Karl Hirzer has been training in piano from the age of six, and went to two universities to realize his dream of becoming a conductor. But last summer he took a shortcut and applied for orchestral vacancies instead of continuing his education, being hired as the resident conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.
Growing up in New Westminster, a small suburb in Vancouver, Hirzer studied from the same piano instructor for 12 years. Hirzer’s parents began his lessons when they saw him tinker away on their own upright grand piano.
“My parents were always playing all kinds of music when I was a kid. I think probably the first piece I fell in love with was Beethoven’s fifth symphony,” he said. “When it goes until the last movement and you get this C major theme after all this tumultuous action of the whole symphony, I just remember that really affecting me as a kid.”
"I just realized that I couldn’t live without it.” — Karl Hirzer
However, Hirzer didn’t seriously commit to music as a profession until later in high school.
“I actually didn’t train as rigorously as I wish I had. I wish I had been one of those kids that were practicing three to four hours a day. Unfortunately that just wasn’t the amount of time I was willing to devote to music then.”
But that changed once he committed to becoming a pianist. He next dove into the Associate of The Royal Conservatory of Music examination preparation, wherein achievements from the examination count towards entrance requirements for music programs, and attended the University of Victoria for his undergraduate degree in music.
“[Music] was the one thing that I always felt I was good at, and it was the one thing that I always felt confident at home when I was playing. I also didn’t think that I could do anything else...I just realized that I couldn’t live without it.”
From there, Hirzer moved to McGill University, wanting to experience the city of Montreal, and work with Ilya Poletaev, the current assistant professor of piano at McGill’s Schulich School of Music. Poletaev was someone Hirzer had a great rapport with from his first university audition.
“There was just something exciting about a teacher who was known as a specialist for playing Bach and older music because I feel like that’s rarer these days... [most] will play a lot of the big romantic repertoire and the biggest Beethoven sonatas and a lot of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. While I love that music, I’m really at that stage especially where I was starting to feel more drawn towards the music of Bach, of Mozart, those classic and baroque composers.”
However, Hirzer found the most inspiration during his last year at McGill. Guillaume Bourgogne is a French conductor and gave Hirzer the opportunity to assist in conducting McGill’s contemporary music ensemble.
“Not only was he a great conductor, totally down to earth and straight to the point, by doing what needed to be done all the time,” Hirzer explained. “But he also inspired me by investing so much of his time into me, because I felt I had to work hard to show him I appreciated this investment that he was making.”
Hirzer’s interest in conducting helped him pursue his Masters in Music first, specializing in piano, wanting to develop confidence within playing, and the skills needed to conduct a full orchestra.
“It seems weird thinking back now into what my mindset was and what I wanted to do, but I think that I always wanted to become a conductor, and I don’t remember a point in my musical training when I didn’t think about doing it.”
“People do always wonder [about] the fact that you’re relatively young. Does that sort of impede your ability to be able to embody a sense of leadership with an orchestra, and I don’t actually find that it does.” — Karl Hirzer
Once Hirzer completed his masters, he chose to apply for orchestral vacancies instead of continuing school. When the position at the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra opened up, Hirzer made the decision to try and fill that vacancy, since it was specifically available for young musicians and those beginning their conducting career.
“I remember applying for four different orchestras that had vacancies in January of last year, 2016, and out of the four of these vacancies; the conductor position with the Calgary Philharmonic was the one I sort of immediately dismissed in my mind as being the unattainable prospect,” Hirzer said. “That was the real big professional position that I stood no chance of getting. Funnily enough, the Calgary Phil [sic] was the only one that gave me an audition out of the four.”
The audition was a two-day process, first beginning with a 45-minute rehearsal of four movements with the orchestra. This tested candidates on their ability to lead the orchestra and help it improve. The second day involved a meeting with a panel of orchestra musicians and administrative workers of the Calgary Philharmonic.
“So you’re displaying not only your technical capabilities as a conductor, but also how efficient and how clear and how engaging you are in rehearsal,” Hirzer said. That’s a huge part of the job is the rehearsal process, “Can you be efficient? Can you keep everyone’s attention? Can you make people follow?”
Although Hirzer has never conducted a whole performance with an orchestra before starting his season with the Calgary orchestra, he hasn’t felt his capabilities questioned as a result of his youth.
“People do always wonder [about] the fact that you’re relatively young. Does that sort of impede your ability to be able to embody a sense of leadership with an orchestra, and I don’t actually find that it does,” said Hirzer. “I find the people are generally pretty willing to make music together, that’s what it is. It is a collaborative undertaking in the end.”
Hirzer has now conducted over 30 performances, saying he’s grateful for the chance to work with such an established orchestra.
“Of course I’m at the beginning of this journey so there’s still a lot of improvement that needs to be sought and applied, but I do feel like I’m on the right track. I’m glad that the orchestra and the musicians are giving me the freedom and the trust to let me develop.”
Hirzer still has another season of conducting with the Calgary Philharmonic to go after this year. He is hoping to continue conducting, adding that he’ll always be grateful to the philharmonic for the opportunity it gave him.
“Come and see the orchestra perform. They are a fantastic ensemble, and supporting such an institution that is so pivotal to the cultural vibrancy of our community is in itself a huge contribution to this city,” Hirzer said. “But even more importantly, seeing a live symphonic performance can have a huge impact on any individual,” he added.
- By Casey Richardson