Elliot Weisgarber Celebration

Artistic Advisor: Karen Suzanne Smithson
Friday, April 7, 2017 • 7:00pm

Elliot WeisgarberElliot Weisgarber is my personal favourite amongst BC composers. I’m allowed to say this because I am his daughter! As an only child I loved to spend peaceful Saturday mornings in the company of the magical sounds emanating from our piano and wafting about the household. The way my father “spoke” the language of music became something innately familiar and comfortable.

As I grew up I would come to appreciate that my father’s musical expression came from a deep well of sources and experiences. The influences of Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Debussy and Bartok (amongst many others) were all present and would soon be mixed with something that was, then, far more exotic.

Our family’s move to British Columbia opened a completely new door of possibilities for all of us. Always fascinated by whatever was over the next hill my Dad was instantly drawn by the mysteries that might be found across the ocean. His first exposure to Asian music had occurred years before in a class at the Eastman School of Music where Bernard Rogers had played recordings of Indonesian gamelan. He was hooked at that moment but didn’t have the opportunity to follow through. Now, in BC, he was at Asia’s door and he decided to knock.

The effect of the profound encounter that ensued was twofold: (1) much of his future composition was infused with a decidedly Asian (Japanese) accent and (2) his work became one of the foundation stones in the modern study of world music. This contribution is what constitutes, I believe, one of Weisgarber’s most significant legacies to British Columbia and to Canada. It was through his inspiration, efforts and enthusiasm that UBC instituted its program in ethnomusicology which, today, has expanded far beyond its Japan-centric beginnings. It is a study that promotes inter-cultural understanding and invites discovery of the common bonds of all humanity.

But, most of all, it is as a creative artist that Weisgarber wished to be remembered. His body of work included no less than 449 separate compositions written over the course of seven decades, over half of that here in British Columbia. In the footsteps of his own teachers, he trained his students to value and respect their time-honoured musical heritage while developing their own creative voices. Their works now feature on concert programs here in Canada and internationally.

For Weisgarber, to live was to compose. When he passed away on the last day of 2001 he had just started a revision of an earlier work. Due to his loss of muscle strength he could barely hold his pencil. The three lines he wrote are mostly illegible but they remain a testament to his profound need, not just to create music but to get it right. For the past 15 years throughout my project of digitizing his manuscripts I have felt him close by. His music is him. He is still here.

— Karen Suzanne Smithson

Download Program (PDF)


Aki-no-hinode (Autumn Sunrise)

Documentary Film Premiere
Written, directed, and produced by John Bolton
Mark Takeshi McGregor, flute; Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, piano

Empty Sky (Ko-Ku) for solo clarinet

Gene Ramsbottom, clarinet

Five Pieces for Bassoon and Piano

I. Capriccio
II. Scherzo
III. Arioso
IV. Intermezzo
V. Fantasia

Gregory Cukrov, bassoon; Richard Epp, piano


Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon

I. Maestoso
II. Lento e mesto
III. Allegro vivace

Roderick Seed, flute; Tony Nickels, oboe; Gene Ramsbottom, clarinet;  Gregory Cukrov, bassoon; Brian G’froerer, horn


Program Notes

Empty Sky

First … a meditation on the Empty Sky … the void … the darkness beyond the stars … This is Weisgarber’s adaptation for solo clarinet of one of the most significant survivors of an ancient body of Buddhist music for the shakuhachi, the Japanese vertical bamboo flute. Originating in China, possibly as early as the 10th century, the corpus of this tradition was transplanted to Japan in later centuries when the take-over of Confucianism in China forced practitioners of Zen and other sects into permanent exile.

In Japan, this musical tradition became the purview of a particular sect of monks known as the komusō. They were shakuhachi-playing priests who went about the countryside playing for alms with large baskets placed over their heads. The purpose of the iconic basket is the subject of much speculation with ideas ranging from suppression of the ego to the players’ possible activity as spies! The music they played was transmitted from teacher to student aurally over many generations and is known today as the hon-kyoku, literally “original pieces.” In the 18th century much of the hon-kyoku was organized, edited and written down in a sort of “shorthand” by Kurosawa Kinko for whom the modern school of shakuhachi playing, based on this tradition, was named.

In the 1960s Elliot Weisgarber became a passionate student of the shakuhachi, learning from a mentor in the traditional way. His teacher was Tanaka Motonobu of Kobe with whom he spent much time during the annual spring and summer breaks in the academic year.  Weisgarber eventually attained the rank of “master” in the Kinko school.

In 1984, around the time Weisgarber retired from teaching, his interest in the clarinet — the beloved instrument of his youth and earlier career — began to return. The remainder of his life was largely a re-involvement with this early passion. But his Japanese experience was never truly put aside and evidences of its impact on his life appear constantly right up to the end. One of the contributions of this remarkable cultural amalgam is the work you are hearing first on tonight’s program. Conceived originally for the instrument he adopted in his middle years, Weisgarber reconstituted it for the instrument that had always been his first love.

The Japanese title for Empty Sky, Kokū, is best understood in terms of the Buddhist concept of the Void, or Nirvana itself, a vision of a vastness in which everything is connected. Kokū is usually hyphenated with the word reibo, rei being the bell rung periodically during Buddhist ceremonies. Reibo was a category within the body of the ancient hon-kyoku which appeared to have been reserved for performance at funerals of bodhisattva, priests who had attained Enlightenment, the true union with Nirvana.

Weisgarber adapted Empty Sky for clarinet in 1990. He also condensed it to a length of approximately seven minutes and twenty seconds, reduced from the original’s performance time of 45 minutes!

Five Pieces for Bassoon and Piano

We are brought back to the here and now with the light-hearted Five Pieces for Bassoon and Piano, one of Weisgarber’s most often-performed works thanks to the frequent world tours of bassoonist George Zukerman (for whom it was written in 1982).

Weisgarber’s fullness of personality is amply illustrated in these five delightful vignettes, replete with wonderful melody and rich texture. The opening Capriccio draws us immediately into the music with long, flowing waves of arpeggios in the piano supporting the bassoon’s lilting melody in 6/8 time. For some listeners it has brought to mind Brahms’ piano Capriccio, Op. 76, #1 which is in the same key (F# minor) and metre.

The aptly named Scherzo is playful and rhythmic with a tranquil Trio that reworks and transforms the rhythmic motive of the main section.

The majestic melody of the Arioso is the sort that may come to a composer only once or twice in a lifetime … if he’s lucky. Every musician would wish this little gem had been written for his own instrument.

This is followed by a spirited Intermezzo in shifting time signatures which packs into its short length a variety of interesting counterpoint.

The work concludes with a delightful set of Variations sur un chanson populaire du Gaspé which leaves us all on a high note whilst catching our breath along with the bassoonist!

Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon

With the support of the Canada Council, Weisgarber’s woodwind Quintet was commissioned in 1978 by Vancouver’s Camerata d’Amici. We are tremendously fortunate this evening to have the participation of three of the original Camerata members who gave the première of the Quintet almost 40 years ago.

The Quintet exhibits Weisgarber’s uncanny ability to compose music that absorbed the cultural spirit of wherever he was or whatever he was writing about. In the words of soprano Laura Butler Frank: “…when [Weisgarber] is setting John Gould Fletcher, you know that he is American. When he’s setting Rilke it’s post-Strauss — it’s German! And when he’s setting Hardy, it’s English. How he achieves this, I don’t know.”

After Weisgarber’s last trip to Asia in 1976 his intense involvement with Japanese culture had begun to wane allowing him the emotional space to explore, in a new light, the inspirations that his own cultural heritage had always provided him. In 1977 Weisgarber and his wife Beth took a holiday in the Greek Islands with a stopover in England on the way home. It was their first visit to Britain in almost 25 years having been there briefly in 1953 following Weisgarber’s studies in France. They determined to return the following summer for a lengthier stay. This is how the Quintet came to be written at Ashcroft Cottage in the English village of Bardon Mill in Northumberland. It became — quite naturally for Weisgarber — an English piece, in the tradition of such composers as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams whom he held in the highest regard and counted amongst his musical forebears.

The first movement’s dramatic and declamatory introduction begun by the horn is not only this movement’s central motive but is, in fact, the glue that binds the entire composition together. Comprised only of three notes, it reappears constantly in many different guises throughout. Joined by delicate passages of running sixteenth notes the music moves through various changes of tempo while picking up a jaunty, rhythmic motive introduced by the oboe. The movement ends with the introductory motive played by the entire group.

The oboe opens the second movement with a distant, yearning theme into which Weisgarber weaves the other instruments with his consummate contrapuntal skill. While the entire movement is a development of the opening five-note pattern, the listener might want to resist the temptation to credit this to the influence of Asian pentatonic scales. Instead, Weisgarber’s inspiration here is in the modal traditions found in the British Isles for which he had always held an abiding love.

Energetic passagework in the upper woodwinds, another staple in Weisgarber’s style, opens the final movement, accompanied by a sped-up version in the bassoon and horn of the first movement’s initial declaration. Sections of rhythmic joviality ensue, interspersed with short melodious expressions. A lengthier tranquil section precedes the initiation of the Coda and the work comes to a close with repetitions in all five instruments, singly and together, of the work’s now famous three-note motive ending on a haunting diminished 5th.

— Karen Suzanne Smithson


Elliot Weisgarber, Composer

Elliot Weisgarber was a native of New England where he began clarinet studies as a young boy. He soon discovered his inclination and aptitude for originality so when he furthered his education at the Eastman School of Music he received degrees both in clarinet performance and in composition. His composition teachers at Eastman included Edward Royce, Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. Later he did post-graduate study with Halsey Stevens in Los Angeles and spent a landmark summer in the famous class of Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, France.

For many years he served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro until being invited in 1960 to join the faculty of the newly formed music department at the University of British Columbia. Excited to have been transplanted to the West he quickly set about learning as much as he could about his new home.

His almost instant friendships with producers at CBC Radio afforded him opportunities to explore the remotest corners of the province, sometimes by floatplane. The indescribable wildness of BC’s vast terrain had an enormous impact on him which he conveyed in soundtracks for several documentaries including From the Mountains to the Sea produced by Imbert Orchard in 1967.

The province’s position as distant next-door neighbour to Asia nourished a fascination he had long held. He had the opportunity of meeting University of Washington ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias and hearing his gagaku (Japanese court music) ensemble perform at UBC. He became determined to learn to play a Japanese instrument and, being a woodwind player, he decided on the shakuhachi, the vertical bamboo flute. UBC Japanese language professor Kenji Ogawa arranged to have one purchased for him in Japan after which Weisgarber went on to spend his annual academic breaks in Japan studying shakuhachi as well as koto and shamisen. He was eventually granted the status of master in the prestigious Kinko school of shakuhachi, one of the first foreigners, if not the first, to be granted this honour. His 1968 article in Ethnomusicology is still regarded as the subject’s English-language authority.

His profound studies in Japan revolutionized the latter half of his career as a composer. The Japanese experience had appealed to something in his soul that craved simplicity, even asceticism, and melded with his own mature musical style which had already been fueled by an enormous range of interests and a deep love of the musical traditions imparted to him by his teachers. The result was something entirely unique. Few of his works after the mid-1960s exhibit no hint at all of the impact of this culture on his life.

A journalist in Madison, Wisconsin perhaps summed it up best in his review of the premiere of Weisgarber’s 6th String Quartet in 1982.

John Bolton, Filmmaker

John Bolton is an award-winning filmmaker from Vancouver, Canada, preoccupied with revelation, consolation and transcendence, sometimes even in that order. He produces, writes and directs dramas, documentaries, performing arts pieces and the occasional disaster film through his production company Opus 59 Films. John’s most recent films are the feature length “musical docudrama” AIM FOR THE ROSES (in association with the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council), about Canadian musician Mark Haney and Canadian stuntman Ken Carter, which had its world premiere at Hot Docs and which was DOXA’s opening night film; and the short documentary DEBRIS (for the National Film Board of Canada), about Tofino, BC-based “intertidal artist” Pete Clarkson and the making of his most ambitious and personal project to date — a memorial to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake & Tsunami, made entirely out of marine debris from the disaster — which had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Gregory Cukrov, Bassoon

Gregory Cukrov began his music studies at the age of 19. Two years later, he was accepted at the Manhattan School of Music and received both his B.Mus. and M.Mus. as a student of Harold Goltzer of the NY Philharmonic. Upon graduation, he was invited to be principle bassoon with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra (MS), USA. While there, he founded and played in the Mississippi Chamber Ensemble. He remained with these ensembles until 1983 when he moved to Belgium, where he was a scholarship student of the Alex de Vries Foundation in Antwerpen. During this time he played principle bassoon with the RTBF (Radio and Television orchestra Belge/Francophone) and began concentrating on a solo career, giving recitals throughout the world with the French pianist Eric Davoust.

In 1991 Mr. Cukrov moved to France where he was invited to play with the Quintet Anacrouse and the Symphony Orchestra of St. Quentin-en-Yvelines and with the International Philharmonic Orchestra, under the aegis of U.N.E.S.C.O., while continuing his busy schedule performing in concertos and chamber recitals throughout the world — in France, Belgium, India, USA, Turkey, Finland, Italy, etc. He was invited by Georgy Cziffra to play in his music concert series in Senlis as well as by the Cartier Foundation and UNESCO in Paris, France, and was 3 times invited to participate as soloist with the East Meets West Music Festival held in Bangalore, India. Since 1999, Mr. Cukrov is Director/Professor of Chamber Music with G.A.M.E (Stage de Musique en Savoie) and works with students from around the world. Mr. Cukrov is an active arranger and in 2013 re-orchestrated the Mozart Requiem for a small chamber ensemble and vocalists which was subsequently performed at the Vancouver Art Gallery and in Ireland. Mr. Cukrov currently is living in the Vancouver area and is involved as bassoonist with the West Coast Symphony Orchestra and the Vancouver Chamber Players.

Richard Epp, Piano

Richard Epp is a Vancouver-based vocal coach, pianist and conductor. He is the senior opera coach for the Opera Workshop at UBC as well as a teacher for several classes in their School of Music. At UBC he has conducted Serse, Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte, Hänsel und Gretel, Der Fledermaus, Die lustige Witwe, Brundibar, Cabaret, Weisse Rose and two world premieres, among others. He was the pianist for the Vancouver Opera’s Resident Artist Program for five years, and has been on the faculty at the Vancouver Academy of Music.

He has appeared in concert for both Vancouver Early Music and Vancouver New Music. He has premiered numerous Canadian works and has appeared in recital on CBC on numerous occasions. As an accompanist and chamber musician, he has toured North America numerous times, and is a frequent performer at the Vancouver Art Gallery Out for Lunch concert series. Mr. Epp was also the conductor of The White Rock Community Orchestra for nine years.

Brian G’froerer, Horn

For over 30 years, Brian was the Associate Principal/Third Horn of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Principal Horn of the CBC Radio Orchestra. He began his music studies on piano and then on French horn in bands and orchestras, following this with a degree in music from UBC and further musical studies in Ontario and the USA.

He then began a career as a performer and teacher, both in Vancouver and nationally. For eight summers, Brian was the horn coach for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada in Ontario. He continues to perform in his semi-retirement years, soloing and with chamber groups, as well as freelancing with regional orchestras.

Brian was awarded a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. With the Canadian Music Centre, he commissioned Michael Conway Baker to write a flute piece (Generations) for his daughter, Joanna G’froerer, and Remembrances, a work for horn and piano/orchestra, which is now getting world-wide performances thanks to a very favourable review in the Horn Call, the journal of the International Horn Society.

Tony Nickels, Oboe 

Tony is a freelance woodwind performer, well-known in Vancouver and across Canada. He has performed extensively with the Vancouver Symphony and Vancouver Opera orchestras, with chamber music ensembles, jazz and rock groups, for many entertainment personalities, and for dozens of musicals, including four seasons with the Stratford Festival orchestra.

As well as recording for radio, TV, and motion pictures, Tony is a veteran of many tours, and has performed in every province of Canada, in every state in the U.S., and in 11 countries.

Gene Ramsbottom, Clarinet

Gene Ramsbottom received the FANS 2015 Distinguished Artist designation in recognition for his national and international reputation and being Canada’s most recorded classical clarinetist. In 1976 he was appointed as the founding principal clarinetist of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra by Richard Bonynge and performed in that role for twenty seasons until 1996. Mr. Ramsbottom had also been the principal clarinetist since 1984 with the CBC Radio Orchestra, Canada’s internationally renowned recording broadcast orchestra until it was disbanded.

Prior to 1984 he was the CBC Orchestra’s second and bass clarinetist for nine years. He has been principal clarinetist and a soloist with the Carmel Bach Festival Orchestra, California, and the Summer Music on the Shannon (Ireland) during various summer seasons. He has concertized in Canada, England, the USA, Europe, Israel and Asia. For over three decades he has taught at the music departments of Douglas College, Capilano University and UBC and, with almost 50 years of clarinet teaching, is the longest serving clarinet teacher in B.C. history. He founded the Out for Lunch classical noonhour concert series at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1986. The Friday noonhour series, now in its 32nd season, recently marked the 570th concert and received the most public votes in 2011 in the Places That Matter survey by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation as the most significant event to Vancouverites in a field of 200 nominations. He founded the Camerata d’Amici Wind Quintet in 1976 and commissioned works from many BC composers, notably tonight’s Quintet by Elliot Weisgarber..

Roderick Seed, Flute

Roderick Seed is a British flute player based in Vancouver BC, who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2010. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, London in 2009. He won the “Paddy Purcell Award” — an Entrance Scholarship — to study with William Bennett, OBE. He went on to study with Lorna McGhee, the principal flute of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he also received a scholarship. Previously, he has studied with Sebastian Bell, Kate Hill and Pat Morris (piccolo) and has participated in masterclasses given by international artists such as Emily Beynon, Emmanuel Pahud, Jacques Zoon, David Takeno (violin professor) and Shigenori Kudo. In September 2010 Roderick was a First Prize Winner of the Alexander & Buono International Flute Competition (New York) and in the following month he performed at the Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall.

Roderick has given recitals and concerts in venues such as Snape Maltings (Aldeburgh Festival), St Martin in the Fields, St. James’s Piccadilly and Westminster Cathedral, as well as concert halls in Japan, Canada, Hungary, Germany and USA. He has played alongside flautists such as William Bennett and Denis Bouriakov. He has played with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, London Octave and Worthing Symphony Orchestra. Roderick is an active teacher. He was Teaching Assistant at the William Bennett International Flute Summer School in 2009 and 2010. He has also given masterclasses at the Lizst Academy in Budapest, Hungary and for the Royal Muscat Philharmonic Orchestra in Oman. With the Moyse Ensemble, he has given classes and concerts in Japan and at the 2nd Canadian Flute Convention. He is currently on the flute faculty for VSO School in Vancouver, Tapestry Music School in White Rock and AVA Music in North Vancouver.

Karen Suzanne Smithson, Artistic Advisor

Karen Suzanne Smithson spent her 35-year career as a flutist and teacher in the Vancouver area. In addition to collections of arrangements of flute solos and duets, she created, over a period of ten years, an extensive set of method books for flute which was published in 1994. She was active as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral player and choral singer throughout her years in Vancouver and served for a time on the board of the Vancouver Youth Symphony. Since 2002 she has spent a significant percentage of her time cataloguing and digitizing the extensive manuscripts of her late father, BC composer Elliot Weisgarber. She now lives in the Okanagan where she continues the preservation and promotion of Weisgarber’s legacy.