Bridging musical worlds

Cary Chow brings rock-star style and an uncompromising attitude to his role as piano teacher and his recordings of Robert Schumann’s work.

Cary Chow

Cary Chow looks more like the lead singer of a rock outfit than a dedicated classical musician. First off, there's the boots: on a Thursday morning in late August, the 37-year-old soloist, chamber player, and teacher is sporting a pair made from teju lizard. Others in his collection, he notes, were fashioned from eel, ostrich, and even elephant. The footwear "was just a latent fetish that just materialized in the last 10 years", he explains, flashing a mischievous grin.

Then there's the ink. Emblazoned on his right forearm are a number of black tattoos: a Flemish lion, a sword, and a spider. It's not exactly what you'd expect from an interpreter of classical, romantic, and 20th-century repertoire. But Chow, who moved to Vancouver last year from Victoria, clearly gets a kick out of bucking trends. When discussing his influences, he's just as apt to bring up Ozzy Osbourne as he is legendary pianists like Vladimir Horowitz and Ivo Pogoreli.

"These are people who have lasted decades and never sold out and have always maintained true to who they were, irrespective of trends that go on around them," Chow says. When working with students–which he does as a private teacher and as part of UBC's Young Artist Experience summer program–he insists that his charges enrich themselves with only the best influences. "I try to steer people towards listening to people who have not sold out," he says. "If you're going to listen to rock music, listen to Pink Floyd or Black Sabbath or Neil Young."

Chow's uncompromising teaching methods have earned him the nickname the Enforcer, a title he clearly relishes. But as hard as he is on his students, Chow insists he's a hundred times tougher on himself. In fact, there are times when Akeiko Rawn, his wife and publicity manager, passes by his home studio and hears voices–only to find Chow berating himself. He spends six to eight hours a day alone at his piano but insists it never gets lonely. "There are plenty of voices in my head," he remarks, seeming to be only half joking.

Expect to see plenty more of Chow's eclectic personality in the coming year. He'll be appearing in concerts both as a soloist and in chamber groups in the next few months, starting with a show on Wednesday (September 19) with Larry Knopp, principal trumpet with the VSO, at the UBC School of Music Recital Hall. He's also planning a cross-country promotional tour for Zirkus , his recently released CD of music by Robert Schumann.

The album, with its cover image of an eerily lit, three-headed Venetian mask and its moody artist portraits, has a distinctly rock look, as do Chow's concert posters and Web site ( ). He's clearly hyper-aware of the importance of branding himself. Yet, as he acknowledges, playing the marketing game "is a fine line, because there are successful classical musicians out there who are marketing creations". He won't name names–at least not on the record–but insists he isn't one of them. "Someone like Ivo Pogoreli? was very flamboyant and made excellent press copy and publicity, but behind that there was this incredible musician. He's the real thing. That's what we're aiming for."

Jessica Werb

Iranian-born composer and pianist Farshid Samandari hopes his music will fill the gap separating the Persian and western communities. Mark Mushet photo.

Farshid Samandari

With his soft voice and gentle manner, Farshid Samandari seems an unlikely jailbird, and it's probable that had he grown up anywhere other than Iran he would never have seen the inside of a prison cell. But that's exactly where he found himself during the early years of the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's reign–the victim, he says, of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His crime? Being a Baha'i in an Islamic theocracy.

Ironically, Samandari's brief incarceration proved to be a turning point in his life. Although only 15, he already knew that he was going to devote his life to music–but it wasn't until his release from jail that his calling as a composer became clear.

"When I came back it had such an impact on me that I started to improvise on piano," says the classically trained performer, in a telephone interview from his Vancouver home. "I was just shocked, like 'What am I doing?' And then that night I had a dream, which was an opera, and I realized that this was like a sign or something: I had to write this piece."

Twenty years on, Samandari is still working on his dream composition. Now studying music at UBC, he hopes that in time it will become his PhD thesis. Its theme, he adds, is the past 100 years of Iranian history, a topic that's fully deserving of operatic treatment and that will likely repay his careful approach. In the meantime, however, just about everything else has changed for this thoughtful musician.

He's making a new life in a new country, having moved to Canada in 2001. He's discovered an interest in electroacoustic music and is working on a series of scores for piano, oboe, and the Max/MSP computer program. In May, the VSO performed a brief symphonic work, Towards Unity , as part of its Olympic commissioning program. And this week he'll debut an ensemble, Parto, at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Saturday (September 15), with a second concert at the Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre on Sunday (September 16).

The new venture unites Canadian chamber musicians with four Iranian-born traditional-music virtuosos. It's also a practical demonstration of Samandari's musical credo: unity in diversity.

"One of the reasons for forming this ensemble was to create a bridge between the Persian community and the western community," he explains. "Most of those [Iranian] musicians have a good concert schedule, but they are performing traditional music and they have a certain kind of audience, which is mostly Persian. And I don't think it's fair, because it causes seclusion within the community, and also misunderstanding, which is not fair either. So one of the reasons we are working on this ensemble is to fill that gap: to preserve the Persian tradition while appreciating what we can have within the western medium and western tradition.

"I believe in everything," he adds. "If we can join all the different achievements of the different cultures, we'll be more enriched than if we just stick to one tradition."

Samandari might be a relative newcomer to the Vancouver region, but with that attitude he may well have found his home.

Alexander Varty