There's a whole lot of guitar heroes in the world. Beck, Page, Van Halen, Vaughan, Hendrix, Slash, Clapton—the list goes on and on.
What about violin heroes, though? They're a lot harder to come by, but Otto Tausk has one. And as he explains on a call from the Netherlands—where he lives when he's not here holding down his job as music director for the Vancouver Symphony—he got to share the stage with his biggest violin hero in January of 2019.
"I've been with the VSO now for three years," says Tausk, "and in those three years my dearest experience and memory was with the violinist Itzhak Perlman. I don't know if you've heard of Itzhak Perlman, but he's a very famous, great violinist, and he was a violinist I knew when I was really young. He was a big star, and when he would come to the Netherlands to play in Amsterdam I would go to my school and say, 'Listen, I'm not coming tomorrow because there's this guy coming to play the violin and I'm gonna listen to him.'
"I skipped school to go and listen to Itzhak Perlman," he stresses proudly. "So then having this moment of conducting the VSO with Perlman playing the solo part—that was a really, really special experience."
Tausk's passion for the violin began when he was five or six, after finding one in his grandmother's attic. He started to play it immediately and kept on playing, studying it intently until he was in his mid-'20s, when he inadvertently discovered the joy of conducting. In what he describes as "a classic story", one day the conductor of the orchestra he was in became ill, so—faced with the option of either going home or sticking around to do what he loves best—Tausk stepped up and grabbed the baton.
"It was a piece of music that I knew really, really well," he recalls, "so that helped, because I'm pretty sure I was completely useless that first time. But I did feel something happen. It felt very different compared to anything I'd ever done before in my life, and I liked it!
"I mean it took a while," he adds, "and I realize that I'm not there, by a longshot. It is just something that I think is a lifetime journey. And it also changes--the way I approach music and the way I approach orchestras and what I ask of orchestras and what I ask of myself. It's really a process that is ever-changing, and that makes it interesting and fun."
When it comes to having a personal philosophy about conducting, Tausk's revolves around the notion that the entire orchestra must feel that everyone matters in what they do.
"I believe that the energy that comes from the stage to the audience is a shared energy," he says, "but all musicians bring something to that energy, and also they bring something to me. It's not a one-way communication thing, it's a two-way, and we're serving the composers but we're also serving the moment. And this is what I love about music. In a way it gives you a timeless feeling and a moment that will never be repeated again. I mean you're creating something that, when you're done, it's gone."
Speaking of composers, Tausk has his heroes in that realm as well. He was deeply immersed in Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 3 before picking up the phone.
"I fell in love with Brahms when I was a teenager," he confides, "and I don't know why that happened. I went to the store and I bought a Brahms symphony score and I started to listen to all these recordings, and I was really taken by that music. And now actually, tonight, studying that third symphony, the third movement is one of the most beautiful movements in any piece of classical music. It's quite simple, but it's really beautiful.
"Anyway, I can talk about a lot of composers that are very dear to me. I mean it's usually composers that have a combination of, let's say, emotional directness, but also a kind of clarity. It's composers like Ravel, Stravinsky, like Mozart. Even contemporary composers that have a special personal meaning to it that you feel touched by the music but you're still aware of a kind of clear structure. And every note has to be in the right place, somehow; all the notes in the score need to have a purpose for me. If the music is a blur and just rolls over you, somehow then I find it hard to figure out what to do with it."
As much as he loves his Brahms, though, the German composer won't be making the setlist on September 18 and 19 when Tausk leads the full Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in the gala concert that opens its 2021/22 season. That performance will feature Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, Beethoven's Fidelio Overture, and Dvořák's Slavonic Dances Op.72 No.2 & 7, plus excerpts from Massenet and Berlioz, and works by Canadian composers Dinuk Wijeratne and Barbara Assiginaak.
"I wanted to find two things," says Tausk of the program. "First of all, celebrate that we're back on stage, that we're back with the orchestra and the audience in the hall. And one of my great loves is the music of Tchaikovsky, but I also wanted to give something special to that, and so we have shorter pieces before the break, and we just picked pieces that are from very different times. We have Canadian works by Assiginaak, a First Nations composer, and Wijeratne. For me it's really important to present Canadian composers as often as possible.
"But it's also a little bit of a taste of what might come up in the rest of the season," he adds. "So I wanted to bring something by Berlioz, because hopefully we're doing more Berlioz this season. And so we thought, 'Oh, let's play one little movement of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique.' So it's kind of a mixture of all times and all ages, celebrating symphonic music."
Tausk sounds excited as he ponders his upcoming work with the VSO, and well he should. Last September the company announced that he'd signed on as music director until the end of the 2025/26 season.
"It's fantastic," he says of the new contract. "The COVID year was a very strange year—I mean, it doesn't even really count—so I feel like I've only just started with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. In the beginning you have this time of getting to know each other and celebrating—like you're on a honeymoon a little bit—and then you dive deeper into 'So what are we gonna do? How are we gonna work? How are we gonna build this relationship between an orchestra and a conductor?'
"And that just requires a lot of rehearsal time," he explains, "a lot of different kind of repertoire, and just playing a lot of concerts. I think we've only just arrived at that moment in the relationship, so I can only be really happy that we've started the real work."
When it comes to doing that work in Vancouver, Tausk has no complaints.
"Well, first of all, I love the musicians in the orchestra. I think it's a wonderful group with a great tradition but also a big eagerness to move forward and to work and to learn and develop. It's a wonderful team in the office—the management team is very motivated and very committed.
"But I also like the city very much," he adds. "I mean, it was during this COVID year that I actually discovered how beautiful Canada and B.C. actually is, because so far I had only seen the airport and the hotel. But now I've looked around a little bit and I've been kayaking and skiing and doing all these outdoor things, which I really, really enjoy.
"One of my other big loves is eating sushi," he adds, "and I'm not sure if there's a better place for sushi than Vancouver."
Before Tausk signs off to get back to his Brahms, a question that has little to do with classical music gets lobbed his way, just for fun.
Beatles or Stones?
"I was more Beatles than Rolling Stones," he replies. "Yeah, the Beatles are beautiful. And it's also because you can play those chords on the guitar and you can marvel at them forever because they're just brilliant music! It's so well made and beautifully done. It's exceptionally done. I love it. One of my favorite CDs actually is acoustical guitar transcriptions of Beatles songs by a Japanese composer called [Toro] Takamitsu."
Tausk's enthusiasm for the Lennon & McCartney vibe has us wondering if he'd ever consider having the VSO do a Fab Four night.
"Oh that would be wonderful!," he raves. "That's a good idea, actually. A really good idea. Yeah, yeah. I'll remember that."
Oh, man. So close. If only he'd added one more "yeah".