From the Beauty to the Pragmatics of Performance: Karl Hirzer and the Calgary Philharmonic

interview by Carey Rutherford, article by Ivy Miller

Listen to an excerpt of this interview on Apple Podcasts

MUSICAlive caught up with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s newest Associate Conductor, Karl Hirzer. After some back and forth, the conversation started with the absolute basics.

Young man in white shirt looking down to the side.
The CPO’s newest conductor takes the totality of his musical responsibility in stride. Image by Harper Lee Studio.

“What is your job as a conductor?” we ask.

“That’s a good question,” Hirzer laughs. “I’m still figuring it out myself!”

MUSICAlive joins in the chuckling. “You’re not allowed to say that!” When the laughter dies down a bit, Hirzer gives us a more complete answer.

“The job of the conductor has many different avenues. The most obvious one is that you’re in charge of the musical presentation of whatever orchestra or ensemble you’re working with. That begins with the planning process in terms of deciding what are we going to play? Then deciding how are we going to rehearse it? Putting the schedules together, making sure you have all the necessary instruments, personnel, and then there’s the rehearsal.”

We stop him there to clarify something. “What you just described, is that the music director part?”

“The music director would definitely decide what the music repertoire is,” Hirzer explains. “They would decide who is the soloist. Basically they have a vision of what the presentation of what the concert is going to be.” Hirzer goes on to elaborate on the role of a conductor, giving more of his own view on it.

“I actually think one of the most artistic aspects of being a conductor is programming. You have to have a knack for putting together a full evening of music, making sure that the pieces that you pick complement each other [and] work together on the same program. I think that’s actually a big part of the artistry of classical music, because all these pieces have been played for so many years that presenting them in companionship with various works can sometimes bring an interesting new light to those pieces.”

It certainly makes us think about how a piece of music can change depending on how its presented, and with his point across, Hirzer gets into the more technical role of a conductor.

We believe the black t-shirt is a leftover from Karl Hirzer’s Rage Against the Machine tribute band days. Really. Image by Harper Lee Studio.

“[A conductor’s job is also] making sure that everyone knows what the instrumentation of the concert is so that the correct people can be hired for the gig. [It’s also important] if there’s any kind of weird instruments. Sometimes [we require] strange percussion instruments [or] strange wind instruments.” Hirzer offers an example of this. “The CPO doesn’t own Wagner tubas. So when we played The Right of Spring by Stravinsky, we had to borrow Wagner tubas from another orchestra. Of course, that’s also the administrative team that has a role in that.”
Rehearsal seems to require for the conductor another skillset entirely. Hirzer explains, “The conductor’s role in the rehearsal is to prepare the performance. You have to be very thorough in your knowledge of the score—the piece that’s being played—but […] there’s also a psychological aspect to being a conductor that I think is maybe the most fascinating thing about it.”

Hirzer says that, although he doesn’t consider himself one of the few conductors that can pull it off, a great conductor can stand at the podium and inspire musicians to play their best.

“[When] the conductor gets on the podium, all the musicians there, especially with the CPO, everyone who’s playing is already a phenomenal musician in their own right. They don’t really need someone to get up there and say ‘You’re playing out of tune’, ‘You’re rushing’ or ‘You’re dragging’.”

But isn’t that the job, we wonder? “They must say that, certainly: you must.”

“You do,” Hirzer admits, “but I think that that’s all of subsidiary importance to just being an embodiment of the music and facilitating and enabling everyone to play the best they can together. That’s, I think, the most important thing about being a conductor.”

It’s a satisfying answer, and paints a truly wholesome image of the role Hirzer performs as Associate Conductor. But just as we’re dreaming about the job for ourselves, Hirzer has one more thing to add to the list of duties a conductor has.

“There’s also all of the non-musical things, too,” he says. “You’re the face of an organisation. You’re kind of the ambassador of the organization, and you’re that link between them and the community. So there’s media obligations, there are development obligations as well, working with private and corporate sponsorships and donors and maintaining those relationships.”

We cut in there before he can go much farther into detail. “So why the heck would you want to do this? I mean, it sounded great until those last two minutes…”

“Well, it is a lot of work but it’s also very fulfilling,” Hirzer is quick to say. “And the main part of that is because you get to play, you get to be part of a music making process incredible music with great musicians. I’ll say definitely that this orchestra performs at a very high level. Basically, all of the concerts that they put on are very good, and sometimes, [they’re] exceptional. And when [they’re] exceptional, whether you’re conducting or even whether you’re just in the audience, you can really really feel that, and I think it can be a profound experience.”

Hirzer seems to go into this most meaningful explanation of his job here, his passion for it clearly showing. He expresses how hard the musicians work, and explains how when everyone first come together in rehearsals, it’s already good. “Everyone’s playing all the right notes at the right time and playing beautifully.”

The conductor only puts together the pieces musicians bring to the table. “Through the process of those four rehearsals, […] it’s really just about sculpting it together as a musical statement,” Hirzer says. “[You’re] making sure everyone’s on the same page and moving together, breathing together, phrasing together.”

On that note, the interview seems to be coming to a natural end, but we have one last question for Hirzer because of his hard rock high school years.

“Is there gonna be a CPO pops Rage Against the Machine night?”

Hirzer laughs, and although he doesn’t have a definitive answer for us, he admits, “That’d be pretty sweet!”

Posted by Ivy Miller

Author: Ivy Miller

Ivy has a degree in Creative Writing which she uses on a daily basis in Facebook posts and tweets. Her hobbies include writing novels, making films, and blogging. She hopes to someday be a stay-at-home dog owner. The proudest achievement of her life was running away to Paris without telling anyone. She’s back now, unfortunately.