As we count down the days leading up to this year’s Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition, our semi-finalists checked in to share their experiences and preparation with pianist Everett Hopfner, a two-time E-Gré participant.

Naomi Woo

Today’s interview features Naomi Woo – a Canadian pianist and scholar with roots in Newfoundland, Vancouver and Montréal. Naomi is now based in England, where she’s a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

Everett Hopfner: The Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition requires a unique focus on contemporary and Canadian repertoire. What’s your personal connection to this music?

Naomi Woo: It’s hard to think where to start. I was very involved in contemporary music as an undergraduate: I joined a contemporary music ensemble that I eventually ran. One of the things we did that I found most exciting was collaborating with other artists: working with dancers, with visual artists painting on stage, with filmmakers. One of the aspects of contemporary music I’ve been drawn to over the years has been this interdisciplinary element, which goes along with the fact that I’ve been meandering back and forth between studying different kinds of things.

In terms of Canadian music specifically – it’s funny, I have this really vivid memory that I was only thinking about recently. The first time I ever played a piece of Canadian music was when I was maybe eleven years old: it was a piece by Jean Coulthard called “Far Above the Clouds”. I loved this piece so much, I thought it was so beautiful. I remember performing it one day – it was one of the first times I experienced how magical performance can be, where you feel like something really transcendent is happening and where you feel like you’re really connecting with the audience. I felt tingly! I definitely didn’t have the words to describe it. Soon afterwards, I found out that Jean Coulthard had died the day that I’d given the performance. It was really affecting to me, as an emotional eleven-year-old girl! I think that really set me up to be inspired by Canadian music and to feel a very personal and tangible connection to it.

EH: Can you tell me more about your “meandering” educational path?

NW: I did my undergraduate degree in math and philosophy, then did a master’s in music, then came to England for a master’s in musicology, then went back to Montréal to do a performance degree at U de M, and in the past year I’ve come back to England to start a PhD here. The PhD is a really great place for me right now because it affords me the flexibility to be reading, writing and thinking a lot about music, while at the same time continuing to perform as much as I want to.

EH: What’s become the main focus of your current studies?

NW: I’m exploring the idea of impossibility, specifically in the context of piano performance and piano repertoire. I’m interested in the utopian thought of Ernst Bloch, an early twentieth-century philosopher who was interested in music as a means of expressing utopia. Basically, what I’m suggesting is that one of the ways we can understand this spirit of utopia is through confronting the impossible in musical performance, and vice versa – one of the ways we can understand difficulty and impossibility in piano performance is through philosophical ideas of utopia. It’s a nice excuse for me to study and learn a lot of repertoire, and also to read a lot of interesting literature.

EH: Why did you decide to enter this year’s E-Gré Competition?

NW: I’ve been wanting to for a really long time. I really enjoy performing contemporary music, and so it seemed like a very natural thing for me to do. Also, everyone I know who’s done the competition has had a fabulous time – that was certainly part of the calculation in this decision.

EH: With all your experience in interdisciplinary and collaborative projects, has it felt any differently to put such a focus on solo repertoire for this competition?

NW: I don’t think of solo performance as especially isolated. The pieces are always kind of “speaking back to you” in a way – showing you new things about yourself, about the piano, about music, about sounds, that you haven’t seen before. One of the added benefits of playing contemporary music is that often you can communicate with the composer, so you do have that kind of back-and-forth. With all music, in some sense you’re always communicating. And of course there’s an audience! You’re constantly getting feedback and interacting, and able to engage.

EH: Can you tell me about some of the highlights from your program? Which pieces are you especially looking forward to performing in Brandon?

NW: I’m really enjoying working on the commissioned piece, “Mirari” by Jeffrey Ryan. I appreciate how many different kinds of sounds and colours and textures the piece employs. I’m also excited to perform a piece by Michel Gonneville called “Volées”: I performed it recently in November and had the chance to meet with Michel Gonneville and talk to him about the score. It’s been interesting to work on it since then with all the ideas he mentioned, and with the changing ways in which the score is constructed in my mind.

EH: What aspects of the competition are you looking forward to?

NW: Meeting lots of new people! I was really excited to see that there were a lot of people participating that I didn’t know. it’ll be fun to meet people who are excited about this kind of music. It’ll also be interesting to hear a lot of new pieces. As a huge fan of Guy Maddin’s film “My Winnipeg,” I’m excited to spend some time in Manitoba.

EH: Thanks very much for taking the time for this interview, Naomi. Best wishes for your continuing preparation and for a safe journey to Brandon!


The 39th Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition will be held May 6-8 in the Lorne Watson Recital Hall, Brandon University.

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