From Carp to the Met: Bryan Wagorn is on the musical journey of a lifetime

Bryan Wagorn. Photo: Dario Acosta

Each summer for the past 20 years, talented young musicans from around the world gather in Ottawa to learn from some of the very best.

The NAC’s Young Artists Program was started by former NAC Orchestra music director Pinchas Zukerman. Many of the students go on to fabulous careers, some even return to teach in the school.

This June, one of those paying back is Bryan Wagorn, a native of Carp and a graduate of Bell High School and the University of Ottawa. These days Wagorn has a job as an assistant conductor with the Metropolitan Opera. But he knows from where he came. (Other teachers in the YAP include: the Grammy-nominated soprano Arianna Zukerman, pianist Angela Cheng who has won the Canada Council’s Medal of Excellence, Jing Yang, who is a Munz Piano Competition Winner Hans Jørgen Jensen, an internationally known cello soloist and several members of the NAC Orchestra.)

At the Met, Waghorn says, his role is working with singers to help them prepare for their roles in one of the 20 operas the Met stages each season.

In Ottawa, at the SMI, he’ll be working with pianists and singers.

“It’s a mix. We are trying to get singers and pianists to collaborate on some level. That’s one big thing about the program: it is so collaborative. As a young musician it is very easy to get boxed in to your own instrument and not learn from other people. In this program you have singers, wind players, string players, pianists and everyone is working side by side and learning from each other.

“It is this amazing little thing that happens every summer. The experience of community is really important because the life of a soloist can be very isolated.”

The students do learn from each other. For example, singers spend a lot of time working on musical phrasing. While pianists spend all their time working on the harmonies that they perform on the keyboard. They spend a lot less time on phrasing.

“For me as a pianist, I have learned a lot just listening to singers. Whatever the imitations of my instrument, you can transcend them by copying singers the way they shape and phrase. Singers, meanwhile, might not be as aware of the harmonic layers of music which pianists have naturally because they are always playing many layers at the same time.”

This is his first time back at the YAP as a member of the faculty since he left Ottawa to study in New York City. One example they can learn from each other.

“It’s really exciting for me. I never thought when I was a kid studying there that I would come back as a teacher. It’s special for me. The program has really shaped my life and has had a big influence on the way I make music.”

He also made a lot of friends at the YAP, people he remains in touch with today.

“These are a lot of the top young musicians so they end up getting great jobs. One of violinists I was with as a student in my first year, is playing in the Met Orchestra, so I see him all the time.”

For a kid who grew up in Carp, the program introduced him to people from around the world. It was eye-opening.

He also believes the road to the Met was started at YAP.

“A lot of the faculty are from New York. I was meeting those people and it seemed like it would be a good idea to get to New York.” After graduating from uOttawa he did a Masters in New York and his PhD at The Manhattan School of Music where Zukerman and others teach.

The PhD led to an audition, and acceptance into the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Met. It wasn’t easy.

“Opera house auditions are very specific and you end up showcasing skills that you don’t really learn as a pianist. You have to learn an opera and you have to sing a vocal line. You have to be able to conduct some of the opera.

“You don’t have to have a great voice but you have to be able to show intention. When you are coaching singers you have to help them shape the music; you have to show what to do with the text.”

His time with the Lindemann program was successful and Wagorn was hired as an assistant conductor.

“I work on eight to 10  operas a year. Basically my job is to help the singers. I coach them in rehearsals. I also play in the pit. A lot of operas have piano parts, or harpsichord parts.”

Wagorn enjoys coaching.

“Every singer needs something different. I have singers who come in and they have done the role 20 times. And then I have singers doing a role for the very first time.

“I just did an opera by Thomas Adès called The Exterminating Angel. It was the American premiere and the music was very challenging. I was basically coaching six hours a day because the singers wanted to go through their parts for practice.”

The job he holds now suits Wagorn just fine.

“My personality, which I guess is enthusiastic and supportive, goes well with teaching in general and working with singers. The job itself is pretty flexible. I don’t want to be a principal conductor or a music director. It’s not what I want to do.”

He does find time to take on some piano gigs as a soloist or in a chamber ensemble.

“The job takes a lot of time but for me it is important to keep up the solo side. I want to stay pianistically in shape.”

He was recently performing in Antigua in the Caribbean recently he has done a solo recital at Carnegie Hall. He’s no stranger to that landmark building.

“The Met Orchestra used to have a chamber series at Carnegie Hall. I would play in those concerts.”

Wagorn likes the variety of his career.

“There are so many things that I enjoy doing. I want to spread out.”

He says he tries to get home to see his parents and friends as often as possible. It’s important to him

“My family was not a musical or artistic family in that sense but they were very supportive. I was hammering away at the piano for hours every day and they put up with it. It’s hard to fly back for weekends, but my family loves coming to new York and having a place to stay near The Met.”

The Metropolitian Opera has about a dozen assistant conductors. There will usually be two on each sometimes three on a new show.

“They just do so many operas, it’s amazing. For me as young artist I get to see 20 a year will, all with the best singers and best conductors.”

He has met the incoming music director of the Met, Montrealer Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

“I got to work with him on Electra. The orchestra loves him. He brings such enthusiasm and passion. He gives everything to his work.”

Wagorn will also work with Nézet-Séguin next season on a production of Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc. He has also worked with the former music director James Levine who was fired this past spring from the Met over allegations of sexual impropriety with several young performers.

And this July, Wagorn will perform at Music and Beyond with Wallis Giunta in a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

The Young Artists Program does feature concerts that the public can attend.

June 20: Vocal concert, featuring duets with YAP voice students and Arianna Zukerman. Freiman Hall, University of Ottawa at 7 p.m. Tickets $10. 

June 21: Senior Chamber Final Concert 1, Freiman Hall, University of Ottawa, 7 p.m. Tickets: $10.

June 22: Senior Chamber Final Concert 2, Freiman Hall, University of Ottawa, 7 p.m. Tickets: $10.

June 23: Precollege Ensemble Final Concert, Tabaret Hall, University of Ottawa, 3 p.m. Tickets: $10

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.