Canadian pianist Christopher (“Topher”) Mokrzewski is a former member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, participant in the preparation for COC’s recent Rigoletto and Opera Atelier’s 2011 La clemenza di Tito. But he’s also an accomplished soloist & chamber artist, who won first prizes at the Eastman School of Music International Young Artists Competition, the Milosz Magin International Piano Competition, the Empire State Piano Competition and the Canadian Music Competition (…and that doesn’t begin to tell the story).
This Thursday December 1st, Mokrzewski reprises his role as Music Director and pianist in Against the Grain Theatre’s revival of La bohème that he helped premiere in June.
I ask Mokrzewski ten questions: five about himself and five about his work.
1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what’s your nationality/ethnic background)?
I find that I resemble my father, in many ways, more and more as the years go by. Major nationality/ethnic identification: Polish and French.
2) What is the BEST thing/worst thing about what you do?
I cannot help but list the TWO most gratifying elements of the work I do for they are, I think, mutually dependent. First, I have the opportunity each day to work in a variety of different contexts with some of the finest musicians in the business. Whether in opera, art song or chamber music, the collaborative effort that makes a work come to life is the most sustaining force in my creative life.
However, everything rests upon the foundation of the works themselves. How wonderful is it to have a job which allows me, with the help of friends, to examine all that the western cultural tradition has to offer?
Today I continue re-visiting Boheme, and a week from now I begin work on Weill, John Adams, Messiaen, Mozart, and Stravinsky, but throughout all this I’ll still have a lingering thought in the back of my mind that I’ll never get to play the Schubert String Quintet, will never get to sing Peter Grimes, will never have time to know everything there is to know about the pieces that mean so much to me. The possibilities for discovery in this job are limitless and so too, therefore, is my enthusiasm to continue discovering.
As for complaints, I haven’t many. Perhaps the greatest challenge in this line of work pertains to scheduling – it’s difficult to be in control of it. Consequently, extracurricular planning (social, familial, etc) tends to take a back seat.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
The answer to this question grows more complicated as time passes! The fact of the matter is that I will always retain a certain fondness for, and desire to return to, the recordings and films of those artists who had the greatest impact on me in my youth. Leonard Bernstein might as well have been Superman to me! Glenn Gould and Arthur Rubinstein were probably the most important pianistic influences on me in my earliest years of study. In those days I collected every bit of material I could find on them.
Nowadays my tastes are a bit more varied. I admit to listening to very little piano music (mostly 20th century repertoire, when I do), lots of orchestral music (the newish Simon Rattle/Berlin Phil Mahler 9 being the most played according to my iPhone), a good deal of opera (new and old works by new and old performers, the Jacobs Mozart records being a bit of an obsession at the moment), chamber music (inexhaustible), contemporary music (inexhaustible), epic amounts of jazz (Bill Evans of late) and very selected nuggets of popular music (there’s no getting over The Beatles and Radiohead).
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I’ll give two answers even though one would suffice. Simply put, if I could do anything other than what I do now, I would want to be a writer. As for a specific skill: I’ve always wished that my musical abilities were more inclined toward an ability to play proper jazz. And if I were able to carry that desire to its fullest potential, I would have the ability to play proper jazz… on the trumpet… like Louis Armstrong. Potato Head Blues!
5) When you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favourite thing to do?
I’m a voracious reader, an idealistic exerciser, a fervent poker player and a passionate lover of football (Pittsburgh Steelers), hockey (Habs/Pens) and baseball (Jays). I enjoy a bit of beer with friends and any time spent with my partner, Cait.
5 more questions concerning being a music director and Against the Grain’s La bohème.
1) What’s the biggest challenge in being a music director?
The challenges that I’ve encountered music directing this production of Bohème (on both occasions) are those that have typically assailed me in assignments when I’m serving as “orchestra”. A conductor is, usually, a very comforting presence for a singer and, while I can conduct, it is not too easy a feat to accomplish whilst playing. The methods required to supersede these difficulties include careful planning of key moments and some judicious head bopping. We lead or we follow by insinuation, we mould the structure of the piece as a group. The result resembles, I hope, a lovely bit of chamber music.
2) What do you love about opera?
In opera we frequently encounter orchestral music of greater psychological and emotional depth than we might find in SOME of the symphonic warhorses beloved by many a concert subscriber (I’ll name no names…). And of course, opera is about the beauty and visceral communicative power of the human voice. It is the cumulative effect of opera, that unification of so many art forms, that gives it the power to move and excite generations of committed fans and advocates. That’s what I love.
3) Do you have a favourite type of music to play?
There is always some new work, or new composer, that one comes across and, boom, the world is changed. A listing of my favorite kinds of music to play will always be in a state of flux. I have, nevertheless, established very strong relationships with certain composers and styles. I don’t think I will ever grow weary of working on Mozart (the operas especially), a composer whom I have cherished since my childhood. I identify very strongly with Brahms’ music (I reckon he and I would have gotten on like a house on fire). I will always hold an obsession with Wagner and hope to spend a significant portion of my musical life with his works. The twentieth and twenty-first century supply most of the remaining repertoire I’m interested in: MAHLER (though I’ve no means of participating in a performance of one of his symphonies, as yet), Ravel, Debussy (Pelleas!!!), Britten, Berg, Schönberg, Messaien, Stravinsky, Reich, Adams, and it goes on, and on and on…
There’s also a great deal of music that is tiresome, dull, poorly crafted, sickeningly saccharine, pointless, loathsome and detestable, that I hate and hope to never hear again. But that is another (quite substantial) list!
4) How do you feel about Against the Grain’s upcoming Boheme, as a modern man?
I’m chuffed to be a member of the Against the Grain team and very proud of this production. Our cast is a fine one, our crew is amazing, our designers are miracle workers and our administrative team second to none. The whole company is the brainchild of Joel Ivany and we all have him to thank for this recasting of a timeless operatic monument.
Boheme is a piece that requires no improvement. It is an astounding work of music theatre and will continue to move audiences as long as it’s performed. It’s reasonable to wonder, therefore, why a company might try to mess with a good thing.
Although everyone likes a costume party now and then, I believe that opera is a living entity that must, like Alvy Singer’s shark or his relationship to Annie Hall, either constantly move forward or die. Do we then extirpate tradition by pandering to the lowest common denominator? Ought the Met to invite Michael Bay (of Transformers fame) to reimagine Madama Butterfly set to a meandering score played by Nickelback? Nah..
I look to my musical home, the Canadian Opera Company (where I started out a few years ago as an apprentice in the Ensemble Studio), and see a vibrant company attracting the finest singers in the country and the world, preparing a new generation of great voices and coaches through the Ensemble program, possessing a first rate orchestra and chorus, programming QUALITY new operas (go see Love From Afar!), new productions of old favorites, bringing in brilliantly creative directors. I see what Alexander Neef and company are creating and believe in it heartily. It is these kinds of values—respect for the artform, a striving for the highest performance quality possible, all without fear of entering uncharted creative territory– that also inform our young group.
I like to think that our Boheme, in the vernacular, in a bar, does justice to the integrity of a classic while, at the same time, shedding new light on the familiar with the hope that it will, at worst, provoke a reaction and, at best, not fail to move you.
5) Is there an interpretation of an opera that you especially admire or has influenced you?
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Nilsson/Windgassen, Böhm). I would not work in opera today were it not for this piece (and this recording). Period. It rocked my youngster world!
Prepare to be rocked.. here’s a small sample.
Dec 1st Mokrzewski is back playing for La bohème. Later this season, expect two performances in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts: a jazz collaboration with soprano Lauren Margison, and a solo piano program of works by Liszt, Poulenc and Messiaen.
For more info go to www.christophermokrzewski.com