I know Brahm Goldhamer as a collaborative pianist of exceptional sensitivity. Of all the Toronto pianists I’ve heard in the concert-opera mode—where piano must stand in for all the instruments of the orchestra—his performance in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 2011 for Opera by Request stands out in my memory. At the time I said the following (defending the use of a piano):
I would not be undertaking such a discussion if it weren’t for the extraordinary playing of Brahm Goldhamer, the pianist & Music Director. On the piano, Debussy’s score is transparent, with nowhere to hide from its complexities. But if one can play properly, you hear the work more clearly than ever before. And so, for example, when Golaud & Pelléas emerged into sunlight after having been underground, the steady stream of sixteenth notes created a visceral sense of sunshine: especially because the notes were played perfectly. As the drama built up in Act IV –thinking especially of the violent moments, when the orchestra would unleash primal forces—Goldhamer tossed off lightning fast passages, hammered octaves, always pressing the tempi in perfect synch with the singers, literally hours of precise playing without a wrong note. Even without voices Goldhamer’s playing would have been a virtuoso performance. Best of all was the elegant last page that Goldhamer articulated with the eloquence of an Olivier.
There are several examples one can find on youtube to hear his exceptional collaborative impulses, supporting singers while playing exquisitely. Here’s one of them, but there are lots more.
Early in 2016 Goldhamer will be going in a new direction, playing a solo recital January 17th at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and I’m eager to hear him, which is why I asked him some questions about going solo.
Are you more like your father or your mother?
In terms of musical genetics, it is a mystery that I became a musician, since neither of my parents could really sing in tune. Apparently my grandfather, for whom I am named, was a good amateur singer. Since he died many years before my birth, I have no way of knowing this. My father had an appreciation for beautiful things and an eye for beautiful paintings, some of which ended up in our home. It is a small thing, but his handwriting , earlier on, was really interesting calligraphically. My mother always wrote with the precision of a teacher, which was her profession. Everything was very neat and orderly. My father’s rather free-wheeling personality was closer to mine.
My grandparents had an old Heintzman upright piano at their home and I always enjoyed tinkering with it as a child. I asked my parents for piano lessons. After that I was hooked.
I enjoyed making variations on all the sonatinas that I studied and in fact improvised on every piece that I studied. From this, I became very comfortable with a wide range of styles. My musical education was rather unorthodox in that I was educated by the nuns of the order of St. Joseph and as a Jewish youngster from a traditional Jewish home, I spent several summers in convents with Catholic nuns who were also my piano teachers. My parents did not have to encourage me. I encouraged them to take me to concerts in Montreal, a one hour car ride from home, in order to hear great artists. In particular. Expo 67 in Montreal was a real eye opener for me, due to of all the great artists who performed there.
I heard my first opera, Otello, that summer. However, at the time, I was too engrossed in the piano to take much notice. Not until I studied the Norton scores in Music History at the U. of T. did I really become hooked on opera. I would play endlessly the large excerpt from La Boheme in act 1. After that, I purchased the recording with De Los Angeles and Bjorling and I was smitten.
What is the best or worst thing about being a pianist?
The repertoire is absolutely the best thing. It is endless. To be in touch with the great minds of the past centuries through ones fingers is a beautiful thing. The challenge is that the piano is not a voice with an endless spinning legato. This is what the illusion of playing the piano is. How to be a singer with wood, felts and steel.
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I am a history buff. I love all of the old videos from the turn of the last century. YouTube is an endless source of creativity. I can live in ancient Greece or Timbuktu. I can travel wherever my dreams take me. I love visiting great art galleries. The Turner exhibit at the AGO was particularly magnificent. This summer when I visited London i went straight to the Tate Gallery to see my favorite Turner oil paintings and was very disappointed to see that they were on tour. How wonderful it was to realize that I could see them here in Toronto.
What ability do you wish that you had?
I am not that handy. I would have love to be able to build a house or repair my car. Alas, this is not in my makeup.
When you are relaxing, what is your favorite thing to do?
I enjoy cooking and reading biography or history. In the summer, I love going to the cottage up north. It is a sanctuary for the soul. Staring out the window at the lake is truly a very special thing.
What is the difference between collaborative piano playing and solo performance ?
I keep thinking that there are words and a voice for me to react to. My instincts are so in tune with poetry that I try to create scenarios for the solo works. They are not so specific as the song repertoire, but do allow for a world without words to be expressed solely through instrumental means. This is a challenge, but your mind can go anywhere it wants, without words. Since I am responsible for the entire musical output, I feel that it pushes me further to express in an even more personal manner what the music means to me. There is, however, a very unique experience of working with a singer, for example collaborating on a beautiful Lied by Schumann or Schubert. It is a perfect game of tennis with a perfect partner. We are always reacting on the spot to one another. I like to allow for the spontaneity of performance without working out every detail, and thus, to energize the performance. I love the sound of the human voice with all of its nuances. I strive to find this in solo repertoire.
Speak about your all-Schubert programme (Impromptus op 90, and three sonatas: B-flat , A Major and G Major)
Schubert speaks to me very personally. There is a special vulnerability that comes through his music which I can identify with. Since he was such a great composer of Lieder, it is just a step away for me to play his solo piano works as if they were all songs. There is something very mysterious about the Impromptus. With all of Schubert’s music there is, pardon the pun, something “unfinished.” They are not structured the way the sonatas of Beethoven are. They rather wander loosely. This is both their strength and their “weakness.” Schubert has his feet both in the classical time of Mozart, and in the forward looking harmonies of Beethoven. As with all great composers. they are not specific to any one time. They are unique creations, often looking both to the past and to the future.
This is Schubert. The B flat Sonata is a masterpiece, but it at times seems to lack cohesion. There is not the drive forwards to the cadence as we hear in Beethoven. Schubert takes his time and explores the nuances before finally arriving at the pivotal moment. This is what makes him unique. He lives in shadows, going back and forth between major and minor. You are never really sure as to whether the music is truly “happy” or whatever the opposite is. At the end of his life, Schubert was in a lot of physical pain. He does not allow this, as for example Tchaikovsky does, to become a really personal statement. This makes his music even more poignant.
Brahm Goldhamer plays Schubert 3:00 p.m. Sunday January 17th at the Conservatory Theatre, Royal Conservatory of Music 273 Bloor St W.