Korndorf's Canzone Triste

Ryan Scott delves into a solo harp masterpiece

Living in a land with three coasts and four seasons is idyllic!  Here in Ontario, the reckless heat of summer has passed and the cool air and fallen bracken of autumn has commenced.  And during the pensive long walks necessitated by the beauty of transformation in this season, one is best able to contemplate the impact of a gentle giant in the Canadian world of composition.

Nikolai Korndorf (1947–2001) lived in Canada for the last ten years of his all too short life.  Featured on Finding Voice, the first concert of Continuum’s 2012–2013 season, Canzone Triste (1998) is undoubtedly one of the masterworks for the solo harp in the Canadian repertoire.  Starting from the opening passage based on the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th symphony (possibly the most significant harp solo in the romantic repertoire) and ending (perhaps to some ears) somewhere in the rich score of Howard Shore’s soundtrack for the Lord of the Rings (with harpist Sanya Eng singing in plainchant), Canzone Triste is a sonic journey of quietude, depth and subtlety.

A highly trained student at the Moscow Conservatory (where he eventually became professor of music) Korndorf was a co-founder and deputy president of the ACM (the New Association of Contemporary Music), which included Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke as members.  During this period in Moscow, he was active on the new music scene and frequently premiered new works as conductor.  In 1991, he and his family moved to Burnaby, B.C.  Shortly thereafter, he began teaching at the University of British Columbia (students include Brent Lee, Jocelyn Morlock and Iraida Yusupova), where he also became an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre and the Canadian League of Composers. 

CBC music states: “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, at tempo, during composition lessons – to the amazement of his students.”

One never to tout his own accomplishments, he died suddenly in 2001 at the age of 54 while playing a game of soccer.  Capilano music professor Bradshaw Pack writes: “Nikolai never really said anything. 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, that’s when we realized what a heavy guy he was.”

In Korndorf’s own words: “I belong to the direction in Russian music which, independently of the composer’s style, usually turns to very serious subjects:  philosophical, religious, moral, problems of spiritual life of a person, one’s relationship with the external world, the problem of the relationship between beauty and reality, as well as the relationship of the spiritual and the anti-spiritual.  All this means that most of my works were not written for fun and that then can in no way be classified as entertainment.  As much as possible, I strive to ensure that every one of my works contains a message to each listener and that my music leaves no one indifferent but arouses an emotional response in them. I even accept that sometimes my music arouses negative emotions – as long as it is not indifference.”

Join us for Finding Voice, a concert of voices found, presented by many friends new and old in the Continuum hemisphere of seasons changing and decades counting, in this our 28th year.

Ryan Scott