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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 6

Julian Wachner - Composer Conductor

by Wah Keung Chan / March 2, 2003

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Composers who are successful conductors are not that common. Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein are probably the best examples. With a stirring performance of the Monteverdi Vespers in February, McGill's Julian Wachner is making a case for this rare double career.

Wachner, who has considered himself a composer since writing a Te Deum at age 6, has been conducting for about 15, years after receiving much encouragement. Last year the 33-year old maestro arrived from years of study in Boston and took over as head of McGill's choral department. He had already amassed a prolific oeuvre of 50 compositions --soon to be published by Schirmer--many studio recordings, and excellent reviews as a conductor.

"Being a conductor is the hardest thing in the world. One has to combine the right gesture, a wealth of knowledge, the ability to inspire people and the vision to put together projects or seasons. The act of composition is a solitary activity; it is such a different mindset," said Wachner, who prides himself as very much a composer's advocate. "Gunter Schuller's book The Complete Conductor blew the whistle on the major conductors and how they were distorting the masterpieces. As a composer, I am able to anticipate the direction another composer is taking, and it helps me better understand the work as a conductor."

Wachner's breakthrough as a conductor came two years ago when he met Emmanuel Viaumme at the Spoleto Festival. "His approach was just so wonderfully alive, and he gave me a new prioritizing of why we are making music. I think my generation has a different view on performance because of recordings. Particularly in early music which are recorded closely and perfectly, we need to rediscover what it is like to make music with other human beings. There has been a big change for me in how I approach rehearsals and the act of performing in concerts.

"So much of what I'm doing is highly architectural, much like taking a building apart and rebuilding it. How the different players work together. Why the cello references the horn line and affects how the altos sing. I try to integrate scholarship with a real expressive intuitive manner of music-making."

Wachner's strength lies outside the 19th century, in composers such as Macaut, Dubrec, Ockeghem, French polyphony and the 20th century. "I view the 19th century through the lens of the 17th and 18th centuries. I'm aware that Brahms is a Schütz fanatic. Then the idea of tactus means something; all of his links to polyphony that labelled him a stodgy classicist by the Wagnerites. There is an element of creating something really new by going back to the old, by putting a 19th century harmonic vocabulary on it. Many of the harmonies that are so radical are really 15th and 16th century style and harmonies. I try to look at a bigger rhythmic sense than taking more rubato; a more vital sense of rhythm and pulse is very important in the 19th century."

How does conducting affect his composition? "My music became much more accessible. I was writing some really wild stuff, and now I like to have my music have an audience, with a balance between sincerity and accessibility. It's post-Bernstein, it's a rich sort of French harmonic vocabulary with a New York City rhythmic energy to it, with melodies, tunes, lots of lydian and octotonic scales."

Wachner recently took up the prestigious post of musical director of the Church of St. Andrew's and St. Paul's. "I grew up with liturgical music, and I don't think I can do without it. I find that I need to be very busy in order for me to be inspired creatively in composition."

Julian Wachner directs the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul Choir in Bach's St. John Passion on March 16 at 4 p.m. Freewill Offering. 514-842-3431

Read his thoughts on the St. John Passion

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