Cardiologist Follows his Heart and Becomes Composer

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jaap Nico Hamburger’s mother gave him two invaluable pieces of advice. 

When he was young, she told him that, yes, he played the piano very well, but he must have a reliable profession. Decades later, after Hamburger had achieved international recognition as a cardiac surgeon, she said he had worked hard enough as a doctor and it was time to devote himself to his first love, music.

So it was that, mid-life, Hamburger gradually wound down his practice in Vancouver in minimally invasive heart procedures, which had begun in his native Holland, and embarked on “the great adventure” of being a full-time composer of classical music.

That transition was completed this year when he left the University of British Columbia where he had been a clinical professor since 2000, and moved permanently to Montreal to be composer-in-residence for Mécénat Musica, a donor-supported cultural program.

The cross-country relocation also meant settling down with his new wife, Kathy Assayag, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal.

His mother’s counsel proved wise – not that Hamburger ever doubted it. Janny Moffie-Bolle, after all, had survived Auschwitz and other camps. This formidable woman died in 2016 at age 95, still a force to be reckoned with.

The Holocaust was not an off-limits topic when Hamburger was growing up, but he has not attempted to give it musical expression – until now.

In advance of Remembrance Day, Hamburger released an album on the Canadian label Leaf Music of two new compositions for chamber orchestra that evoke the Holocaust and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. (His Piano Concerto, featuring Israeli pianist Assaff Weisman, was put out by Leaf in August.)

Chamber Symphony No. 1, performed by Montreal’s Ensemble Caprice conducted by Matthias Maute, is subtitled “Remember to Forget,” a phrase from the Tanach that cautions against the futility, even destructiveness, of second-guessing oneself. Self-criticism should lead to self-improvement, he explained, and the biblical Joseph serves as a model for perseverance.

Hamburger was inspired by the life of Hungarian-Jewish composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), who survived the Holocaust, unlike his father and brother. Ligeti, who later fled communism, became an outstanding classical composer, known for his avant-garde style. The soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was designed from Ligetti’s work.

Hamburger’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, “Children’s War Diaries,” performed by the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal under the baton of the Dutch Vincent de Kort, is also optimistic.

About 20 years ago, Hamburger read the diaries of five teens who had perished in the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s was, of course, the most famous. The other four, largely forgotten – unlike Frank, who stopped writing after she was discovered in hiding – bore witness to what they experienced in the death camps.

In 2010, Hamburger’s 89-year-old mother, who was a teen at the start of the war, published her autobiography. With her at Yad Vashem for the book’s launch, he was shaken by the memorial to the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children. After emerging from its darkness to the blazing Jerusalem sun, he was impelled to translate his overwhelming emotions into music.

“The contours of a new symphonic work came to mind virtually complete,” he said. “I went home and wrote “Children’s War Diaries” in five short movements.”

The work’s world premiere was recorded at the “Violins of Hope” concert held last November at the Maison symphonique de Montréal in tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Holland by the 1st Canadian Army.

The actual Violins of Hope, which belonged to Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust, have been restored by father-and-son luthiers in Israel. They are played with orchestras around the world as a symbol of victory over tyranny.

This is the spirit Hamburger intends in his symphonies. He is not, he emphasizes, trying to capture the horror experienced by those who survived the Holocaust.

“That would be presumptuous and impossible,” said Hamburger, who was obsessed with Beethoven at age three and began his music education soon after. “I could read scores before I could read language,” he said.

He earned a soloist degree in piano from Amsterdam’s Royal Conservatory while studying medicine. He became an expert in the development of laser coronary angioplasty at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and travelling around the world. He stopped giving recitals, but continued to compose in his limited spare time.

“The only thing I can do is try to use the language of music to express how I experience what I know, and what I think the Holocaust means for the world today. We always said, ‘Never again’, but we see what is happening all over.”

The release of his album on Nov. 6, fortunately, was not stopped by the COVID pandemic, unlike another of Hamburger’s big projects. His first opera, Goldwasser, was scheduled to premiere at the Lincoln Center in New York in March, featuring laureates of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. All being well, Goldwasser will debut next season.

Typically, Hamburger looks on the bright side. It was at the foundation gala in 2018 in New York that he met Kathy, a fellow opera lover, and would start a new chapter of his extraordinary life in Montreal.