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Karl Hirzer: Meet the Red Velvet-Clad 27-Year-Old Making his Mark with the CPO

Tuesday 16th, May 2017 / 10:00
By Mathew Silver

A conductor with an ear for classical, Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead.
Photo via Twitter

CALGARY – I’m awaiting the arrival of Karl Hirzer, the 27-year-old Resident Conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, in a boardroom tucked at the back of the CPO’s offices on 8th Avenue. Hirzer is a sex symbol from a bygone era, a time when conductors were rock stars and live orchestral performances were considered popular entertainment. He struts the stage in plush designer suits, flips his hair as he leads a group of musicians much older than himself, and does it all with an air of grace and quiet confidence. So I sit and wait for the boyish-looking wunderkind to arrive.

The room is quiet, but for the sound of construction thrumming outside the windows at approx. 1 pm on an otherwise dreary day in downtown Calgary. The weather is caught somewhere between snow and rain, and I’m caught somewhere between jealousy and admiration as Karl strolls into the room.

He’s dressed smartly, and looks remarkably cosmopolitan toting an umbrella and an up-market coffee as he reaches to shake my hand. Hirzer’s face is youthful and thin, which makes him look closer to 18, and seems to further belie his brilliance as a conductor and performer. A jackhammer chips away at a block of concrete somewhere outside the building as we begin the interview.

Despite the fact that neither of his parents were musicians, Hirzer says his foray into music began early: “There’s an old home video of my dad going through the apartment. Then he goes into the bedroom and I’m lying there as a baby in this little crib, and there’s a recording of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata playing in the background.”

At just the age of five, the native of New Westminster, B.C. started making “nonsense compositions” on an upright grand piano that his parents bought, but he denies showing any type of prodigious talent from an early age. It should be noted that Hirzer is often self-effacing, which makes me wonder if he’s just being modest.

He continued to play piano through high school, earning his ARCT diploma from the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music at 17 years old – the highest academic standing you can achieve from the institution. In Grade 12, he used two spare blocks so he could practice piano for at least two hours, and often more in the afternoon. In his senior year at the University of Victoria, he travelled to Salzburg in Austria to study under one of the world’s most prominent living Mozart scholars, Robert Levin. It was his experience abroad that made him want to pursue music fully.

“The more that I learned about it and the more that I became engulfed in it, the more I became obsessed with it. It got to the stage where I realized this was something I could really devote my life to,” he says.

It strikes me that Hirzer is somewhat of a renaissance man. His eyes flitter intelligently behind his glasses, and he speaks with the tact of an upper-level English professor. He also has the ability to transition from a conversation about obscure Russian composers to the cultural staying power of Kendrick Lamar, which hints at the reason why the CPO hired him in the first place – he’s young and smart and cool.

According to Paul Dornian, the President & CEO of the CPO, Hirzer was also qualified.

“When we choose a Resident Conductor we are always looking for the someone who we feel has the most talent – not necessarily the strongest resume. Karl stood out amongst stiff competition because of his natural musicianship, intelligence and poise. He’s young, but he’s definitely got the goods,” says Dornian.

And that might be a bit of an understatement. He’s got “the goods” and then some, but Hirzer remains coy when asked about his status as an anachronistic rock star.

“It’s interesting thinking about the idea of conductor as rock star… the British conductor Colin Davis very humbly and very appropriately once said, ‘You can never forget you don’t play one note.’ In that sense, it’s a very collaborative effort.”

Hirzer tells a story about Leonard “Lenny” Bernstein, a rock star and socialite, and also one of the great conductors of the 20th Century. Apparently, Lenny would conduct a performance with the New York Philharmonic in the evening, and be found later at a nightclub going crazy on the dance floor wearing a leather jacket and nothing underneath.

Hirzer, much to my chagrin, says he’s yet to have his ‘Lenny’ moment at a local watering-hole.

“I’m only 27 so I still enjoy going out for a beer. I don’t know if I’ve been caught dancing shirtless at a nightclub just yet, but it’s only my first year here so anything could happen.”

But surely, being the conductor of a world-class orchestra at 27 must lead to some interesting conversations when you’re out on the town… right? Apparently not.

“I actually hate telling people I’m a conductor, because it’s so awkward. I usually just tell people I’m a musician, but of course that inevitably leads to ‘Oh what do you play?’ I think it’s a bit ostentatious to say ‘Oh yeah, I’m an orchestral conductor.’” Because for Hirzer, it goes much deeper than that.

“I don’t feel at the end of the day having this job defines me as a person. And there is something about being a conductor, even if you’re talking to someone who’s not a musician, that establishes a bit of a barrier. Being a conductor is sometimes a very isolating profession.”

There are perks, of course, like having his own personal couturier – otherwise known as a personal tailor-designer (with an exotic-sounding last name that Hirzer can hardly pronounce) – and the odd wine-soaked dinner with the CPO’s generous patron donors. “I have a red velvet tuxedo. It’s pretty snazzy,” he says, sort of laughing at how ridiculous it all sounds.

He’s also had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the world’s best artists. When the Second City Comedy troupe came to Calgary, Hirzer got to act alongside the legendary Colin Mochrie. “Even just to meet this guy I grew up watching on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but to act on stage and do all this shtick was pretty cool… It’s amazing to be on this level playing field with people who seemed sort of untouchable before I got here.”

As for his future, Hirzer doesn’t have any solid plans. He says that in the music business you mostly go where the work is. After all, high calibre musicians don’t just move to a place like Calgary and decide to audition for the orchestra. But for now he’s eager to learn more from all of the talented conductors and musicians that pass through the CPO. As for the future of classical music, he’s got a unique and thoughtful perspective.

“Mozart’s music is going to be just as popular 50 years from now as it is today. But I’m curious to see what people will think of bands like Radiohead in that same time frame… This is music that’s already survived incredible transformations in history and in human culture and identity. I think it’s going to be here for a while.”

I exit the building that houses the CPO, walking under the scaffolding and past the construction toward my Uber on 1st Street. As the Toyota Camry begins to roll down the block, the incessant and frankly annoying construction-like noises begin to recede.

 

Catch Karl Hirzer anytime the CPO performs. There aren’t many conductors like him.

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