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Toronto Montreal

Interview: Christopher Mokrzewski brings variety and collaborative spirit to Toronto's vocal scene

By John Terauds on March 6, 2012

Torontonian Christopher Mokrzewski is one of those bright, eager, whip-smart young artists who could give even the most hardened cynic a jolt of optimism about the future of classical music and opera.

The pianist, vocal coach and conductor is also incredibly busy. Today’s grand unveiling of the Canadian Art Song Project in a free noon-hour recital at the Canadian Opera Company’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is only one of several concert outings in Toronto over the coming weeks and months.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Not even 30 yet, Mokrzewski has the bearing, attitude and, above all, chops of a seasoned artist. He also has lively, curious mind, which helps explain the variety of projects he’s involved in.

Coming up March 16 and 17 at Parkdale’s Gallery 345 is his latest venture with Against the Grain Theatre, which brought us a contemporary reimagining of Giacomo Puccini’s ever-popular opera La Bohème at the Tranzac Club last year.

Director and Against the Grain co-founder Joel Ivany has woven together a fascinating programme anchored on Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, accompanied by Mokrzewski and Daniel Pesca on two pianos. The evening also includes Piano Phase, by Steve Reich, John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, and a performance of Abraham and Isaac from Canticle II, by Benjamin Britten, with choreography by National Ballet alumnus Matjash Mrozewski. (For all the details, click here.)

On April 5, Mokrzewski offers up a solo recital of traditional fare — the Op. 5 Piano Sonata in F minor by Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

Then, on May 17, Mokrzewski accompanies departing Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio baritone, Adrian Kramer, in Franz Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin.

This mix of forms and styles reflects Mokrzewski’s broad interests.

But he is a collaborator at heart.

“Although it was my Dad’s dream that I do concert piano, and although I love the concert repertoire, it’s always been a part of me to branch out and do other things,” says Mokrzewski.

He recalls how, as a young student, he would round up friends to play chamber music. He accompanied his first singer in English art songs when he was 9 or 10. “It was there that I really got serious about working collaboratively and working with singers, and in opera, specifically,” he explains.

While growing up, his big heroes were conductors Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, James Levine and Herbert von Karajan — all of whom had strong connections to opera.

“I’m just not a solitary person, and I have no desire to pursue a solitary musical existence,” says Mokrzewski of the downside of working as a solo pianist. “It’s extremely fulfilling to work with other people. I don’t even know how to express this sense of satisfaction.”

Mokrzewski has a bit of an unconventional background that might have contributed to his wide artistic horizon.

He desribes how, at age 14, he won a competition to go study with the late Paris-based Polish pianist, composer and pedagogue Milosz Magin. While earning his high school diploma by correspondence, he lived and studied with Magin and his wife, and immersed himself in Parisian life.

“It was a very nifty experience,” Mokrzewski recalls.  “Basically, all they had to do was get my 6 to 8 hours in, and they were very nice about letting me do what I wanted.

“It was a very weird experience when you’re that young to have free reign and go out into the streets and find things. I explored a lot of Paris. It was a great open-mind experience, because you’re inundated with culture and learning things all the time – in addition to practicing more than I’ll ever have time to do now.”

Mokrzewski’s course shifted abruptly when Magin died, aged 69, in 1999. “My life changed dramatically in having gone (to France), and it changed even more dramatically in coming back,” he says.

Magin had been grooming him for a solo career, but Mokrzewski left France at age 16 for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he earned a Master’s degree before winning a spot in the COC’s Ensemble Studio as a rehearsal pianist.

That experience, working with Toronto’s Opera Atelier, and a long list of summer festival residencies, have helped develop and season his skills.

Mokrzewski and Ivany met at the COC, on a production of La Bohème, and they’ve been trying to cook up interesting projects for Against the Grain Theatre ever since.

The pianist says he would like nothing more than to stay in Toronto: “I love this city. If I could always stay here, it would be great for me. It’s such a great city to live in.”

But the reality of being a freelance musician means that making this city his permanent home may not be possible.

“Everything is in transition here for me. I’ve not been able to establish a strong enough base so that I always feel comfortable,” he admits.

But Mokrzewski is going to try his best — and it’s going to be in a number of different capacities and styles. He says that older people still think in terms of specializing. “That might be fine for an older generation, but it’s not possible nor desirable for mine.

“I want to do nifty things all the time,” he adds.

+++

Christopher Mokrzewski doesn’t have much on YouTube, so, to get a sample of his work, here he is channelling some Billy Joel for Lauren Margison’s recent audition for Canada’s Got Talent:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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