By Mary-Justine Lanyon
It is not at all surprising that Tomasz Golka has conducted orchestras all over the world. As a boy, he accompanied his father – a trombone player – to orchestra rehearsals and was fascinated by the conductor.
“Being a conductor seemed like one logical thing to do in life,” Golka told the Alpine Mountaineer from Szeged, Hungary, where he was a guest conductor last week.
Golka is now in his 14th season as the music director of the Riverside Philharmonic. He and his orchestra will be on the mountain on Sunday, Sept. 17, when they will present a concert titled “Bach to the Future.”
Yes, Golka said, he penned that title. “I’m proud of it,” he said. “I think it’s very clever.”
He chose the three pieces that will be played that day: Alban Berg’s “Violin Concerto,” featuring Concertmaster Sam Fischer as soloist; Golka’s orchestration of Bach’s “Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor”; and Johannes Brahm’s “4th Symphony” in full.
Both the Berg and the Brahms quote Bach’s music, Golka noted.
“A lot of composers – if not all – looked up to Bach. He was the Shakespeare of music. It’s not frequently the case they directly quote his music so I thought this was a nice way to talk about Bach and how influential he was.”
He has conducted his orchestration of the Passacaglia a dozen times, Golka said. He added that he premiered it in 2012 with the Lubbock Symphony. He has conducted it in Mexico, Colombia, all over the U.S.
“It’s one of my most popular pieces,” Golka said. “People request it.”
In talking about how he orchestrated it, Golka explained that an organist has several keyboards they play on, as well as foot pedals and stops that affect how much air goes into the pipes and the sound created.
“You can have a conversation between an oboe and a flute. The organist can orchestrate a piece so it sounds like various instruments playing. That’s similar to what I do,” Golka said. “I determine what instrument needs to play certain notes so the story of the piece is told as well as possible. And that begs the question: What story do I think this piece is telling?”
Golka went on to say that his orchestration “goes beyond Bach. There are moments that sound like jazz, like 18th and 19th century orchestral music, like a percussion ensemble. I imagine if Bach had had those instruments available to him, he would have dabbled in them.”
And just as the organist has a certain improvisational element to his playing, Golka added a certain improvisation to his orchestration of the piece. “I made those decisions according to my taste,” he said. The musicians, however, have normal sheet music in front of them.
When Golka returned to the U.S. on Sept. 11 from his conducting tour of Europe, he met first with the soloist, Fischer, and then with the entire orchestra. “Most likely everyone has played the Brahms,” he said, “but very few if any have played the Berg. And I’d be very surprised if any of the musicians have played my orchestration. I’ve never conducted it near Los Angeles.”
In addition to being the music director of the Riverside Philharmonic, Golka is also the artistic director of Village Concerts, where he plays the violin. He and his wife, violinist Anna Kostyucheck, also record music for films.
Speaking of his wife, when asked why the Riverside Philharmonic has become such a home for him and what has made him stay, Golka responded quickly: “I met my wife through this orchestra. I got to know her through the orchestra and, through her, became friends with a lot of the musicians. That has helped me a lot personally and professionally.”
It is usually hard, Golka said, to make friends with the musicians, especially as a guest conductor. While the people in the orchestra know each other, “they don’t come up to me,” he said. “When I travel as a conductor, I travel alone.”
Golka was born in Warsaw, Poland. His family moved first to Mexico, then to the U.S., settling in Houston, where his parents still live. Golka followed the music, going to Indiana, Baltimore, New York, Berlin, back to New York and finally settling in the Los Angeles area.
It was almost predestined he would be a musician. In addition to his father playing the trombone, his mother is a pianist and piano teacher. Golka’s brother, Adam, has followed in their mother’s footsteps.
The concert on the mountain will take place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17 at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Lake Arrowhead. This free concert is sponsored by the Arrowhead Arts Association. And, while free, reservations are requested. Visit www.arrowheadarts.org, click on “contact,” fill out your name and email address and add the names of those attending in the message box.
Golka agrees that this partnership between the orchestra and the Arrowhead Arts Association is a wonderful thing. As much as mountain residents enjoy listening to this glorious music, the musicians are happy to be able to present it to them.