Interview: Sweet sound is as much the violin as the player, says Conrad Chow

Conrad Chow launches his first album, Premieres, at Gallery 345 on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., with pianist Angela Park.

Never underestimate the importance of the performer’s instrument.

The Canada Council has just enlarged its Musical Instrument Bank so that more promising young Canadians can have access to something that will make them sound better. Others, like Toronto violinist Conrad Chow, part with their hard-earned savings in order to achieve the same thing.

Chow, 30, describes his encounter three years ago with a violin made in 1933 by Gaetano Pollastri — an Italian who can trace his working lineage directly to Stradivarius, including having inherited all of the old master’s tools — as a career-changing experience.

We can hear the results on Thursday evening at Parkdale’s Gallery 345, as Chow launches his début album, Premieres, in concert with Toronto pianist Angela Park.

Unlike many albums of new music, Premieres is all about accessibility, featuring pieces that make strong references to classical styles and to film music.

Works by two Torontonians — Kevin Lau, who has just been named the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s new associate composer, and composer-conductor Ronald Royer — figure prominently on the disc, joined by two pieces by Hollywood composer Bruce Broughton. The disc’s encore is the posthumously-published C-sharp minor Nocturne by Frédéric Chopin, transcribed for violin and piano.

Chow’s playing shows off a nice balance between technique and musicality in music that alternates between fireworks and sweet expressiveness.

Much of the music contains a dash of lightness and wit, much like Chow himself.

Opening the disc is Broughton’s Triptych: Thee Inconguities, which turns the classical three-movement concerto form into a study of three contrasting styles of music, opening with something that makes overt references to the solo concertos of J.S. Bach. The second movement is an aching rhapsody, while the finale is a rhythmically humorous Celtic fiddle dance that would be as welcome in a Cape Breton bar as on a big-city concert stage.

Royer has written a gorgeous, two-movement Rhapsody that presents Chow with a thrilling cadenza to open the second movement, and we hear move allusions to the Baroque past (include bits of harpsichord) in In Memoriam J.S. Bach.

Members of Sinfonia Toronto, an excellent string orchestra, augmented by woodwinds and brass (many are members of the Toronto Symphony) accompany, conducted by Royer.

Lau’s contribution is Joy, a short rhapsody that owes its lineage to the young composer’s already extensive experience in writing film scores.

Later on, we hear three very clever Broughton arrangements of 19th century Gold Rush songs, with piano accompaniment by the composer.

There is something to like and appreciate in all 73 minutes of this generous disc — in Chow’s impressive skills as well as in the tight orchestral and piano accompaniments. And, unlike some easy-listening new music, there is enough in these scores to feed a serious listener’s imagination, as well.

This is one of those rare albums of new music that should, as improbable as it sounds, please most listeners most of the time.

Thursday’s concert will feature Royer’s Rhapsody, Broughton’s Gold Rush Songs, pieces by Philipp Bozzini and Fritz Kreisler, as well as the Chopin Nocturne.

For more information on the disc, the concert and Chow, click here.

Chow has resettled in Toronto, the city he grew up in, to teach at the Royal Conservatory of Music. An integral part of his artistic toolkit is the Pollastri violin, which he bought in 2009.

He had been looking for a new fiddle for some time, combing every store he found time to visit. As he says in a recent interview, “It’s always darkest before dawn.”

Chow’s quest came to an end with the help of Toronto violinist Mark Wells, who runs Maestronet, an online resource centre for violinists that places Wells at the centre of an international network of sellers and buyers.

Wells invited him to try a couple of violins in his own collection so that he could get an idea of what Chow was looking for.

“He told me that it could take up to four or six months to come up with something.” Chow recalls. “Two weeks later, he got in touch saying that a player from the Chicago Symphony had retired and that, ‘No one else is going to get to hear this except for you. You’re the first person.’

“So I played it and said to him, this is really, really good, right? He said, yeah. I should really take this, right? He said, yeah,” Chow relates, beaming. “It still was pretty much my life savings, but I bought it. At the first concert, it was only after people told me that they really liked the violin that I felt validated about it.”

To the untrained eye, every violin looks exactly the same. But to a performer, even tiny differences have a large effect on playability and sound. And it takes a while to figure these things out.

“Sometimes, you pick up a violin and say, oh there’s something about this, but then you realise three weeks later that octaves are not easy to play on it.”

“For me, it was playability, sound and projection,” Chow says, laying out his three main shopping criteria.

“Playability is when right away you hear that everything is in tune.” As an example, he mentions the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the parts where the soloist plays high notes. “The first time I played it (on the new violin), it was so gorgeous; it was exactly the way I wanted it. So, right there, I said I know I can play this violin.

“When I make a mistake, it fixes it for me,” says the musician. “The range of where your finger can go is fractions of fractions of a millimetre. This one was more forgiving. With octaves, there are two or three different places you can put it (your finger). That makes everything a lot easier.

“People were saying, oh, wow, you’re a lot more accurate now,” Chow smiles. “It was not because I was practising more. It’s because this violin accounts for that and helps a little bit. It’s a little bit mystical, but it actually has a lot to do with proportions and the way the violin is built. It was a very well crafted violin.”

Chow says violinists tend to gravitate to instruments that are either light or dark in their tonal character.

“Some people say they want something that sounds rich or creamy. Others say I want something that sounds pure and sweet and shimmering,” Chow explains. “When I was younger, I always wanted something darker and richer.  But when you play with an orchestra, when you want to travel over an orchestra, you want something that’s going to penetrate.

“People talk about how Stradivarius is bright and Guarneri is dark and more masculine and all that kind of stuff. But when you actually play a Guarneri – some of my teachers had them – the sound is actually quite penetrating. So you can think of the sound as being prettier, but it’s actually still quite bright.”

Chow’s violin is, given the direct lineage of his instrument’s maker, patterned after a Stradivarius. “It has a really, really sweet sound,” he says.

And he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Here is a short video of Chow talking about his album, followed by a four-year-old performance of the Chopin Nocturne at the Great Hall of Hart House with pianist Bo Yon Koh:

John Terauds


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