Guest conductor David Robertson, on leading the Yale Philharmonia

David Robertson. Photo by Jay Fram

On Friday, October 13, guest conductor David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, will lead the Yale Philharmonia and violinist Laura Park in performances of William Walton’s Violin Concerto, Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, and Richard Strauss’ breathtaking tone poem Ein Heldenleben. We recently reached Mr. Robertson in St. Louis and asked him about championing American music and working with ascendant artists.

Q: You’ve conducted a lot of Christopher Rouse’s music. Would you talk about the importance of programming Rapture (and Rouse’s work) and bringing it to our audience here in New Haven?

A: I think that Chris’ music is really unique in the way that he has taken his experience of popular music culture, which is inescapable in the United States … I think it’s universal now. But it was possible to hold it at arm’s length in certain cultures that maintain the sort of strong roots of classical music in Europe – whereas in the United States, there’s never been this strict dividing line that the Germans have, say, between ernste Musik and Unterhaltungsmusik or serious music and entertainment music, translated loosely. So the interesting thing is that each American composer from Ives on out has really had to deal with How do they feel about this? How does it influence them? And the fascinating thing with Rouse is that it has allowed him to gain a certain amount of energy from the current and popular music, and at the same time keep all of the refinements that we know from sophisticated forms of music. And so the result is really a personal amount of or fusion of these things at a far deeper level that you can really point to and say, “Oh, well, you see this is the popular influence,” which you might be able to do, say, in a composer like Copland or possibly Virgil Thomson. With Rouse, they are fused in the same way that they are fused with Steve Reich or with John Adams. And I find that his particular take on the almost naïve emotional content that one often associates with the American experience, naïve in the best sense of the word – in the sense of pure, and unadulterated – is something that he brings out. And in Rapture it is the constant exploration of that sort of feeling of joy and autonomous peace. And the sort of feedback loop that this gives within the work. And so it’s this extraordinary build, which I don’t know that you could do in quite the same way and not have it be allied say as Ravel does with Bolero, with an actual dance form. He manages to make this cumulative in a number of remarkable ways. And so it felt like it was a great way to start a program that contains the other two works, both of which being emotional expression and storytelling in their own way. MORE

Published October 4, 2017
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Faculty composers Aaron Jay Kernis and Christopher Theofanidis, on New Music New Haven

Aaron Jay Kernis, left, and Christopher Theofanidis

The New Music New Haven series kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 28, with a program that features violinist Chee-Yun and music by faculty composers Aaron Jay Kernis and Christopher Theofanidis and graduate-student composers. We spoke recently with Kernis and Theofanidis about their work, and about the series and its value to audiences and to the School’s composition program.  

Q (for AJK): First Club Date is a new piece. What was its genesis and/or inspiration and what are you exploring in the work?

AJK: My son Jonah is a young (14-year-old) cellist and loves jazz. There so little jazz or jazz-influenced repertoire for cello that I wanted to fill that gap a bit, so this piece runs the gamut of inspiration from ragtime to funk and Jonah’s favorite new band, Snarky Puppy.

Q (for AJK): Three of the work’s five movements will be performed on Thursday, Sept. 28. How does hearing a new piece typically inform further work on that music?

AJK: From the first rehearsal before the August premiere, I was collaborating with my son and Matt Haimovitz (who performed the premiere), tightening it, tweaking the cello part, and coaching him to be funky. I keep on at that until I feel the music is completely right – then I can let it go and move on.

Q (for CT) Flow, my tears was composed 20 years ago in memory of Jacob Druckman. Do you let a work live on its own or do you revisit it as it’s performed anew by different players?

CT: It’s one of the great joys of composing – coming back to an older work and hearing it performed by different artists of different ages, sensibilities, metabolisms, and life experiences. They each bring their own take and timing to it, and sometimes it is really amazing to me that music can stretch as much as it does in these differing interpretations. Although I usually am done writing and reworking the actual notes of pieces by the premiere (or shortly thereafter, if I make minor adjustments), I often do change my ideas about the pacing of the work based on later performances. In this case, apart from the scores of performances it has already had, it has also been performed on different instruments – the violin, viola, cello, and guitar, and even each of those instruments has its own way of breathing and its own logic, which affects the work and my own sense of what works best.

Q (for CT): The Violin Fantasy is a reframing of the second movement of your Violin Concerto. How does the solo part differ, if at all, from the original, and what persuaded you to present the piece as a stand-alone work?

CT: The solo part is exactly the same, but the orchestral part is a reduction into a piano part, so it is quite a bit different than the original version. It was fun finding a way to make 85 instruments work in just the piano, though! The violinist for whom it was written, Sarah Chang, wanted to do the second movement on a 30-city tour as part of a concert recital, but it had to be just for violin and piano. Thirty cities was an offer I couldn’t refuse! The piece was played in Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, in Thailand, in Japan, in South America – and all over the world.

Q (for both): How does teaching inform your work and vice versa?

AJK: I learn so much from my students, and their interests sometimes lead me into places and music I hadn’t know about. Also, they’re so good, how can one help but be inspired by their talent and inventiveness?

CT: One of the most important qualities in being a composer is being a good “editor” of yourself and your materials. I think teaching helps you become better at recognizing things that are happening in music and what is ultimately of value – your editorial sense kicks in when looking at other people’s music often more quickly than when looking at your own. I am much better now after so many years of teaching at stepping outside myself and looking objectively at what I am doing in my own music.

I think the decades of practical experience and the great journey in the arts that one lives are the most useful elements in teaching students. You see just how many ways things can work and be said musically, and it gives you a lot of ideas of how to help people who are just starting on their journey. Also, we all benefit from being truly who we are – not trying to be someone else- living what is most important to us – and I think that is maybe the most important thing we can pass on to a student as a model.

Q (for both): What opportunities does the New Music New Haven series afford students, particularly in terms of hearing works by their peers and receiving feedback? What does it mean to YSM’s composition students to have their work performed by peers and alongside music by their teachers? And what should audiences know, in general, about YSM’s composition department and students and the work that’s being produced here?

AJK: New Music New Haven is vital to bring student composers together with their performer colleagues (sometimes bringing about life-long collaborations), then getting critiques from composer peers and faculty. It’s one of the most important and vital elements of their education at YSM. Listeners should know that YSM has hosted and produced a few score of brilliant young composers over the years who have gone on to splendid careers out in the world. These concerts also give a window into the work of some of the most interesting established composers in the world (including the faculty), so these presentations are a spirited way to experience beautiful, fascinating music right here in New Haven (and via streaming).

CT: The students have works scheduled, rehearsed, coached by faculty, performed, and recorded (both audio and video) in our program – and then afterward, we all talk about the piece together as a group in the subsequent weeks, which helps everyone learn from the process. It is a rich experience from beginning to end and is kind of an idealized working situation for students to create; it is protective but realistic.

We try to foster a real sense of community in the greater program because these 12-15 composers will be running into one another for the rest of their lives and need one another; we choose people of an enormously broad stylistic variety and way of thinking and then try to cultivate respect and support between each of the composers.

The first New Music New Haven concert of the season takes place on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 7:30 pm, in Morse Recital Hall. Learn more about the program, which is free and open to the public, and the series.

Published September 27, 2017
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YSM professor and Brahms expert Paul Berry, on faculty pianist Boris Berman’s Sept. 27 recital program

Boris Berman, left, and Paul Berry

School of Music faculty pianist Boris Berman kicks off the 2017-2018 Horowitz Piano Series on Wednesday, Sept. 27, with an all-Brahms program featuring the composer’s late piano works, Opp. 116-119. We spoke with YSM Associate Professor of Music History Paul Berry, the author of Brahms Among Friends: Listening, Performance, and the Rhetoric of Allusion (Oxford University Press, 2014), about the works that Professor Berman will perform, what the music tells us about the composer and his environment, and what the late piano works demand of a performer.

Q: Brahms’ piano pieces, Opp. 116-119, were composed during the last decade of his life. What does that lateness mean in terms of the character of these pieces, and in the context of his career and his personal life? According to our program notes, Lionel Salter said, of Op. 116, “It is as if the composer at the end of his life had compressed the essence of his musical and emotional thoughts into these miniatures.” And Brahms himself described the Op. 117 set as “lullabies of my sorrow.” What, if anything, did Brahms’ friend Clara Schumann say about these pieces?

A: Well, the idea of lateness can inform our hearing of these piano pieces in several productive ways. The most obvious is their placement in the composer’s output. In the early 1890s, Brahms was not yet 60, and all his friends constantly commented on his fitness and robust health; he had no idea that this would turn out to be his last decade. But he did know that he would soon retire from public life as a composer. Indeed, he had already retired once, only to return to composition when he encountered the clarinet playing of Richard Muehlfeld. The late piano miniatures are the most abundant fruit of what he planned to be his final harvest. Especially with the example of late Beethoven in the ears of the musical public, a composer would naturally understand that his final works were likely to be interpreted as summations of his craft and emotional range, and compose them with the judgment of posterity in mind. Certainly Brahms did so with these piano pieces.

At the same time, the late piano pieces first surfaced not in published form, but in manuscript copies made for Clara Schumann, one of the great pianists and musicians of the century and Brahms’ oldest and firmest friend. Throughout the summers of 1892 and 1893, he sent her packages containing individual miniatures, some of which were so dramatic in effect that she took them to be the building blocks of a larger piano sonata (a genre Brahms had avoided since his youth). Though she had retired from the concert stage by now, these pieces soon became a dominant focus of her private music-making. In fact, we have accounts from her daughters and grandchildren concerning her renditions of them and, in some cases, the poetic significance she attached to them (Op. 118, No. 5, for instance, seemed to her to represent the emotional landscape of an elderly couple reminiscing about their lives together while their grandchildren play nearby). So from both a professional and a personal standpoint, Brahms’ late works lend themselves to interpretation as late works.

Q: In what historical and political contexts were these pieces composed, and how did Brahms’ immediate environment and the changing world around him inform the music he composed toward the end of his life? What do the pieces of Opp. 116-119 tells us about where composition had been and where it was headed?   

A: Brahms’ political environment was challenging for him and his fellow liberals, who found their longstanding commitment to education, religious tolerance, and upper-middle-class values under assault from populist and overtly religious parties, whose members preferred the more direct musical styles of composers like Wagner or Bruckner. Brahms’ primary musical market was under attack, and these pieces can be understood as speaking to the alternately nostalgic and grumpy impulses of a soon-to-be minority party. Those elements of this music that seem to us now the most forward-looking (daring modulations, hazy tonality, complex interweaving of multiple melodies) may actually have been designed to summon up appreciation for the learned elements of a craft that many already perceived to be outdated and in decline.

Q: Talk if you would about the form, structure, and styles of these pieces and how Brahms might’ve intended them to be performed and presented.

A: Most of these pieces present some variant of ternary, or three-part, form, in which the main material is presented at the beginning, cedes its place to contrasting material in the middle, and then returns to close the work near the end. Brahms’ craft emerges in the seemingly infinite variety of approaches that this ancient musical form elicits from him in each individual context, from the straightforward, almost folk-like simplicity of Op. 118, No. 5, to the complex twists and turns of Op. 117, No. 2. It’s always worth listening for moments of return, when familiar material reappears, and comparing them to one’s memory of that material from earlier in the piece; so many of these works create subtle but remarkable transformations in mood when one encounters the same material in new contexts.

Although these pieces are rightly seen as intimate, private ruminations, this is also virtuosic music, though it usually wears its virtuosity in an understated way. Most of the pieces were premiered in public by the best pianists then performing, and reviewers consistently noted the difficulties that they posed to a pianist’s technique, especially in the faster pieces. The final work on the recital, Op. 119, No. 4, is a good example, with its whirl of gypsy-style rhythms. But the slower works, too, present real technical challenges involving the thickening of texture, and these challenges are often aligned with pivotal moments in the unfolding of the piece: the return of familiar material after a long absence, for instance, is often much harder to play than the initial presentation of the tune. Even the famous lullaby, Op. 117, No. 1, is almost overwhelmed near the end when its fragile voices multiply under the pianist’s hands.

Q: What should audiences listen for in these works as they think about Brahms and his world and the culture in which we live today?

A: Some elements of our current political scene (the rise of populist ideologies in the United States and abroad, increasingly overt intolerance and suspicion of “elite” attitudes, a pervasive sense of loss and frustration) mirror aspects of Brahms’ own environment in the 1890s. The variety of moods explored in these short piano pieces, from resignation and nostalgia to brooding anger and firm resilience, therefore resonate productively in the present moment.

Q: What, in your opinion, does Professor Berman bring to these works? And what do these pieces require of a pianist, both technically and with regard to scholarship?

A: These works require of a pianist a deep immersion in the intricacies of the composer’s craft and a deep commitment to the emotional world projected in each piece. Professor Berman brings both immersion and commitment to his playing. He also brings a firm sense of clarity with respect to large-scale structure. He does not “lose” his listeners, but guides them through the unfolding of each piece.

Faculty pianist and Horowitz Piano Series Artistic Director Boris Berman performs an all-Brahms program featuring the composer’s late piano works, Opp. 116-119, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 pm, in Morse Recital Hall. Associate Professor of Music History Paul Berry will give a pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm in the Blocker Room. Learn more and purchase tickets

Published September 25, 2017
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Yale Philharmonia principal conductor Peter Oundjian on “The Rite of Spring”

Peter Oundjian. Photo by Sian Richards

On Friday, September 15, the Yale Philharmonia will perform Stravinsky’s revolutionary Rite of Spring, which was written for the Ballets Russes and whose 1913 premiere in Paris sparked protests. We spoke to principal conductor Peter Oundjian about the piece, its place in history, and what the audience can expect to experience.

Q: How have stories and reports of the audience’s reaction to the premiere of The Rite of Spring framed the work’s place in the repertoire? And what should today’s audiences understand and take away from that reaction?

A: The “riot” which occurred is one of the reasons the piece achieved such prominence. If anything, it had more to do with Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography than the music, as far as we can tell. Just imagine this first audience witnessing dancers stomping their feet for long durations, strange costumes … it was just bizarre! Stravinsky was unhappy about it; however, the events of that night stimulated him to promote the piece and make sure its excellence was appreciated.

Q: In what ways, musically, does The Rite of Spring represent a watershed moment in music history?

A: The piece is the antithesis of 300 years of development of Western art music. Everything that had come before was relatively uniform. Style and musical forms had been created. What Stravinsky did with this symphonic arch was annihilated by his new concepts. We should also remember that Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s music was radical, as well, and he was Stravinsky’s contemporary. The Rite of Spring was completely fresh and new. Harmonically, is it polytonal … it was all quite dissonant. Rhythmically, it was quite a departure from the musical norms of the day.

Q: What are your reasons for programming The Rite of Spring as part of the Yale Philharmonia’s season? In what ways and to what degree is the piece a unique teaching tool?

A: I am sure some of our students have played it before. It is, after all, one of the most important pieces in the repertoire. It is not only for the students in the orchestra, but also for our audience, who are bound to be curious to hear and witness a live performance of such a masterpiece.

Q: How do you approach the work each time you conduct the piece?

A: I think I approach it as though the pagan ritual were occurring before my eyes, and the sacrificial virgin is about to dance herself to death. It’s a new girl each time.

Q: What if anything is lost (or gained) by performing The Rite of Spring as a concert work as opposed to a fully produced ballet?

A: There is not a performance of this piece that is not ballet, in some aspects. If you come, you’ll see some sense of spectacle. The omission of the visual aspect allows people to focus on the inventiveness of the music and the power and drama behind it.

Q: Besides the obvious, what can audiences experience through a live performance of the piece that they can’t by listening to a recording?

A: To see all these musicians playing off the beat of the conductor, from an audience perspective, it’s alarming to see this being reproduced in front of your eyes. It is an extraordinary experience!

The September 15 Yale Philharmonia program includes Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as well as Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and Tallis’ “Why Fum’th in Fight,” performed by the Yale Voxtet. Learn more and purchase tickets.

Published September 8, 2017
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YSM Commencement Concert to showcase the Class of 2016

chamber_music5On Sunday, May 22, the Yale School of Music presents its annual Commencement Concert, featuring a variety of performers selected from the Class of 2016. The event takes place at 4pm in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall.

The concert will open with Mario Castelnuovo’s Capriccio Diabolico, performed by guitarist Solomon Silber. This will be followed by composer Katie Balch’s Whisper Music, scored for amplified solo double bass and distortion pedal and performed by Levi Jones.

Soprano Meechot Marrero and pianist Yevgeny Yontov will perform Gian Carlo Menotti’s Muero porque no muero, and two movements from Steve Reich’s Quartet will be performed by pianists Dominic Cheli, Yevgeny Yontov, and percussionists Jeffrey Stern and Matthew Keown.

The concert concludes with two movements from Leoš Janáček’s Mládí (Youth), scored for woodwind sextet. It will feature flutist Joanna Wu, oboist Ron Cohen Mann, clarinetist William Bixby Kennedy, bass clarinetist Kenta Akaogi, bassoonist Cornelia Sommer, and hornist Cody Halquist.

The concert is free and open to the public. It will also be streamed live online.
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Published May 18, 2016
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Guitar Chamber Music May 12 features a premiere by Max Lyman

yale-guitars-ny

The Yale School of Music presents Guitar Chamber Music on ThursdayMay 12 at 7:30 pm. The recital will feature students in the guitar studio of Benjamin Verdery as they perform chamber works that feature the guitar in a variety of ensembles.

The first half of the program features three duos for guitar with other solo instruments. It begins with Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas for cello and guitar, followed by Paul Lansky’s Partita for percussion and guitar.

Current YSM student and a guitarist Max Lyman will premiere his duo Elevenses, scored for double bass and guitar, followed by Steve Goss’s American Pastoral and Antonio Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto in D major.

The concert takes place at Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall (470 College Street, New Haven), and is free and open to the public. The event will also stream live online.

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Published May 10, 2016
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“Conservatory Without Walls” on May 13 Celebrates Ellington Jazz Series

Conservatory-v

Pictured: Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Willie Ruff

The Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music pays homage to its history on Friday, May 13 with an event titled “Conservatory Without Walls.” The event, which takes place at 7:30pm in Morse Recital Hall, pairs documentary film with an exciting live performance.

The first half of the event presents the film Conservatory Without Walls, a documentary originally created by WTIC Hartford about the eponymous event that Willie Ruff organized at Yale in 1972. That convocation of forty jazz legends directly led to the founding of the Ellington Jazz Series.

The 40-minute video, preserved by the Yale Film Study Center, includes interviews with figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and archival material of Duke Ellington — including clips of Willie Ruff playing bass with Ellington at the piano.

After intermission, eleven-year-old drum prodigy Kojo Odu Roney takes the stage with the Antoine Roney Trio: saxophonist Antoine Roney (Kojo’s father), guitarist Billy “Spaceman” Patterson, and bassist Rashaan Carter.

Willie Ruff, YSM faculty and the artistic director of the Ellington Jazz Series and the curator of this event, sees this evening in two lights: simultaneously portraying the legends of decades past, and introducing a young legend in the making, young drummer Kojo Odu Roney. This will be the last event of the 2015–2016 Ellington Jazz Series.

Tickets to this extraordinary event are only $10, $5 with student ID, and can be purchased from the Yale School of Music box office (470 College Street, New Haven), by phone at 203 432-4158, and online.

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Published May 2, 2016
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Peter Oundjian closes Philharmonia season with celestial program

Peter Oundjian

The Yale School of Music presents the Yale Philharmonia with conductor Peter Oundjian on FridayApril 29 at 7:30 pm. Oundjian leads the Yale Philharmonia in its season closer featuring Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter”, and Holst’s The Planets

Symphony No. 41 in C major, Mozart’s final symphony, was written within the same six-week period as Symphonies 39 and 40. The work is of unusually large scale for the classical period and is full of exuberance and humor, qualities which likely earned the work its “Jupiter” nickname. It is widely considered one of Mozart’s most innovative works and has been called “the greatest orchestral work of the world which proceeded the French Revolution” by music scholar Sir George Grove.

Holst‘s famous symphonic suite The Planets has enjoyed enduring popularity since the time of its premiere. Holst dedicates each of the work’s seven movements to one of the planets and it’s corresponding astrological character: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic.  

The concert takes place at Woolsey Hall (500 College Street, New Haven). Tickets start at $10, $5 for students; there is a $3 surcharge when purchasing at the door (after 4pm in Woolsey Hall).

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Published April 26, 2016
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Yale Opera brings Don Quixote to life May 6 & 7

Don-Quichotte-v2The Yale Opera program at the Yale School of Music presents an exciting new production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte on May 6 and 7.

The production is directed by Linda Brovsky, who returns to Yale Opera for the second time. Timothy Shaindlin is the musical director.

The beloved character of Don Quixote attacks both windmills and high notes in this whimsical and touching opera about the power of the imagination and the quest for true love. With captivating melodies and a touch of Spanish flair, this short opera (clocking in at less than two hours) is a wonderful introduction to the genre for the tentative and the curious.

As conceived by stage directror Linda Brovsky, this production embraces the transformative power of reading and the imagination. With whimsical projections and oversized books on stage, this will be a haven for the literary.

Costume designer Rebecca Welles and lighting designer Doug Harry both return to Yale Opera’s creative team. Yana Biryukova, a Yale School of Drama student, is the projection designer

Both Friday and Saturday’s performances begin at 7:30 pm. The venue is Morse Recital hall, located in Sprague Memorial Hall (470 College Street, New Haven).

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Published April 18, 2016
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Collection presents Smithsonian Chamber Players April 10

Smithsonian_piano_trioThe Yale Collection of Musical Instruments presents the Smithsonian Chamber Players on Sunday, April 10 at 3pm.

The Smithsonian Chamber Players will perform an All-Beethoven Program including the Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 24, “Spring” and the Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. The ensemble will include Vera Beths, violin; and Kenneth Slowik, piano in the Violin Sonata, joined by Nicholas Cords, viola; Robert Nairn, double bass; Charles Neidich, clarinet; Dominic Teresi, bassoon; as well as the director of the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments and YSM faculty member William Purvis, horn for the Septet. MORE

Published April 9, 2016
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