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CBC Music - Gone but not forgotten: Nikolai Korndorf

CBC Music - Gone but not forgotten: Nikolai Korndorf

May 18, 2012
British Columbia

Gone but not Forgotten is an occasional series featuring musicians from yesterday who deserve more attention today. In this installment: composer, conductor, musicologist and educator, Nikolai Korndorf.

Nikolai Korndorf was a gifted composer known for his brilliant orchestrations and encyclopedic knowledge of standard classical repertoire. His scores continue to be performed by major orchestras around the world, and his reputation for almost super-human musical feats is now legendary.

Korndorf could play any piece of standard classical repertoire at the piano from memory. He could also instantly transpose enormously difficult orchestral scores, such as the Miraculous Mandarin, at tempo, during composition lessons – to the amazement of his students. These were more than parlour tricks. Korndorf’s demonstrations had real pedagogical value, and his colleagues and devoted students were left enlightened and slack jawed by his pyrotechnical displays.

From Russia to Canada

Korndorf was born in Moscow in 1947 and studied at the famed Moscow Conservatory, where he eventually became a professor of composition. He was a co-founder of the New ACM, an association of leading Soviet composers that included Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina. In 1991, in the midst of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Korndorf and his family left Moscow for Canada, landing in the quiet suburban community of Burnaby, B.C. From his new home base just outside Vancouver, Korndorf gingerly assimilated himself into Canadian society and began to create bonds with like-minded musicians who, at first, didn’t know quite what to make of the soft-spoken, big bear of a man.

Composer Keith Hamel describes his first exposure to the enigmatic Russian genius at the Canadian Music Centre, where they were both perusing scores. “When I met Nikolai at the CMC office I was immediately impressed by his phenomenal knowledge of music,” says Hamel. “He was very shy and, as I discovered, inclined to stay in the shadows. So, to draw him out, I invited him to audit a computer music class at the UBC School of Music and he accepted.”

The real Korndorf emerges from the shadows

Capilano University music professor Bradshaw Pack was in that same computer music class, and describes the behavior of the odd interloper: “Nikolai was older than the other students, and never really said anything. We were all trying to figure out this computer equipment and not doing very well. But before long Nikolai discovered how to make this unbelievable sound that seemed like it would shake the whole building down.”

“One day we noticed Nikolai was missing from class and we learned that he was in London recording a CD of his orchestral music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for Sony Records,” continues Pack. “That’s when we realized what a heavy guy he was.”

That CD, A New Heaven, drew comparisons to the music of Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. It also led to a commission from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that, in the end, didn’t meet expectations for either the orchestra or Korndorf.

“The VSO thought they were getting a piece like Hymn 2 and 3 [from A New Heaven],” Pack explains, “but instead they got a very aggressively scored piece called Get Out in which the players and conductor engage in a fight that ends with the conductor tearing the score to bits and storming off stage. The piece was never performed.”

The simple beauty of Maud Lewis inspires Korndorf

Fortunately, there are other instances of orchestral commissions with happier outcomes. Pianist Anna Levy, a close friend of Korndorf’s, witnessed the creation of one of his most compelling works, a gentle homage to the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. Levy describes the genesis of this work, saying, “Nikolai had just returned from an exhibit of the paintings of Maud Lewis. His eyes were wide open and he was saying ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it! This artist, Maud Lewis, suffered so much pain and lived in poverty but created such beautiful, simple art. And her smile, I’ll never forget the purity and innocence of her smile!’”

Korndorf’s legacy

The Smile of Maud Lewis has never been commercially released, like so many of Korndorf’s other works. In fact, much of the composer’s music has never even been performed. But that may change if interest in his music continues at pace. Several books and academic papers on Korndorf are now underway, in both Canada and Russia. A new CD of cello compositions is due out later this month, and a cello concerto is scheduled for performance on June 7 in St. Petersburg with Alexander Ivashkin as the soloist with the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev.

Korndorf died suddenly at the age of 54 in 2001 while playing soccer on a local pitch. His friends and family were devastated by the loss. Former student Brent Lee created a festival in Korndorf’s honour in Windsor in 2006. Others wrote pieces as tributes: Jocelyn Morlock composed half-light, somnolent rains and Hamel produced Kolokolchiki.

It’s clear that this gentle giant of a man, who made such an impact during his time here, will not soon be forgotten.

posted by Michael Juk on Apr 19, 2012

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