Ten Questions for Alex Pauk

Alex Pauk is an artistic activist, a composer, a conductor, driving force behind many commissions for other Canadian composers,  and the Founding Music Director & Conductor of the Esprit Orchestra, an ensemble embarking upon their 30th Anniversary Season with a very special program on October 14th.

What better introduction than the statement by the jury of the Canada Council, upon Pauk’s selection for the 2007 Molson Prize…(?)

“A passionate and visionary conductor, artistic director, composer and educator, Alex Pauk has demonstrated remarkable skills in the arts of initiative, risk-taking and the building and promotion of a leading Canadian arts organization, Esprit Orchestra, which is recognized around the world. A fervent believer in the richness and vitality of Canadian new music, he is a cutting-edge leader in the cultivation and presentation of contemporary music, in Canada and abroad. His true brilliance has emerged in the way that he has introduced new audiences – including young people and more traditional audiences for orchestral music – to the joys of exploring uncharted terrain, both musically and in the new and unusual venues where he has set his performances. Alex Pauk is a true champion of new music who continues to introduce Canadian and international composers to the world.”

I ask Pauk 10 questions: five about himself and five about leading Esprit into this special season.

1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what’s your nationality / ethnic background)?

Alex Pauk

I don’t think I resemble one of my parents more than the other but rather, have qualities passed on to me from both of them equally that affect how I do things in both personal and professional situations. My mother’s steadfast approach and stamina in getting things done raising a family of five kids under all kinds of circumstances, was an example to me in how to persevere in building the various new music groups I’ve been involved with – especially The Esprit Orchestra. Through his sense of humor and his practicality, my father showed me a lot about relating to people and realizing dreams through realistic organizational approaches. Three of my grandparents were Ukrainian and one grandfather (on my mother’s side) was Polish. Both of my parents were born in Canada and I was born in Toronto.

2) what is the BEST thing / worst thing about being a conductor interpreting modern compositions?

The best thing about being a conductor of modern compositions is that you become completely engrossed in the music and what you are doing to successfully bring performances to their optimal levels of quality. This is quite different from relying on the comfortable, sure knowledge of performing well-known classical repertoire even though this is also rewarding.

It’s also a wonderful experience working with composers to bring their new pieces to the public for the first time. There is truly an electricity, tension and excitement in trying to get things right at a premiere performance. It’s also always rewarding to get reactions from the composers and audiences when history is being made through a premiere. There’s a wonderful feeling in knowing that some kind of ongoing development of music is taking place through your hands and thoughts.

Perhaps one of the worst things about being a music director for new music is worrying about the technical, administrative and scheduling details involved – will the players’ parts for a brand new piece arrive on time? –  is all the right percussion equipment available in town? – can we get the musicians we need for enough rehearsal time when they are busy with other projects? Conductors of all kinds of music have administrative responsibilities but the situation is more intense with new music.

3) who do you listen to or watch?

My range of listening is really eclectic – everything from the playing of the jazz great Bill Evans to Lady Gaga, Ravel, Bach, Mozart, Berio, Ligeti and all the new composers surfacing around the world. I like to know about all the things that are exciting and influencing people. The same is true regarding my taste in movies.

I especially like Glenn Gould’s interpretation of Bach and was happy to attend the recent Glenn Gould conference at the University of Toronto where Gould’s impact on all kinds of arts and entertainment was explored.

4) what ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I had more ability to memorize the music I conduct. But usually, the music I perform is quite complex rhythmically and in terms of orchestrations and doesn’t lend itself easily to being memorized. It would be generally hard for anyone without a photographic memory to memorize most new music. The fact that one doesn’t get to perform new works more than once or twice also limits one’s opportunities for memorizing through repeat performances.

5) When you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favourite thing to do?

When relaxing, I like going to movies of all kinds. At home, I’ve recently taken a strong interest in cooking as kind of useful hobby. This was inspired by the delight of sampling so many kinds of tapas on a recent holiday that my wife Alexina and I had in Spain. The problem is that I have to battle with Alexina to get control of the kitchen. She is a gourmet cook and questions me about what the heck I’m doing there. She and my kids usually do end up eating and liking what I make.

Esprit Orchestra: Alex Pauk, Music Director & Alexina Louie, Composer
(Photography: bohuang.ca Hair and Makeup: Ivy Lam Hair and Makeup)

Five more concerning Pauk’s roles with Esprit Orchestra and their upcoming 30th anniversary season

1) How does your role as Music Director & Conductor of Esprit Orchestra challenge you?

My role as Music Director and Conductor of Esprit Orchestra provides the challenge of continually coming up with ever more interesting programmes but keeping them affordable from a budgeting point of view. In recent years, I’ve been able to increase the number of musicians I’ve had on stage and this has enabled me to explore a wider range of repertoire.

But a large orchestra is very difficult to maintain financially. With Esprit, there is a real balancing act going on in this regard. As for the conducting aspect, I’ve never programmed a concert that did not require full, intense attention to performing and interpreting the music. This is an exhilarating kind of challenge – often on the knife’s edge.

2) What do you love about Esprit Orchestra & your programme for the upcoming season?

I love the coming Esprit season because it is both a reflection on the solid work we’ve done in building relations with composers and audiences over a considerable period of time, as well as the fulfillment of my dream of gathering a large number of musicians together who know how to play new music well and want to do it. The composers commissioned for the season are those for whom Esprit has been important and who have likewise been important to Esprit. While there is a strong link to composers we’ve worked with in the past, we are also presenting the music of Zosha Di Castri, a Canadian rising star that will soon have attention around the world.

R Murray Schafer

Composer R. Murrray Schafer (Ottawa Citizen photo by Patrick Doyle)

In terms of the musicians, I love the fact that at the start of each season I feel no trepidation about starting to rehearse again. I only feel support from them and know that there will be good vibes and a productive, rewarding artistic environment. This season I’ve been able to build much of the programming around the theme “The Tuning of the World” after the title of a book by R. Murray Schafer. While some of the pieces relate more directly to our acoustic or natural environment than others, I feel the title is apt in that all composers are “tuning the world”.

3) Do you have a favourite composition in the upcoming season of concerts?

I can’t say that I have a favorite composition in the lineup this season because I’ve programmed with the idea that I like each piece a lot. And each piece is there for a good reason in the flow of repertoire. Of course I don’t know what all the pieces are like because most of the commissioned works are still being written. That being said, I’ll give an idea of how my planning works using the first concert as an example. The Tuning of the World brings Murray Schafer’s thoughts about and concern for our sonic environment to the fore. In the new composition of his that we’ll premiere on October 14th, Wolf Returns, he brings the sound world of the wilderness to Koerner Hall (employing chanters from his Wolf Project in the piece) and contrasts the listening space of urban life with that of the lakes and forests where distant listening is possible. The programme continues with Xenakis’ For the Whales, not only suggesting the images of massive whale bodies and oceans in sound, but offering a plea to save them from harm by mankind.  The imagined sounds of the Cosmos in Alexina Louie’s piece O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould, blend with fragments of Bach and Mahler that she embedded in the work when she learned of Glenn Gould’s death 30 years ago. McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan is a vivid portrayal of the life, culture and environment of Bali, drawing on pulsations and colors derived from the Balinese gamelan orchestra (made up of gongs and metal bar percussion instruments). John Rea’s musical depiction of the Icarus legend directly links us,  psychologically and physically, to conditions in nature that we can or cannot use and control to varying degrees.

4) How do you relate to Esprit Orchestra as a modern man? 

Esprit’s relevance to modern man has to do with keeping us abreast of recent trends in music and the relationships of that music to how we think about our present condition. By way of comparison, we don’t expect doctors to use medical equipment from the 1800s in their practices today, so why should we expect musicians to only perform music from the past? I enter into my work with Esprit with a sense of adventure and discovery and I want my artistic colleagues, as well as audiences, to share in that experience. While there is sometimes a degree of entertainment value in what we do, the idea of moving music forward in a pure sense is important. We aim to provide a sensual experience as well as an intellectual one – one that relates to life in a meaningful way today.

5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?

French composer Marius Constant (click picture for obituary)

I had a mentor, the conductor/composer Marius Constant, who passed away several years ago. His work both in Paris (where he lived) and around the world, inspired me and proved to me how important it was for me to maintain my interlocking interests of composing and conducting. These two areas inform one another. As a composer, I’m much better able to deal with composers and new music than I would be as a performer only. As a conductor I’m able to determine better what things are practical to write and what won’t work.  My musical life is rather all encompassing – it is really more a lifestyle than a vocation.  I learned how to operate in this realm by being around Constant a lot. His influence is still with me as I deal with an ever-expanding range of composers, musicians, technologies, and audience environments.


Esprit Orchestra begin their 30th Anniversary Season with a concert October 14th, “The Tuning of the World,” a spectacular program incorporating the launch of R Murray Schafer’s book My Life On Earth and Elsewhere.  The concert includes works by Schafer, McPhee, Louie, Rea and Xenakis.

The Tuning of the World
Sunday, October 14, 2012
8:00 p.m. Concert / 7:00 p.m.
Book Launch and Pre-concert Talk
Koerner Hall / Royal Conservatory of Music
TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning
273 Bloor Street West, Toronto
For tickets (Regular: $55/Seniors: $50/Under 30: $20),
Please call (416) 408 0208 or visit performance.rcmusic.ca
Subscriptions Available. For more details: www.espritorchestra.com

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2 Responses to Ten Questions for Alex Pauk

  1. Pingback: Esprit Tunes the World | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Esprit’s McPhee | barczablog

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