Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser: 5 pieces that changed my life

The conductor and new host of CBC Music's Centre Stage reveals the music that shaped him, from Ludwig van Beethoven to Mighty Sparrow.

The conductor and new host of CBC Music's Centre Stage reveals the music that shaped him

Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser is the host of Centre Stage, heard Saturdays at noon (12:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Music. (Submitted by Daniel Batholomew-Poyser)

When he's not busy fulfilling his duties as artist in residence and community ambassador with Symphony Nova Scotia and principal education conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser gets behind the microphone each week to host Centre Stage, heard Saturdays at noon (12:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Music.

'I may or may not believe in love at first sight, but I absolutely believe in love at first sound.' — Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser (Ben Lariviere)

"I'm excited to be the host of Centre Stage," says the Calgary native who now calls Toronto home. "I get to tell the stories behind the pieces people love and introduce them to composers whose music they don't yet know they love. It's like being a musical matchmaker."

Bartholomew-Poyser's professional path began at the University of Calgary and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, and has taken him to the podiums of the Kitchener-Waterloo, Thunder Bay, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton symphony orchestras as well as the Calgary and Hamilton philharmonics, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Washington National Opera.

"We conductors are a lucky bunch," Bartholomew-Poyser reflects. "We get the best seat in the house and are trusted with the responsibility of bringing together the efforts of talented colleagues — Christmas every day."

Scroll down to learn about five pieces that changed Bartholomew-Poyser's life, and tune into CBC Music's Centre Stage on Sept. 11 at noon to hear more of his insights about them.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, 1st movement

"When I was nine or 10, a friend raved about the sound quality of CD players and I really wanted to test it out. To do so, I reasoned that you needed to have great music in order to test out the great sound quality. Somehow I managed to convince my mom to get a CD player for the house, and I got my hands on a copy of Beethoven 9.

"How did I know that Beethoven 9 was the piece to buy? I think it had something to do with Mrs. Pauls and Mrs. Kostyniuk, my Grade 2 and Grade 4 music teachers. Especially Mrs. Kostyniuk, who would always say, 'At the end of the day, I love to go home and listen to a little Chopin.' I was a bit off on the composer but I was young and, anyway, she was right about listening to Chopin after work.

"Back to Beethoven, I turned on the CD. Instant love. The sound quality was amazing, sure, but it was more than that. The first movement alone, more than any other (yes, including the fourth), seized my imagination. It was interesting to me that the music was not thematically linked to anything outside itself. No story for this movement. It simply was. The opening, pure fifths — a small two-note motif that appears and develops into a tidal wave of fury; the incredible, sustained climax toward which the movement builds. Fifteen minutes of music with shape and purpose. It is the piece that lit the fire of my passion for orchestral music and remains one of my favourite symphonic movements."

Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire

"In my undergraduate student days, I was driving down a boulevard in Northwest Calgary, listening to music that my professor, Ken DeLong, would later force us (as music history profs do) to identify for a test. A movement of Pierrot Lunaire came on. 'Der Mondfleck' is only 58 seconds long, but by the time it was finished I had already stopped the car and pulled over, enthralled.

"I may or may not believe in love at first sight, but I absolutely believe in love at first sound. I fell in love, on that boulevard, with the music of fin-de-siècle Vienna, with Schoenberg (angular and angry though he may sometimes be), with the dark richness of the music of that period  — and the dark, rich desserts! — and ultimately, with the German language. I did my master's thesis on this time period, travelled to Vienna to study source documents and scores, and learned German. This is what 58 seconds of Schoenberg can do.

"For his adaptation of Arthur Giraud's text Pierrot Lunaire, a symbolist, nightmarish fantasy on the experiences of a stock commedia dell'arte character, Schoenberg invented Sprechstimme, a technique in which the singer neither speaks nor sings but does something in between. It is incredible, sounds strange, and I absolutely adore it."

William Byrd: Earle of Oxford Marche

"Have you ever been obsessed with a piece of music? Unable to get it out of your head no matter what you try? 

"In high school, my band teacher, Mr. Paddock, convinced us to play this piece of Renaissance music by William Byrd. I became obsessed, unable to stop hearing or playing it, but instead of growing sick of it, I grew fonder. The more we played it, the more I understood the polyphony, the phrases, the relationships between the inner parts of the instruments. I bought first one, then multiple recordings to compare — my first foray into this expensive, delirious and wonderful addiction. I started learning the piece on as many different instruments as I could — piano, saxophone, clarinet, flute, euphonium — enjoying each addition to the whole. This was the first piece I ever 'studied.' For no other reason than pure love, I spent time learning its inner parts (beautiful!), replaying it in my head at different speeds, thinking about what worked best for each line and what phrasing, balance and tone I imagined could make them sound better together. This is actually the job of a conductor! I just didn't realize at the time that that is what Byrd was nudging me toward."

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6

"My cousin knew I was 'taking classical music' at university, so she got us tickets for the New York Philharmonic. And we were almost late. We got to our seats (fifth row!) just as Daniele Gatti leapt to the podium to conduct the entirety of Mahler 6 from memory. I, too, had it pretty much 'memorized' as a listener, enough to await with glee the reaction of the woman who had fallen asleep beside me during the last movement, seconds before the thunderous final chord breaks the dissolution of sound that occurs in the symphony's last moments. She almost screamed; I definitely laughed. 

"In the orchestra, certain 'chemistries' appear among the instruments, their sounds blending or clashing to great delight or dismay. As a conductor, Mahler experienced these chemistries every day on the podium; when composing, he would put this firsthand knowledge to work and create thrilling soundscapes of novel instrument combinations. This, the art of marrying instruments to melodies, is called orchestration. 

"Mahler's sixth symphony was my orchestration textbook in university, and is still a guide now when I compose and arrange. I spent hours looking at the way he blended instruments with each other. Like a mixologist imagining new combos for a bespoke drink, Mahler blended instruments and sounds in delicious and satisfying ways. Sometimes a violin line will be 'painted' with just two bassoon notes to give a little more depth. A flute may have a grace note where others don't; he just wanted that specific bit of freshness."

Mighty Sparrow: 'Jean and Dinah'

"For me, growing up with Trinidadian and Jamaican parents, calypso, reggae, kaiso and soca were on a steady stream, constant companions throughout the day. Calypso is a form of popular dance music, often with a humorous or political story. It makes you move but it also exists to make you think.

"In this song, Mighty Sparrow deals with, among other things, the economic impact of the closure of American military bases in Trinidad. But you might be too busy dancing to notice.

"I am grateful this music informed my childhood. When music is your work, as it is mine, it is great succour to have an island of music that lies outside the scope of your practice, beyond the reach of your analysis and manipulation. Calypso, for me, is there for my enjoyment in ways other musics aren't. Lately, orchestras and their audience have been making moves to unite the sound possibilities of the orchestra with the musics of different cultures, the Caribbean among them. I'm happy and eager to comply and create opportunities; I'm looking forward to bringing more calypso to the stage."