It is with a heavy heart that I write this post about a brilliant man, who has been an incredible source of inspiration in my new role at the University of British Columbia this past year.
Hans-Karl Piltz and I met backstage after my UBC debut on October 9th 2019, where I performed in front of my new family, with my long-time friends and musical partners, pianist Philip Chiu and clarinetist Jean-François Normand. Prof Piltz and I immediately discussed string pedagogy & engagement and made plans for meeting soon again. The next day, I received my first email from him about the genesis of UBC’s School of music and how he was implicated.
His rôle in the Department (not yet called a School) “was to teach incoming violin and viola, start an orchestra, teach Music History, start a Public School string teaching course, and to make sure that they would continue in a later, and more ‘developed’ phase. There was always a fear that a Music program at an institution of higher learning, would be cut from the overall University’s curriculum, if it did not succeed, so ‘results’ in the nature of number of students and how this kind of ‘Arts’ was viewed by the rest of the University and the influential people in the community.” -Hans-Karl Piltz
His writing was always fascinating, full of history and fine details.
“I was born in Germany, moved to the U.S. at age 4 with my family. I grew up in Chicago where I studied violin until I was introduced to the viola in my High School Orchestra days. I continued to study violin until I was inducted into the US Army and served ultimately in Europe during WW II.
After my three year Army service, I studied viola, starting with the principal viola of the Chicago Symphony and ultimately getting a Master’s degree in performance at Northwestern U. Then followed professional orchestra work: 4 summers with the Grant Park Orch. in Chicago, a year in the touring Arkansas Chamber combined with principal with the Arkansas Symphony and finally, 2 years a principal viola of the Atlanta Symphony.
I switched to the College/University teaching world after that, teaching progressively at 4 different schools until being hired as one of only 4 people from the US, challenged to start and develop [ a Bachelor of Music degree program] in 1959 and taught here until I retired… which was mandatory at the time at the age of 65. Since that time, I was heavily involved as the ‘musical director’ and violist of a chamber music enterprise focused on the North Shore, usually called the ‘Pro Nova Ensemble’ which had a formal series of 4-5 double performances a season. In addition, all sorts of concerts in Public Schools and other performances sometimes raised the total of concerts to around 20 or so per season in the Vancouver area.
Due to arthritis in both hands, I now only play one of my small violas in my basement studio for myself. The viola d’amore, however, gets a weekly workout in a small group of gamba players where I play the Treble Gamba part since they are short of regular players. “
Right after reading his email for the first time (I stopped counting how many times I have read it now), I had an idea about creating a space to share the experiences from outstanding artists, like Hans-Karl, and their powerful stories. Soon after, I started a blog dedicated to young string players in academia. He had subscribed to Viola Borealis (said blog), and often gave me feedback on various topics. He was truly curious, kind and generous of his time.
I was blessed with a polite knock on my office door from time to time and short visits from him in between lessons. These lovely encounters would automatically fill the next viola lesson or chamber music coaching with a tremendous amount of energy! I did not realise that my new friend was 96. He was driving to school, attending many concerts (sometimes during the day, sometimes in the evening, sometimes both in one day). We both got to share more beyond academia during Isabel Da Silva’s retirement party. This is the moment he met both my children and my partner. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the presence of the little ones (even though they had way too many deserts and were running everywhere uncontrollably). Soon after, I received a charming note from my new friend. He shared fond memories of his early years at UBC:
“It was good to see you in another role besides being a virtuoso violist the other day. I admire the gumption and fortitude in bringing your two children to Isabell’s reception. Reminds me of my two, who, however were some 10 years apart. My first, a girl, was sometimes involved in the early days of the Music School in ‘cleaning up’ the stage after I had presented a concert with the orchestra and with other things I needed to do there. The second one, a boy, was connected with the Music School by being a student there and taking a B.Mus.”
The string division had expanded the offerings for StringFest this year, and I felt compelled (and proud) to invite him to a few events that I thought he would particularly enjoy. He, of course, wanted to attend most activities, but was also a dedicated caregiver to his wife, Irene. I saw him twice that week, lucky me. The Tuesday String divisional concert, showcasing a few of my students playing in solo and duo settings, and the grand finale concert, featuring three Brandenburg Concerti by J.S Bach. Hans-Karl co-founded the Vancouver Society for Early Music in 1969 – now known as Early Music Vancouver. I sat next to him with my two-year-old for this event. I felt that I had reached absolute bliss, watching the students play with such professionalism and ease, alongside my new friend, and my little boy who was soaking up every musical gesture.
And the next day, I woke up like a child on Christmas morning, checked my inbox, and here it was:
“Thank you for alerting me to come to the concert last night. Bach is always good to listen to as well as be involved personally with performing works of his. And, I had a chance to hear 7 of your students do their stuff. Looking at the other side of the program, I am sorry that I didn’t get to see and hear the other one. They all looked eager and competent….and judging from some of their actions with you after the performance, they seem to be most happy with their new teacher.”
As an early music specialist, he also kindly expressed some things he would have done differently and I truly appreciated his sincere feedback and impressions on the concert.
Soon after, we made plans for lunch at Sage Bistro. From this moment, I understood that it was truly important for him that faculty members not only performed and shined internationally, but shared their artistic visions with the Vancouver community. He handed me a list of every work he had performed at UBC, solo and chamber. I told him immediately my plans to organize a concert in his honor next year at StringFest. A recital where the string students and I would highlight repertoire that he cherished and put forward.
“Looking at the repertoire that you have already under your belt, immediately sent good vibes in my own memory….the solo ‘Lamentations’ of Barnes…..the Bridge ‘Lament’ for two violas……the Sonata and the Madrigals of Martinu….and a host of other music on your list, push my nostalgia button and bring up memories of past performances.”
Doesn’t that look like the perfect recital program already?
We then made plans for me to visit his library and finally meet his wife, Irene. This meeting never took place, due to the Covid-19 crisis.
“ I think about the effects of the Music School’s operation… the academic classes, the operation of the large and small performing groups and the private teaching. I also am thinking of your personal calendar of performances that you list in your profile that are hanging in the balance and how that affects you. Your brain must be in turmoil. Thank God that you are young and resilient…”
Soon after the regulations were installed regarding social distancing, UBC’s wellness committee discussed various ways to reach out to our student body and motivate them to make the most of this period of their life (if they felt like it, of course!). Being subscribed to my blog, Hans received a notification that this video was up and shared his highly productive plans with me:
“I have watched and listened to your detailed plan on Viola Borealis for the immediate future a number of times and have paid attention to your request to hear about your watcher and listener’s plans. I know you have directed this at your students, probably mainly to spur them on to doing creative things while the virus crisis is at its most problematic point that could be so unnerving with things changing by the minute and them not knowing how to cope. So, let me hitch a ride to your request and tell you of some of my own plans.
I want to revisit some of the music that has occupied a good bit of my time since retirement from UBC. As I mentioned above, I’ve been busy arranging and adapting music written for other instruments than the viola from the Late Renaissance, the whole Baroque and through the Classical periods…even into the Romantic period, music that I wish I had had at my disposal when I was teaching viola. With today’s continuing interest in ‘Early Music’, violists find themselves now constantly in demand to play in various formations (…), I have been creating a library of material for violists that may help develop another marketable professional possibility. Of course, maybe more importantly, it adds another repertoire just for the violist’s pleasure in making music.
Here’s a partial list of what I intend to revisit and most probably revise:
* solo Gamba Divisions by Simpson and Baltzar
*some 30 pieces originally for ‘Lyra Viol’ which had been the musical examples from the Ph.D. dissertation of a UBC colleague, John Sawyer
*some 20 Sonatas and movements originally for the Gamba by K. Fr. Abel
*Slow movements from the ‘Bel Canto” style of Aless. Rolla and Paganini
* Slow movements from J.S. Bach’s Organ repertoire. The latest one of these being a severe revision of the Kodaly arr. of the Chromatic Fantasy
These are just some of the ‘Early Music’ things, but there are other things like:
*32 Concert Etudes, orig. for clarinet by UBC composer Elliot Weisgarber, written in ‘multi-modal’ harmonic style .
*Caprice Variations for Solo Violin (selected for viola) by George Rochberg
This just a partial listing of what I intend to go through during the time when free movement outside is curtailed. Let’s hope that my plans will actually be put into action. I certainly have the time. I get up usually at 5 in the morning and between that hour and lunch has always been my most fruitful time for practice and planning.”
I found out about Hans passing on Saturday evening. All of a sudden, I am filled with so many projects I wish I could run by him. I was waiting to answer his last email, as I was preparing a pedagogical video series. What I would give to read his opinions on these videos and hopefully involve him in some ways. Sending Hans a note was often a bit selfish, because the response was always so interesting, beautifully written, and simply charming. I am sending this off to him, as a huge thank you for his mentorship in this unforgettable first year in my new adventures at UBC.
Thank you, my dear new friend. May you have a peaceful journey after such a fulfilling and generous life.