Composer revitalized music in Canada
His activities were as varied as those of any musician in the world
Otto Joachim – composer, violist, teacher, electronic music pioneer, instrument builder, painter and one of the sharpest wits in musical Montreal – died late Friday at the Jewish General Hospital, less than three months short of his 100th birthday.
His son Davis Joachim said the cause was heart failure.
One of scores of refugees from Nazi Germany who revitalized music in Canada, this native of Düsseldorf, Germany, arrived in Montreal in 1949 after working for more than 15 years as a musician in Singapore and Shanghai, including a stint at the Raffles Hotel in the former city.
Outstaying his Canadian visitor visa – his ultimate destination was supposed to be Brazil – Joachim worked at an electronics shop while waiting out the mandatory year of residence then required by the Montreal Musicians’ Guild. His interest in gadgetry never left him. It was not unusual in the 21st century to find a disassembled computer on the dining table of his home in Côte St. Luc.
When he finally secured a section position in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Joachim found the er- ratic standards difficult to abide.
“The MSO consisted of old and young, but few young ones and quite a few tolerated ones,” he recalled last October, a few days before his 99th birthday.
“The conductor was not strong enough to kick them out.”
As principal viola under the energetic young music director Zubin Mehta, however, Joachim became one of the pillars of the orchestra, along with his cellist brother, the late Walter Joachim.
He also founded (with Walter and the violinists Hyman Bress and Mildred Goodman) the Montreal String Quartet, which performed contemporary music (including Joachim’s own First String Quartet) as well as standard repertoire. It made a notable recording of Glenn Gould’s String Quartet and, with Gould, Brahms’s Piano Quintet.
Joachim’s activities in the 1950s and 1960s were as varied as those of any musician in the world. As a composer, he was unabashedly atonal and avant-garde, employing serialism and exploiting the possibilities of chance in music. His personal electronic music studio was the third in Canada.
Yet in the 1950s Joachim also founded the Montreal Consort of Ancient Instruments, years before early music was in vogue. Many of the instruments in this ensemble, including organs, were of his own manufacture. Like another central European Jewish composer exiled by politics, Arnold Schoenberg, Joachim also cultivated a pastime as a painter of expressionistic canvases.
Joachim taught chamber music at both McGill University and the Montreal Conservatoire, adding notoriously earthy French to his repertoire of languages.
As a composer, he had a notable success with Katimavik, a work on four-track tape commissioned by the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67.
Around then also he travelled to New York for a performance of his Contrastes. There he met Elliott Carter, born in 1908 and in recent years Joachim’s only elder among living composers of note.
Unlike Carter, Joachim did not mellow much in his 80s and 90s. In Stacheldraht (Barbed Wire), a 1993 commission by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, Joachim confronted the Holocaust in a stark style. His Metamorphoses of 1994, a firmly atonal but bracingly clear essay for orchestra, was premièred by the Orchestre Métropolitain under Joseph Rescigno and revived in 2006 by the MSO under Jacques Lacombe.
“It’s about 13 minutes,” the composer said about Metamorphoses, “which is long enough for any piece.
“Not that I would say Mahler and Bruckner were wrong to write longer pieces. That was their right. I am only a newcomer.”
In recent years, his failing eyesight restricted his composition, but not his music appreciation. Joachim was an avid listener to the radio and recordings, showing a special interest last year in the music of Bach.
“He is not superhuman: He produced 20 children He’s pretty human, no? Or he was superhuman to do that?”
Funeral arrangements were not finalized at press time.
Otto Joachim, seen the week of his 99th birthday in his home in Côte St. Luc, was principal viola in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He also founded the Montreal String Quartet.