Weighing in on Glenn Gould and Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Jeffrey Kahane, Jeremy Denk and Edwin Outwater

A range of SFCM voices, including Edwin Outwater, Jeffrey Kahane, and Jeremy Denk, celebrate a genius interpreter and Bach’s timeless music.

Edwin Outwater heard Glenn Gould’s second recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for the first time in the 1980s. As a curious teenager, the now SFCM music director was devouring classical music and getting his hands on as many iconic recordings as he could. He heard talk about the “Goldberg Variations,” but wanted to experience them for himself. He purchased the CD and started listening. He was completely transfixed in the first few minutes, and wholly unprepared for its impact.

“Sixteen-year-old me just started crying,” Outwater recalls. “The inventiveness of the music and the capacity of the composer to be creative and expand upon ideas, was unlike anything I had ever heard. It was just this overwhelming sense of beauty and awe, and that such beauty is possible; its creativity just knocked me flat. I will never forget it.” Thus began Outwater’s deeply personal and powerful connection to a work that continues to endure.

On Saturday, May 22 at 12 p.m. PDT, Outwater will act as host and moderator for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s event celebrating the work that so profoundly moved him. The event, “SFCM Celebrates Glenn Gould and The Goldberg Variations,” will also feature renowned pianists Jeremy Denk (SFCM faculty) and Jeffrey Kahane (BM ’77), performing and discussing selections of the works, along with roundtable discussions and an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and writer Tim Page.

Denk compares the sheer complexity and technical demands of the “Goldberg Variations” to a nearly insurmountable Mount Everest for pianists. The first time he attempted the piece in grad school, he only made it about one-third of the way through and describes the experience as a “misadventure” that led him to resist the piece for years. Then, his friend, the late cellist Toby Sacks, strongly encouraged Denk to learn the piece and play it at her annual Seattle music festival.

“She sort of insisted that I play it at her festival, which forced me to learn it,” Denk laughs. “The first performance was terrifying. But she said ‘now you know it and now it will be a part of your life.’ And she was right.”

Denk’s recording of the “Goldberg Variations” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Classical Charts and has remained an important part of his life.

“It has a kind of built-in virality to it,” he says. “I think the piece has such generosity and such an enduring message for so many people, and I hope some of that generosity is what people come away with.” Denk is set to perform selections from the “Goldberg Variations” at the SFCM event.

Jeffrey Kahane will also perform selections from the “Goldberg Variations,” and, like Outwater and Denk, has a profoundly personal connection to the works. Kahane first heard the piece as a 17-year-old through the late Robin Sutherland (BM ’75)—the San Francisco Symphony’s longtime pianist who passed away in December 2020—when both were SFCM students. It would be 10 years before Kahane would attempt the piece himself, but now the “Goldberg Variations” are a core work in his repertoire and have been for nearly 35 years. “One could say, it’s a deeply serious piece, but it is also a piece that is full of humor and joy,” he says.

Kahane maintained a deep friendship with Sutherland until his death, and the two played numerous concerts together.

“We had a kind of musical understanding that was almost telepathic,” he notes. “It’s hard to explain. In fact, it’s impossible to explain. We just thought about music very similarly. There was a kind of integrity and honesty about his playing that had a very deep effect on me.” A portion of the event will honor Robin Sutherland and his recording of the “Goldberg Variations.”

Outwater is also set to interview Tim Page, a personal friend of Glenn Gould and a leading writer on his works. Page will share his thoughts on the brilliant and eccentric pianist, who was also a writer and a composer. The moderator is hoping to revisit Page’s 1982 radio interview with Gould, and learn more about what compelled Gould to come back to a recording of the “Goldberg Variations” in such a major way. Gould’s first recording took place in 1955; the second in 1981. The latter was released a year before Gould’s death and became a testament to his entire career.

Live roundtable discussions and a live Q&A with the roundtable panel, which also includes SFCM faculty members Sharon Mann and Paul Hersh, will add a variety of viewpoints.

“Hearing from a chorus of voices will be a great re-jumping off point into the piece,” says Outwater. “We are learning how to bring these works to life for people who may not know them as well as we do, or people who know them really well, but want to revisit them.”

Watch the live Q&A and Goldberg Variations performance on May 22.