Five Questions with Tom Goeman

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Tom Goeman is The Choir’s fabulous Assistant Conductor, Accompanist, and Organist of the Bach Festival Orchestra.  His bio is very impressive:

Tom has served as accompanist for The Bach Choir as well as organist for The Bach Choir since 1987. He also works with Greg Funfgeld as Associate Director of Music at First Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem, PA. He has been a frequent soloist with the American Boychoir and has toured widely throughout the united States, Europe and Russia, including a performances in St. Petersburg, Vienna, Salzburg, Leipzig, Munich, Copenhagen and London. Also in demand as a recording artist, he is organist for Angel, Virgin Classics, Dorian, Warner Brother and Alfred and Harold Flammer Publishing companies. His performances have been broadcast on National Public Radio and on the BBC. He has also accompanied for such notable conductors as Kurt Masur, Riccardo Muti, Andre Previn and Raphael Kubelik. Thomas Goeman holds degrees in church music and organ performance from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI and Westminster Choir College, Princeton NJ, and has studied accompanying with Martin Katz at The University of Michigan.

At the Festival, Tom will be the piano soloist for Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (about which I’ll be writing more soon).  Tom was kind enough to answer a few questions for me via e-mail.  I was excited for our audience, long familiar with his arch musical abilities, to also know what a thoughtful and fantastic thinker he is.

1.  Your educational background includes the study of organ and church music at both Calvin College and Westminster Choir College.  When did you start studying piano and organ, and what were your formative years like as a student of music?

A: I really want to pay tribute to my parents who in my formative years gave me access to the best teachers. I began piano study at age 5.  My first important teacher was Elzada Milliken Bennet, who was a 1922 graduate of Oberlin College.  She always stressed that music should ‘sing’. It was thrilling for a young piano student like me, because she had two Steinway grand pianos next to each other in her studio. She would sit at one piano and be able herself to demonstrate musical ideas, while I would play for her my lesson repertoire at the other.  I then studied with Anthony Kooiker who was head of piano at Hope College in Holland, MI.  He was very animated and more theatrical in his approach.  In high school and then later at Calvin College I studied with Ruth Rus, who had been trained at Eastman.  She was a meticulous teacher. Very exacting and did so much for me learning about the mechanics of the piano as an instrument and how to maximize the expressive range.  Then, finally, I studied with both Charles Fisher and Martin Katz at the University of Michigan for a year of graduate study.  They both were so helpful in elevating my musicianship and helping me develope technically. I really only studied the organ formally for a year with my church organist when I was 11 — to learn how to play for my oldest sister’s wedding.  But then continued to play in church and be self-taught until I studied organ formally in a degree program in my junior year at Calvin College.

2.  In rehearsals, you’re often asked to play a specific vocal part, and, to my ear, those examples then become the platonic ideal of phrasing, articulation, and expression.  Musicians often seek a singing quality to their playing  – is that something you intentionally work toward, or do you conceive your interpretations through a different lens?

Trying to be vocal is at the heart of everything for me.  I love the human singing voice, and think breathing and line and phrasing and shape and stressing the text is so important. It think it probably has a lot to do with the fact that in my musical life I have mainly aspired to be a collaborative artist and have tried to develope a vocal empathy and intuition.

3.  You’ve been hard at work on the Beethoven Choral Fantasy for quite some time, and we’re all quite excited to hear your playing.  Beyond your mastery of the technical aspects of the music (which are legion), what are you seeking to convey in the performance? 

A lot of people have said to me that they think the Beethoven is a big, flashy piece, but I have tried maybe (I hope) to find some other qualities and subtleties, and  at least make the piano part as colorful as I can and see it in terms of its context in the orchestral fabric.  Technically, it has been a big stretch for me learning the Choral Fantasy.

4.  You’ve had a long and exceptionally distinguished tenure with the Bach Choir.  Are there any performances that stand out in your memory?

It is hard to pinpoint just one performance, but probably the one that was most emotional for me was the B Minor Mass at Thomaskirche in Leipzig — those are really defining moments.  But you know I have happy memories of playing an electric keyboard with no music stand in the freezing cold out on Main Street last Christmas with members of the choir singing. For me the cumulative experience of my work with Greg and The Choir is an indescribable blessing.

5.  In addition to your much-lauded performances around the world, you’re a seasoned traveler, musical connoisseur, and patron of the arts.  What experiences stand out in your memory as a member of the audience?

In recent years I have heard live two complete Wagner Ring cycles — one at the Royal Opera in London and the other, which was so very amazing, with the San Francisco Opera.  It was directed by Francesca Zambello, and the combination of her vision and the quality of singing, especially Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde and Mark Delavan as Wotan, not to mention the orchestral playing led by Donald Runnicles was truly superb. I think it’s fun to hear opera all around the world!

Many thanks to Tom for participating – you’ll be able to hear his work in the Beethoven at the Friday afternoon concerts at the Festival.  We heard a preview of the first section for piano solo, and his playing was somehow simultaneously epic and nuanced.  We’re all in for a big treat!

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2 Responses to Five Questions with Tom Goeman

  1. Lynn Long says:

    Great idea to interview Tom. Really enjoyed reading this!

  2. Jerry Scharf says:

    Excellent questions! The choir has such broad and deep musical experience and sensibilities, I’d love to read more features like this.

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