An unexpected path

Gustav Hoyer on his new album, his deepest regret and bringing classical to the masses

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Gustav Hoyer
Courtesy Gustav Hoyer

Until high school, composer Gustav Hoyer had never played an instrument, so he’d certainly never considered a career as a musician.

But a class in music theory changed his trajectory. 

“At the time I was on a math and science journey,” the Denver native says. “I come from a family of scientists and physicians, those sorts. I distinctly remember the moment in class, listening to Beethoven and Mozart, their Minuet and Trio, and that’s a type of music with a specific structure. It’s like being let into the story — if you know a little about a story it’s familiar enough that you can make sense of it, but it brings surprises so it’s delightful. 

“All long-form classical music was driven by this ebb and flow of dramatic structure, and as I started to understand that it opened my ears to this music. Truthfully I was just riveted. It was life changing.” 

Today, Hoyer’s brand of classical music can be heard in film and in performances throughout the world. His newly released album, The Gilded Age, is a nine-track homage to two composers who came to prominence during the American era: Antonín Dvořák and Scott Joplin.

The Gilded Age opens with Steampunk Serenade, a collection of five original movements, composed for a 40-piece string orchestra, that use Dvořák’s beloved 1875 work Serenade for Strings as inspiration. 

“What impressed me about [Serenade for Strings]  was how compellingly [Dvořák] could take a group of strings, which can sound a little homogenous as an ensemble, and the sheer variety of color and the epic sweep he could make with what seems like a very monochromatic palette,” Hoyer says.

Steampunk Serenade, like its inspirational source material, begins with a lively movement, “Steam-Powered Machine,” where violins and cellos introduce a main theme that evokes images of stately aristocratic homes of late 19th century America. Following Dvořák’s pattern, Hoyer next introduces a lilting waltz (“Slightly Tipsy”), followed by a vigorous scherzo (“Over the Next Ridge”), then a tranquil larghetto (“Sunset Glow in Prairie Grass”) and, finally, a jovial finale (“Games of the Wind”). 

“It’s a steampunk ethos to say … what if you took the 1880s and ’90s and projected out a future where that aesthetic prevailed, but 100 years later?” Hoyer explains. “And project out what a Dvořák piece would be in our time, projecting forward from that same aesthetic.”

Hoyer says a composition instructor in college once compared his approach to composition to a modern playwright using Shakespearean English. 

“In a lot of ways I felt like that resonated with me as an artist, just temperamentally and stylistically,” he says. “That’s where I sit.”

Hoyer brought in his longtime friend, pianist Benjamin Harding, to play the final four tracks of the album: a stunning toccata (a sublime showcase of Harding’s dexterity), and three piano rags. 

While the album pays tribute to composers who’ve inspired Hoyer’s love of classical music, it also honors Hoyer’s loved ones. “Over the Next Ridge” is a nod to his father, a physician who grew up riding horses on the Eastern plains of Colorado. 

“My great grandfather, who I’m named after, was an Eastern Colorado homesteader, so there’s a little rugged Western in our lineage,” Hoyer says. “My dad carried that. He grew up spending summers in the dirt, riding horses and being a Western kid. When he was very ill and dying and my brother and I were reflecting on our life, my brother said, ‘Dad was a cowboy; he just happened to be an eye surgeon.’ [‘Over the Next Ridge’ represents] everything that means: the Western romanticism, the ethos, the love of the West, the love of America, the ruggedness.

“I’m now starting to write pieces for people I love while they are still alive, because that was a real miss that I could never share with my father this testament to a cowboy’s life and then the journey to the next life.”

Hoyer knows classical music is a hard sell these days, and much of the work he does — formerly as artistic director for the Los Angeles-based Orchestra Unleashed, and currently as artistic director of NoCo Artists in Fort Collins — revolves around finding ways to get people engaged with a style of music that demands focus. 

“For classical music, the listener has to bring as much creativity to the process as the producers of the music because it’s longer form and it draws you out of the quick, McDonald’s bite-sized, highly salty snippets that our popular media is industrialized to deliver.” 

Hoyer’s approach has been immersive, with a steampunk-themed event last year in Fort Collins, and another coming up in Los Angeles this spring. He’s hosted active listening events, where participants are given the chance to hear music free of distraction, and conducted Gustav Holst’s The Planets at a planetarium. He often arranges concerts so small audiences can sit close to the performers.

“If it’s decent music it will serve as a catalyst for that individual listener to have a very rich aesthetic experience that they are in charge of,” he says. “They are the creative star of that encounter. … Like I felt in that classroom when I discovered classical music, there are a lot of folks who could really have their life enriched if they could discover this music in a way that was inviting them in instead of pushing them away.”  

ON THE BILL: Gustav Hoyer’s new album, ‘The Gilded Age,’ is now out. Purchase it at gustavhoyer.com/gilded-age