TORONTO — The Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced earlier this summer that it had chosen Shalom Bard as its new resident conductor to work along with the TSO’s music director, the conductor Peter Oundjian.
Bard, 38, who was born in Haifa and moved to Toronto with his family in June 1990, is the first Israeli-Canadian to lead the orchestra.
He’ll also assume the mantle of conductor of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO).
He applied to the orchestra through a program set up by the RBC Foundation’s Emerging Artists Project, which decided to invest $400,000 in Canadian arts programs, including setting up a new, two-year resident-conductor position with the TSO.
The bank also sponsored an affiliate-composer position with the orchestra, which was filled by local composer Kevin Lau, who will also work with Bard.
The Israeli-Canadian, who is a clarinettist, comes from a family of musicians. His father is a cantor, his mother is a pianist and his brother is a violinist.
Bard sat down with The CJN at Roy Thomson Hall to discuss his new job, a smile etched on his face throughout the interview.
“This is literally a dream come true. I’ve daydreamed about this. I’ve sat as a clarinettist in the symphony. It seems like only yesterday that I used to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great [to be a conductor], and now I’m here. It’s amazing,” he said.
The bonus, he said, is that he’s conducting the TSO, an orchestra whose system he learned while guest-conducting for the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO) and through performances as a soloist with the main orchestra over the last 15 years.
Like many artists, his life has been a journey of musical discoveries and creative growth, he said.
He started studying and playing clarinet at age 12, and within months of coming to Canada, had joined the TSYO.
By 1992, he’d graduated from the University of Toronto; then he obtained his master’s degrees in orchestral conducting and clarinet performance from McGill University and the University of Southern California respectively.
“I actually missed my [SoCal] convocation in 1999 because the TSO had an audition for second clarinet, which I won,” he said.
After a year as second clarinettist with the TSO, Bard freelanced for various orchestras, including the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra and the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra.
Up to this point though, one of the highlights of his career was an invitation by Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta to be his acting principal clarinettist for the 2001-02 season.
Prior to his new position with the TSO, last year, Bard honed his conducting chops with various organizations, including as resident conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia, assistant conductor for Educational Concerts with the Herbert Zipper Orchestra of Los Angeles, and one season as conductor of Toronto’s Mooredale Youth Orchestra.
He said he doesn’t know why the conducting bug bit him, but he knows it bit him hard.
“I do it because I must,” Bard said, echoing a quote from one of his favourite poet’s, Rainer Maria Rilke. “I struggle with conducting. But at the end of the day, I know this is the right sandbox for me to struggle in. That’s what I know.”
Though the prep-work of a conductor is often a solitary thing – Bard said he often sits alone in his home, in silence, envisioning the composition he is about to perform in order to “get behind the notes” – the great enjoyment is then having an orchestra to use as an outlet for his vision of the score.
“An orchestra is the most magnificent palette and instrument to play with,” he said. “The possibilities are endless, which is where things get complicated. It can change with the acoustics [of a venue] or with the makeup of a particular orchestra.”
Outside work, Bard said he’s happy to be back in Toronto and, when time permits, will get back into some socializing patterns that he’s missed while away.
“I used to play some pickup basketball games with some friends at a local gym. I hope to do that some more,” he said, smiling.
Bard is scheduled to conduct more than 20 concerts during the TSO’s 2012-13 season.
His TSO debut will come on Oct. 20, when he conducts the orchestra and guest violinist Maxim Vengerov for performances of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
Bard said while he doesn’t have a favourite composer to conduct, he loves the romantic classics by Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. “I can’t get enough of that,” he said.
“But whatever I’m doing at any given moment, even if it’s a piece I’ve never heard before, the live sound of it becomes a special thing.”
Asked if his conducting is informed by his Jewish and dual Israeli-Canadian heritage, he said he hoped so.
“I’ve been conducting now for four years and you draw into your music from your life. And being Jewish, and a proud Israeli, there’s a rich culture and history full of wisdom and suffering, and music describes all those things. It’s an art that points to the past as well as the future.
“The reason Beethoven’s Fifth will forever be played is because… it’s the rattling of change. In today’s world, you see social upheaval, especially in my neighbourhood, the Middle East. So there are very contemporary ideas in those [classical] compositions. Being born in Israel makes one really wish for peace and all music has yearning. So it’s easy for me to [channel] that into my work.”
Bard said he hopes to be an ambassador for “all the beautiful things that are happening in Israel, and not the bad things that the media reports” from the Holy Land.