Striking the right notes

Arthur Kaptainis, The Gazette, 12 octobre 2009

As he turns 99 today, composer and violist Otto Joachim reminisces about a career that took him from Nazi Germany to Singapore and Shanghai, and finally to Montréal 60 years ago

The last time I visited Otto Joachim, I did not know what he was talking about. My teenaged son did. They were looking at a disassembled computer on his dining room table in Côte St. Luc, sharing observations about operating systems, platforms, memory cards, that sort of thing.

In the three years since then, the German-born composer and former principal viola of the MSO, who turns 99 today, has ceased tinkering with computers. His eyesight does not allow it. So he listens to the radio. Last week, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Also Brahms symphonies as conducted in Ottawa by Pinchas Zukerman (a bit heavy on the rubato) and Zubin Mehta (just right).

“My hearing is not impaired at all,” Joachim said in his living room sofa. “My mind, I don’t know. Maybe you think I talk a lot of nonsense.”

This would be Otto irony. Not to mention the only nonsense he talked all afternoon.

A conversation with a man who started music lessons in 1916 and arrived in Montréal 60 years ago this month is necessarily wide-ranging. The scope is amplified by his interests, which have included the apparently polar opposites of electronic music and the Renaissance.

In the 1950s, Joachim was in the curious position of operating both an electronic music studio and leading the Montréal Consort of Ancient Instruments, years before these pursuits were in vogue. Many of the instruments in this ensemble, including organs, were of his own manufacture.

All this while joining the MSO as principal viola at the invitation of Mehta, teaching viola at the Montréal Conservatoire and playing viola as part of the Montréal String Quartet, which made recordings with Glenn Gould. And composing. And, later, painting.

“Forbidden is a big word, but I was doing all the things I was forbidden to do,” he said, referring to the rise of the Nazis. “And I have to mention that I found in Québec the freedom to do what I wanted without the interference of the public or my colleagues.”

In Düsseldorf, young Joachim studied not composition but violin and viola, although he felt an urge to create.

“Whenever I walked to the conservatory to take my lessons, I had to pass by the house of Brahms,” he recalled. “Is that an inspiration to think, as a 12-year old: ‘Hey, are you going to be a composer some day?’”

The young man did write a tone poem, Asia, for which he still feels affection. “Sometimes daring,” he says of it.

Yet this future forger of tough 12-tone scores started his professional career playing in coattails in cafés in his native Düsseldorf, and liking it.

When his contract was cancelled, along with those of other Jewish performers, his mother found him an opportunity to play in Bombay, many time zones away from the Nazis.

“It was the first time I saw my father cry,” he says, recalling the bizarre scene at the station on Jan. 28, 1934. Brownshirts a few platforms away were singing the Horst Wessel Song. A police officer friend accompanied Joachim as far as Cologne and instructed him to read the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer until he was out of the country.

In Genoa, Joachim discovered his destination would be Singapore, not Bombay. First he played in the Adelphi Hotel and then the storied Raffles. “That was the hotel where you wanted to be,” Joachim remembered. “The only six-star hotel in the world.”

He became friendly with Sir Alexander Small, the British colonial secretary, and particularly Lady Small, a pianist who produced musicales for fellow dignitaries. They were instrumental in getting Joachim’s parents out of Germany. Somewhat ironically, after Britain declared war, Small was compelled to sign papers declaring Joachim an enemy alien. “It was a little awkward for him, I’m sure,” Joachim says.

Rather than move to a labour camp in Australia, Joachim opted for Shanghai, along with his brother, Walter, a cellist who had been working in Kuala Lumpur. Joachim’s son, Davis, a guitarist and administrator, was born there (the marriage did not last long). Joachim developed his interest in electronics, running a radio shop, and acquired a taste for Chinese food that his live-in helper currently satisfies.

Next stop, Brazil. There was a touchdown in Montréal, and he decided to stay. The Montréal Musician’s Guild demanded a year of residency, so he worked at a Craig St. (now St. Antoine St.) electronics shop repairing turntables and the like.

His first gigs were with the CBC. A stint in the viola section of the MSO did not go so well (“I turned pages for decrepit violists,” he recalls with disgust) but he returned in earnest under Mehta, quickly demonstrating his ability with a performance of Strauss’s Don Quixote in which his brother played solo cello.

Joachim got along famously with the young conductor, leading the orchestra in its standing and sitting routines in response to applause, a duty for which the concertmaster, Calvin Sieb, had limited aptitude.

His recollections of the orchestra are realistic. “The MSO consisted of old and young, but few young ones, and quite a few tolerated ones. The conductor was not strong enough to kick them out. ”

Musicians responded well to competent conductors like Josef Krips. They did not have the discipline or pride to play well for the mediocrities.

“You could not say, if you listen to several orchestras, ‘Ah, that is the Montréal Symphony.’ You could say that’s the Berlin, that’s the London, but you could not say that’s the Montréal. We did well under certain conductors and we did pretty lousy under others.”

In the 1960s his activities as a composer gained momentum. A confirmed modernist, Joachim experimented with chance music as well as electronics while maintaining an allegiance to the 12-tone system and the descendant techniques associated with serialism.

One work, Contrastes, travelled to New York and Lincoln Centre, where he met Elliott Carter. This American composer turns 101 on December 11.

“I guess I should not wish him dead so I am the oldest,” Joachim remarked with a smile.

Not that Joachim plans to write any more music. His characteristically atonal (but utterly fascinating) Metamorphoses of 1995 will likely be his last major orchestral work. The shorter pieces he wrote for a return visit to Düsseldorf in 2001 will probably be his last of any kind.

The argument that his beloved Bach, whose eyesight also went from bad to worse, dictated music at the end of his career does not dissuade him. “How old was he? Sixty-four?

“When I was 64, I was active; when I was 70, I was active; when I was 80, I was active. This is close to 100.”

To what does he attribute his longevity?

“I am not a medical man,” Joachim says with a shrug. Although he recounts with relish a visit to the hospital last April. The family had been summoned to say goodbye.

“The doctor came to me, in front of everybody, and said: ‘We have done everything we can. It is your choice to take off the oxygen mask. After that it will take about two hours and we will give you something special.’ The doctor was stuttering when he said this. I said, ‘No, I refuse.’ The same night I started to recuperate. And now I am talking to you.”

Otto Joachim, the German-born composer and former principal viola of the MSO, in his Côte Saint-Luc home: “I found in Québec the freedom to do what I wanted without the interference of the public or my colleagues.”