Celebrating Glenn Gould’s beautiful eccentricities on his 90th birthday

A series of events in Toronto marking the 90th birthday of Glenn Gould (pictured in an undated photo) includes the awarding of the Glenn Gould Prize on Sunday.Library and Archives Canada

If an artist wants to use his mind for creative work, cutting oneself off from society is a necessary thing – Glenn Gould

A life-size bronze statue of the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould sits outside the CBC’s offices in downtown Toronto. The artwork by sculptor Ruth Abernethy depicts the idiosyncratic virtuoso with his legs crossed, sitting on a bench wearing a cap, coat and gloves – seasonal apparel that a middle-aged Gould wore insistently, even in the deep heat of summer.

There is an unintended irony of a functional bench that allows folks to sit next to a likeness of such a glorious weirdo. Although Gould could be charming, his manner was not that of an approachable man. In 1960, the noted germophobe sued Steinway & Sons because a piano technician clapped him on the back.

Neil Young wrote a song about people like Gould (and maybe himself): “Step aside, open wide – it’s the loner.”

Gould died of a stroke in 1982 at age 50. A series of events in Toronto marking his 90th birthday includes the awarding on Sunday of the Glenn Gould Prize, an international award bestowed biennially to a living individual for contributions that have enriched the human condition through the arts.

The schedule of events includes Saturday’s presentation of Dear Glenn, a deep-learning technology which its developers at Yamaha Japan claim has analyzed Gould’s performing style to produce a performance in the style of the pianist.

Impressive? Maybe. Misguided? Absolutely, because the power of Gould has as much to do with his persona as it does with his robust and lucid keyboard skills. It was a one-off prototype not made for mass consumption. His pianism did not define him – a robot is the last thing he was.

The keys to Canada’s musical history reside in Glenn Gould’s pianos

“He startled people,” says Tim Page, a Gould scholar and a friend of the pianist. “He hummed while he played, he had longer hair than the Beatles did almost a decade later, and he was an incredibly handsome young man.”

In 1956, Gould shocked the squares with his radical interpretation of a piece rarely recorded previously. Released on the Columbia Masterworks label, Bach: The Goldberg Variations launched Gould’s career as an in-demand international pianist.

“He took the piece away from the realm of scholars and specialists to the general public,” says Page, who will introduce a screening of a Bruno Monsaingeon documentary about Gould and Bach at the Isabel Bader Theater. “He turned it into a hit.”

Gould was a dashing intellectual who challenged convention audaciously. His technique defied convention – to him, foot pedals were for automobiles, not the piano. His posture at the keyboard was oddly horizontal. A recluse of sorts, he had a big mystique. At age 31, on April 10, 1964, he gave his last public performance, at Los Angeles’s Wilshire Ebell Theater. He never married and was known to walk city streets alone at late hours.

“He was very much a loner,” says pianist Andrew Burashko, founder of Toronto’s Art of Time Ensemble. “But being a classical pianist is probably the loneliest musical pursuit there is. When you are touring, you’re always on your own, and when you’re on stage there’s no other energy to feed off of.”

Although a Life magazine profile in 1951 described Gould’s eccentricities as “earnest,” some of Gould’s mannerisms were too likely for effect. “I think he cultivated a public image,” says Burashko.

Adds Page: “Glenn certainly knew something about publicity.”

Which isn’t to say all of Gould’s peculiarities were manufactured. “It’s easy from the outside to see the eccentricities of the man,” says Roger Honeywell, “but those eccentricities came from something,”

The tenor Honeywell recently portrayed Gould in Tapestry Opera’s Toronto production of Gould’s Wall. The opera joins a long list of books, documentaries, dramas and stage productions that attempt to explain an enduring enigma. Highlights of the Gould genre include David Young’s Glenn, a 1992 play in which Gould is represented at four different psychological stages of his career. On the cinematic side, François Girard’s 1993 biographical anthology Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould starred Colm Feore. Girard will be on hand for a five-film tribute to the pianist at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sept. 27.

In the opera Gould’s Wall, Gould is presented as a mentor figure, even though he tutored no students and left no direct musical heirs. Because his parents knew Gould and had studied with him at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Honeywell heard stories as a teenager about Gould. He sees the pianist as a man isolated, both in terms of his rarefied status as a musician and in his social life.

“I guess it’s a feeling of being an outsider, and not being in the middle of things. I think he was great one on one, but not really comfortable with groups of people.”

Gould holds a rock star’s allure across multiple generations of devotees. Like the music fans who know exactly where they were when John Lennon was assassinated, Gould followers recall the pianist’s premature death distinctly. Barbara Hannigan had never heard of Gould previously when she heard the news on the radio as a child in Waverley, NS

“Our mother came to tell us that a great musician had died,” recalled the Grammy-winning Canadian conductor-soprano. “It made a big impact. I was 11 years old.”

Gould’s oddball persona is undoubtedly a source of fascination, and his playing was undeniably dazzling. But there’s more to his appeal: True-blue Gould aficionados find truth and inspiration in his undistracted pursuit of excellence, and they don’t see his vaunted nonconformity as some kind of pose.

“He did what he deeply needed to do, which could only be found by realizing what he did not need to do,” says Hannigan. Page is of the same mind about Gould’s resoluteness. “He was an extremely quirky guy who knew the way he wanted to live, and he lived just that way.”

With all apologies to Bach and Goldberg, the unconventional Gould is easily classical piano’s greatest variation.

For information on Glenn Gould @ 90, see glenngould.ca.

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