Juno-nominated pianist Stewart Goodyear on all things Thornhill

Our area’s top pianist on rocking racism, what Hollywood doesn't understand about child stars and becoming the Beethoven of Thornhill


Stewart Goodyear

Image: Andrew Garn

There’s a couch in the living room at the house where Stewart Goodyear grew up in that he still comes to lie on every time he returns home to Thornhill. Goodyear, a recent Juno nominee for Classical Album of the Year: Solo or Chamber, is among the world’s most sought-after classical performers and composers. He likes that couch because it’s where he can gather his thoughts. It’s where he first heard Beethoven. And it’s where he begins the long process of composing, in his mind. 

“Home is Thornhill — the centre where I get to rest my thoughts,” says the 39-year-old Goodyear, an amiable conversationalist who taught himself piano by playing Madonna and Michael Jackson by ear. “A lot of magic happens in Thornhill.”

“Every performance is a highlight to me, every concert is a fresh adventure, and every night that I get an opportunity to communicate with music lovers around the world, it is a gift.”

Goodyear’s been making magic since he was three, the age at which he discovered his father’s record collection. A month before Goodyear was born, his dad succumbed to cancer, but the boy sought him out through the music he loved. And although the gamut of his dad’s collection ran from the White Album by the Beatles to Tommy by the Who — his dad was British, his mom is from Trinidad — it was the Beethoven sonatas that the preschooler loved. 

“I knew from that very moment, even at three, that I would devote my life to making music like that,” says Goodyear, who was born in the Annex but moved to Thornhill, Steeles and Pinewood Drive, when he was eight. It’s where the sofa still sits and his mother still lives. 

“Classical music is what my father connected to, and even now, I listen to many genres, but I always had a close affinity to that music. It’s my heartbeat.” 

The savant musician remembers taking the 60 Steeles bus to get down to St. Michael’s Choir School, always knowing what his future would hold. Amiable, determined and focused, known as a master of improvisation and called “a phenomenon” by the Los Angeles Times, Goodyear has never doubted his life in the arts and that he always had his mother’s love and support. 

“From the very beginning, I think she recognized the depths of my passion,” says Goodyear, who’s performed with most of the best orchestras in North America, including Los Angeles, Cleveland, Toronto (on multiple occasions) and New York. He’s still very close with his mom who was in the audience the night he first played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. 

“It was a dream come true to play one of my favourite concertos with my hometown orchestra,” he says. “Every performance is a highlight to me, every concert is a fresh adventure, and every night that I get an opportunity to communicate with music lovers around the world, it is a gift.”

That gift only grew at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and the Juillard School in New York, where he earned his master’s degree. Throughout his journey, he says being a visible minority in the mostly white world of classical music never gave him any pause.  

“I grew up in an environment where all races, all cultures, all religions were respected and people listened to each other,” says Goodyear, offering a common sense approach to tolerance in a time of increased polarization. “People embraced one another socially, and there was no room for fear, paranoia or hate.” 

It seems like a positive message for our troubled times, and, indeed, Goodyear’s lush, careful, though oftentimes improvised arrangements transcend borders and colour lines. Small-minded racists were always pushed away from his clear-minded pursuits with his eyes on the prize.  

“I never thought of music being limited to one colour, one ethnicity or one background,” he says. “If you pursue your passion, that’s what’s important — and if someone says that’s not possible or it hasn’t been done before, that’s even more reason to go after your goal. I always trusted my gut feeling was correct.” 

The gut feeling was engendered in Thornhill, and Goodyear isn’t shy about lavishing praise on his neighbourhood. He calls out everything from Centerpoint Mall to Goodlife Fitness.   
When he spoke to Post City in late February, Goodyear had just returned from playing shows in classical music meccas Zurich and Prague. It’s not like he’s never been anywhere. He has played shows all around the world. Still, there’s no place like home. 

A cheat sheet to some of Stewart Goodyear’s most noteworthy career highlights

  • Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71 TH 14 Goodyear nabbed a 2017 Juno nomination for his work on this album, which ended up being a two-year project for him.
  • Luminato: Back in 2012, the pianist played Beethoven’s 32 sonatas over the course of a single-day marathon.
  • Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 Goodyear got a 2016 Juno nomination for Classical Album of the Year in the group category with the Czech National Symphony. 
  • TSO: The pianist was joined by the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra this January, playing Tchaikovsky and Dvorák.
  • Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas Goodyear’s first Juno nomination for classical album.

“I like walking around the neighbourhood,” he says, “from Steeles and Bathurst to Yonge and Finch and making a circle. Of course, when I was little, the neighbourhood seemed to have all the best restaurants, a Greek restaurant where we’d go every Sunday on Yonge Street, and I used to love going to Red Lobster when I was nine.” 

It’s funny to hear one of the world’s best concert pianists extol the virtues of Thornhill’s Red Lobster, but Goodyear isn’t like most tortured artists. Although Glenn Gould viewed performing as a chance to do battle, Goodyear sees it more like an opportunity to find a partner and dance. This was especially sweet when his Juno nomination arrived. 

“This was a great honour to receive the Juno nomination for my Nutcracker recording,” he says. “This project started three years ago, when I decided to record a solo piano Christmas album. Christmas to me has always been The Nutcracker. It was a family tradition since I was very little to see a production of The Nutcracker ballet. As I started transcribing the dances, it became a two-year project as it was originally written for orchestra. I wanted to capture the magic of Tchaikovsky’s score.”

Another recent career highlight would be Goodyear’s successful all-day run playing Beethoven at Luminato. The pianist feels excited about tickling the ivories, with orchestrations to write on his mother’s couch and the thrill of revisiting Beethoven — the lifeblood connecting him to his father — in another all-day performance this spring. 

“I never feel nervous around great music and I never had any self-doubt. I’m very relaxed onstage,” Goodyear says. “I think performing onstage to a different audience is like a dance partner, and you both know the dance. It’s not about stepping on toes; it’s about enjoying the union and letting the sparks fly.”

Tune into the 2017 Juno Awards April 2 to see if Goodyear wins the Classical Album of the Year: Solo or Chamber category.

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