex Samaras.

Oh points out that it was a student who introduced him to Little Match Girl Passion — well before it had been widely performed.

“What I think of as new music is now old music,” says Oh. Given that the Music Gallery built itself as a safe space to explore all sorts of frontiers, the pianist believes he needs to hand over the task of curating its music programming to someone with an eye on the very latest developments.

Meanwhile, besides celebrating the avant garde, he says he’s re-exploring Franz Liszt’s B-minor Piano Sonata, and has been having a great time playing through the piano trios of Joseph Haydn.

Then there’s opera. I discover that, before settling down in Toronto, Oh had worked as an opera répétiteur south of the border.

“I hate opera and love opera,” he smiles. The former refers to the traditional form; the latter to new works. One of the projects Oh wants to pursue is producing Thérèse Raquin by English composer (and pianist) Michael Finnissy — the two had met in a contemporary opera workshop organized by the Banff Centre.

The pianist is also in his fourth year of an artistic residency with Soulpepper Theatre Company, which allows him to cross paths with different genres and disciplines at every visit.

Oh wants to do more with Toca Loca now that he has freed up some creative time. And there will be ongoing freelance gigs as a pianistic collaborator around Toronto.

“I enjoy everything as long as I’m not doing it too much,” says Oh, smiling again. He really is a free spirit.

“If I had to give anyone advice, it would be to avoid success at all costs,” he insists. “The people who are doing the most interesting work are not the ones who get tenure, but those who love exploring things, those who display a purity of goals and intentions.”

In a world fraught with compromise, this might be a recipe for disappointment, too. “Yes, 90 percent of my ideas die or are killed by someone else,” Oh admits. But, the recently-turned 40-year-old is one of those people who dusts himself off with a new direction every time — and there are going to be new ideas that work. Guaranteed.

The musician closes our conversation with a collective challenge: “When are we going to do something creative with classical music other than presenting it in a goddamn bar, or speaking at a concert, or wearing jeans?” he asks, incredulous.

Let’s keep our eyes on him for possible answers.


For details on Little Match Girl Passion, click here.


Here is Oh at work in the world premiere of Carrousel by Michael Oesterle at Koerner Hall, part of a concert presented by Soundstreams last March. Joining Oh are Ryan Scott on vibraphone, Rika Fujii on Glockenspiel and Haruka Fujii on marimba:

John Terauds

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