September 25, 2009
A life of music and medicine
When Turning Point Ensemble celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Music Centre next month, one of the highlights will be the première of Remember to Forget by Dr. Jaap Hamburger.
The celebration of Canadian music by Turning Point in its season opener is particularly meaningful for Hamburger, who was born in Amsterdam and came to live in Vancouver in 2000.
"The fact that I was allowed now to write this piece for Turning Point, which is basically my introduction to the Canadian public, is an overwhelming experience and I am deeply grateful for that," Hamburger told the Independent.
Hamburger is not only a composer, but also a cardiologist at Vancouver General and St. Paul's hospitals, the owner of a Vancouver music production company and a director of City Opera Vancouver.
"My background, I would say, is the average Jewish boy in Europe," he said. "Multiple degrees. I went through the Jewish high school in Amsterdam and went to medical school and the Royal Academy of Music in Amsterdam at the same time."
His parents were not particularly musical, nor were his three siblings, though they "all had a period in which they played a musical instrument," so Hamburger jokingly describes himself as, "sort of an inborn error of metabolism, sort of a fluke."
"My mother's favorite story is that when I went to kindergarten at the age of four, all kids were allowed to sing a song to the class as an introduction. And so, it was my turn to sing a song to the class and I sang the entire last movement of Beethoven's Ninth and there was no stopping me until the movement was finished. That was the drama of my childhood."
His musical career started out with the ambition to be a piano soloist and he graduated from the music conservatory in 1984. He graduated from medical school in 1985.
"People try to [label] where do you belong. In which box do you belong? Are you a musician or a doctor?" he said of his dual interests. "I had to realize that ... my choice was doing both, so that sort of defines my life, to find a balance between the music and the medicine because, to a certain degree, I sort of have the feeling now I've done a lot with both. And I've had incredible experiences with both. And so, in music, I was a classical soloist; I played solo in orchestras and then chamber music and then solo recitals.... But I always had the feeling, all along, even at the times when I was completely immersed in music ... I always felt a need for the balance with medicine because life as a musician is very isolated.
"If you're a classical pianist and you practise your recital programs, you spend 10-12 hours a day working on four bars of a Beethoven sonata that was written 200 years ago. It's very isolated. It's very esoteric. And your only communication with other people or with society at large is through the sound of your piano, which makes for a very isolated existence, and I always felt the absolute need to balance that with a different outlet for my creativity, allowing me to achieve and communicate with people and be a part of society and not be completely isolated."
In the early 1990s, Hamburger had to choose between undertaking a large medical research project and touring as a pianist – he couldn't do both, he said, and he chose the former. "It turned out to be a critical juncture in my career path as a physician, and I closed the piano and I never went back on stage."
In 1998/1999, Hamburger received an invitation from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver General Hospital and St. Paul's Hospital to come work here and, in 2000, he did so.
"One morning you wake up, and everything is five degrees off," he said of moving to Vancouver. "I was 42, I was internationally well established, I thought I knew my profession and then, of course, it's a different language [in Canada], it's a slightly different culture, the way of communication is slightly different, people use the same words but actually mean something else than what I was used to. It took quite a few years to become part of the furniture here.... Overall, it's been a fantastic experience."
In coming to Vancouver, Hamburger also had to rebuild his career as a musician.
"On average, I work every night. I sit down and I write," explained Hamburger about his creative process. "I get up at six, 6:30, start in the hospital typically at seven in the morning, work till about 6 p.m., go home, help my kids with homework and dinner, etc., and they go to bed and I'd say, around 10 p.m., I go into my studio and, most nights, I work from, let's say, 10 p.m. till 2 a.m., and sit and write."
Some of Hamburger's recordings from Europe were forwarded to the artistic director of Turning Point Ensemble, Jeremy Berkman, who then wrote Hamburger to ask if he would undertake a commission.
"Remember to Forget actually is a quote from the Tanach," explained Hamburger. "As far as I know, there are three moments in all of Tanach that somebody literally comes with the suggestion of destroying the Jewish people and that's the Pharaoh and it's Amalek and it's Haman. In all of these three instances, the wording is actually exactly the same, where the potential perpetrators say let's instal doubt on these people so that we can destroy them, with the psychological background to this idea being that it is actually self-doubt that is, or doubt, that is self-destructive; doubt being different from self-criticism, being critical. Being critical is healthy, because it forces you to be sharp and learn and improve, etc., but doubt in the sense of I should have, I could have, that kind of thing, that is actually self-destructive from a psychological point of view.
"So the sentence, also in our daily morning prayers, 'Remember to forget Amalek,' it's a very strange sentence from a linguistic point of view because if you have to forget, you forget and it's gone, but every day you have to remember to forget. There's a kabbalistic explanation for this sentence, where the numerical value of Amalek is the same as the numerical value in the Hebrew word for doubt. So here's the link: you have to remember to forget Amalek linked to – remember those three sentences – where you learn that what is actually capable of destroying you as an individual is doubt."
Hamburger said he also linked his composition with the news that György Ligeti had died: "Ligeti is one of the main composers of the 20th century in Europe. He's one of the most important postwar, 20th-century composers." Most of Ligeti's family was murdered in the Holocaust and there is "one source saying that he actually witnessed the execution of his father and his brother. He and his mother survived and, after the war, came back to Hungary." There, under the communist dictatorship, explained Hamburger, Ligeti was only permitted to write certain types of music. Eventually, Ligeti managed to sneak from Budapest to Vienna. From there, he went to Germany and then became "one of the most important innovators of classical music in the '60s, '70s, '80s. He is mostly known, to the public in general for the music he wrote for 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know, Stanley Kubrick," said Hamburger.
"What I find fascinating about his biography is, of course, first of all, as I said, he's one of the most important composers and innovators in the past 50 years, but I linked his biography to this shiur [lesson] of 'remember to forget' because he's such a typical example of the generation of Jews who went through the concentration camps, survived, and there were two possibilities: some people never recovered, they survived physically but they did not survive mentally or psychologically ... some people, however, survived both physically and mentally and became the most incredible examples of indestructible strength. It's not because of the experience, but despite of these experiences – or maybe despite and because of those experiences, it brought out the best in them and these people became examples of what to aspire for as life."
Turning Point Ensemble's first concert of the season will take place Oct. 2 and 4, 8 p.m., at Ryerson United Church, 2195 West 45 Ave. For more information and tickets, visit turningpointensemble.ca.