Professor Paul Berry on scholarship, performance, and Brahms

Paul Berry

Paul Berry

On Sunday, tenor Paul Berry, Associate Professor (adjunct) of Music History at the School of Music and the author of Brahms Among Friends: Listening, Performance, and the Rhetoric of Allusion (Oxford University Press), and Boris Berman, the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Professor in the Practice of Piano, will present “Of Love, Death, and Reconciliation: Songs and Intermezzi of Johannes Brahms.” Prof. Berry has shared a few thoughts about scholarship and performance, conceiving and preparing with Prof. Berman for Sunday’s recital, and “the value of live music-making.” 

Like many music scholars, I had been performing for years before discovering the academic disciplines devoted to the study of music. When I selected 19th century Austro-German song as an academic specialty in the early 2000s, I thought I was doing so because the subject allowed me to pursue a long-standing interest in German-language literature, but in retrospect a deeper reason was surely that my youthful instruments were voice and piano. As my scholarly interests have grown to include instrumental chamber music, the concerns of practicing musicians have remained central to my work: how the music feels in the hand or the voice, how the composer engages those feelings toward expressive ends, and how the act of musical performance can open up interpretive arenas for players and listeners alike. Brahms’ songs and piano pieces offer the historian particularly rich opportunities to investigate these questions, in part because he and his contemporaries left behind a vast array of documentary evidence that speaks to their own engagement with performance. To fully appreciate that evidence, I find I have to keep one foot in the world of the practicing musician, singing and playing the music I study rather than simply listening to it. This is one reason I love teaching at the School of Music: I learn as much from my students and their music-making as they do from me.

It was a wonderful privilege to prepare for this recital with Boris, who combines formidable knowledge of the repertoire with decades of experience playing Brahms’ music at a superb level. All told, we spent an average of more than an hour on each song we’ll perform, considering how Brahms’ compositional structures project his interpretation of each text and how the different musical choices we might make in realizing those structures could affect the listener’s understanding of that interpretation. Perhaps the most exciting part for me, however, was selecting the songs we would perform and placing them into a coherent order. The Four Serious Songs, Brahms’s last opus, are unusual in many ways, including their texts, which are not poems but passages concerning death from Luther’s translation of the Bible. These songs are usually performed continuously as a set, but, following Brahms’ own practice of creating flexible “bouquets” of songs, we decided to take them apart and use them as primary colors, emotional focal points around which other songs and short piano pieces could be grouped in provocative ways.

The piano pieces come from the collections of short works, Opp. 116-119, completed in the 1890s, that together comprise Brahms’ crowning achievement as a composer for the instrument. The songs span his entire output as a composer—from his first maturity in the early 1860s to the pinnacle of his public career in the 1870s and 1880s—and his life-long involvement with artfully arranged folksong. Some of them are quite dark, a few playful, many rich and autumnal, others light and fresh. Heard interspersed among the Four Serious Songs, the music on this program may facilitate for the audience some reflection about love, death, and the process of change—hence the title of the recital. But any such reflection will be individual, meaningful to each listener for herself alone. This, I think, is the value of live music-making in a time of pervasive distractions and pre-packaged playlists: to provide an unexpected space, an unpredictable collision of impulses, within which the self can find renewal and out of which conversation can begin again.

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Published February 27, 2019
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Pianist and composer Renee Rosnes to perform Ellington Jazz Series concert

Renee Rosnes

Jazz pianist and composer Renee Rosnes comes to Yale this week to perform an Ellington Jazz Series concert with her quartet, which includes vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Lenny White. The group will play music from Rosnes’ two most recent albums, Beloved of the Sky and Written in the Rocks. We spoke with Rosnes, whom DownBeat has described as “a virtuoso jazz composer,” about the music on those recordings, and more.

Q: Beloved of the Sky includes music that celebrates the Pacific Northwest (where you’re from) and laments the environmental destruction that has scarred the region. …

A: There is one piece from the recording that deals with this subject and that is “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky,” which is the name of a painting by Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945). Having grown up in British Columbia and seeing her work frequently, Carr’s paintings evoke a strong emotional response in me. Her canvases of the Canadian coastal landscapes and deep woods are familiar territory. She was an environmentalist ahead of her time and created several paintings that deal with her concern for the environment, and specifically the clear-cutting of forests (Odds and Ends, Above the Gravel Pit, Loggers Culls, Stumps and Sky, A Forest Clearing).

Q: To what degree do you hope audiences come to this music with an understanding of its origins, and to what degree can that information exist as your compositional motivation, without necessarily being a programmatic element?

A: I have no expectations with regard to the listener coming to the music with any background knowledge. It is not necessary that one understands the inspiration in order to enjoy it. With that said, I’m happy to illuminate or motivate people to learn about the various subjects that have inspired my music.

Q: For Written in the Rocks, you explored evolution, the earth’s—and various species’— beginnings. Technology specialist Dino Rosati’s liner notes informed your writing for this album, specifically for “The Galapagos Suite.” Would you talk about finding inspirations for new projects and how you go about conceiving and developing music from there?

A: Picasso once said, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” This is a true statement, although often the inspiration simply comes from within—with the music coming first: a short melodic phrase, a rhythmic motif or an unusual chord progression. The sounds themselves evoke a theme or a feeling that inspires a title.

Recently, I was commissioned by Aaron Schwebel, the artistic director of Echo Chamber Toronto, to compose a jazz chamber piece for string quartet, flute, and piano. It is part of a performance series that brings musicians and contemporary dancers together on stage in collaboration with each other, and the composition will be choreographed and performed later on this year. I have never worked with dancers before, and am really enjoying the challenge of composing with movement in mind.

Q: “Goodbye Mumbai” is autobiographical in nature. Would you share briefly how this tune came to be and how you approach playing it?

A: In 1994, I was very fortunate to have discovered by maternal biological family and consequently learned of my Punjabi heritage. In 1996, I released a recording entitled Ancestors (Blue Note Records), in which many of the pieces reflected that experience. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to visit India once, and my trip inspired this particular piece, which feels celebratory in nature. “Goodbye Mumbai” was composed with the hope that I’ll someday return.

Q: In recording Beloved of the Sky and Written in the Rocks, to what extent did you share the above-mentioned background information with the musicians with whom you recorded (and with whom you perform) the music?

A: I always share any stories or thoughts that might accompany my compositions with the band. Sometimes there is a direct musical outcome, such as at the beginning of “Galapagos.” You can hear a musical representation of ocean waves and bird calls during the introduction. Another example is in the piece “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky.” The “cry of the tree’s heart” that Emily Carr spoke of is sonically depicted by the “tall” dissonant chords with which the piece begins and ends. To whatever ends an individual musician embraces the narrative as a part of their improvisational statement is a free choice.

Q: We think a lot around here about the artist’s role in society and what that looks like from one individual to the next. What are your thoughts on the subject?

A: On the face of the old Canadian $20 bill there used to be a quote—in very fine print—by author Gabrielle Roy. It read, “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” Art is necessary because it reflects society. It is an expression of who we are and where we’ve been and where we’re headed. It is an act of human liberation, inspired by the whole spectrum of human emotion. With regard to my work, I hope that people lose themselves in the listening and allow the sounds to take them to a place of spiritual fulfillment.

The Renee Rosnes Quartet will perform an Ellington Jazz Series concert on Friday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall. The performance will showcase music from Rosnes’ two most recent albums, Beloved of the Sky and Written in the Rocks.

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Published February 25, 2019
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Pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner ’20AD to perform Mozart concerto with Yale Philharmonia

Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner. Photo by Chris McGuire

On Friday, Feb. 22, artist-diploma candidate Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian and the Yale Philharmonia. We spoke with Sanchez-Werner about the concerto, studying with Boris Berman (the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Professor in the Practice of Piano), performing with an orchestra of his peers, and more.

Q: How did you settle on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 for this performance, and why?

A: Even among Mozart’s many magnificent piano concerti, this one stands out. One of only two in a minor key, K. 466 is in D minor, the same key as Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s The Art of Fugue, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. When one hears that D-minor tonality, it’s natural to think of tremendous gravity of spirit. The piece has a second movement titled “Romanze,” a rare marking for Mozart, and the way the third movement ends, a surprise turn to D major that leads to a conclusion of unbridled joy, is nothing short of miraculous.

Q: Mozart wasn’t too much older than you are now when he composed and premiered this piece. Does that offer you any kind of perspective or insight into the music?

A: While the movie Amadeus is a little over the top, it is absolutely right in one way: We know that Mozart was as dynamic, free, and uninhibited a character as any. His music is synonymous with larger-than-life drama, mercurial wit, boundless love, tragedy, and youthful idealism, and it is a fallacy of epic proportions that his music is merely “pretty” or “beautiful,” as it is so often labelled, with understandable reverence. His music speaks to someone my age as it would to someone of any age. It is relatable to all.

Q: This concerto was composed and received its premiere 234 years ago. Today, there are umpteen recordings of the piece. Why is important for people to hear it performed live and what would you want the audience to know before hearing you play it?

A: I am deeply excited to have written my own cadenzas for this concerto, my first time doing so. A compelling reason to hear this performance live is that you will hear something new! Mozart often didn’t have time (or need) to write down his cadenzas, frequently improvising them in performance, and this D minor is indeed one of those concerti without a cadenza in his hand. This leaves a grand opening for pianists to choose what cadenzas they will play—the most common choice is to play Beethoven’s, but occasionally you will hear those of Brahms, Clara Schumann, or Hummel. But improvising or writing your own cadenza is such a daunting, wondrous, and personal statement, and as Robert Levin would argue, the most true to capturing the Mozartian spirit.

Q: Tell us about working with Prof. Boris Berman on the concerto and in general. How has he informed your approach to music-making?

A: Studying with Boris Berman has been a revelation. His enlivening musical concepts, and his thorough and enriching method of instilling them, has already had an indelible impact on my artistry. He wants pianists to be as informed about all walks of life as we are capable on the keyboard. I have memories of his whisking me away to the clavichord in his studio when I played him Bach, of his showing me videos of Spanish dancing and telling me saucy tales of young romance when I played him Debussy, of his discussing orchestration to emulate brass and wind instruments when playing Stravinsky. Since he has himself performed this concerto, we have shared great joy working on it together.

Q: What are your thoughts about performing alongside your peers (members of the Yale Philharmonia)?

A: This is something I am truly looking forward to. I’ve only been at Yale for a few months, but my wonderful colleagues have already made it feel like a second home. I’m also presently performing piano-trio repertoire with the concertmaster (Kate Arndt ’19MM), so playing with her for this concerto will be fun. Another Yale “peer” in the audience will be my mom—she lived in Trumbull College as part of the Class of ’77, one of the first, pioneering classes in which Yale accepted women. She has always enjoyed watching me perform, but I have a feeling she’ll enjoy this concert in particular.

Q: Beyond learning and practicing the notes, what goes into your preparation when studying a new score? (Is this concerto new to you?)

A: While I have performed several other Mozart concerti before, this is my first time with the D minor. Regarding my process of learning new concerti, I have made the switch to doing all of my practicing with the full score from the get-go (rather than only consulting it while practicing from a two-piano reduction, as I did when I was younger). This allows me to internalize the orchestration much earlier and better emulate the articulations and tone colors of other instruments.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the role of the artist in society?

A: Art is a cooperative affair, and musicians can and have contributed to a bold history of social engagement. I take pride in attempting to carry on such traditions of using music as a means of breaking down cultural and political barriers. As an example, in a cross-­cultural exchange for peace on U.N. World Day for Cultural Diversity, I played with the fearless Iraqi National Symphony in Baghdad. Raising funds for the Children’s Cancer Hospital, we performed music by American, Iraqi, and European composers for an international audience of diplomats, Iraqis of all ages, and U.S. soldiers. My hope is that the simple, yet meaningful process of our warmhearted collaboration and musical communication (since music is our common language) deepened the bond between two cultures. I have done similar work in Rwanda, France, Canada, and the United States and seek to do much more.

Q: What have you been reading lately?

A: After re-reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, written by the ever-illuminating Doris Kearns Goodwin, I have recently turned to her autobiographical memoir, Wait Till Next Year, which tells the story of her upbringing through the lens of her family’s devotion to the Brooklyn Dodgers. This is why I was delighted to find out after a recital I gave last week in Chicago, that the subsequent event in that arts series would be a talk by her. I wish I could’ve stayed and met her! Books by great historians are a fascination of mine.

Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner will join Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian and the Yale Philharmonia on Friday, Feb. 22, for a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, on a program that also includes Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60.

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Published February 19, 2019
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YSM faculty composer Aaron Jay Kernis wins Grammy Award

Aaron Jay Kernis

Several Yale School of Music alumni took home Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 10. Please join us in congratulating the following musicians on this exciting accomplishment.

Faculty composer Aaron Jay Kernis ‘83MM won a Grammy Award in the “Best Contemporary Classical Composition” category for his Violin Concerto, which was performed by violinist James Ehnes, conductor Ludovic Morlot, and the Seattle Symphony. Ehnes won a Grammy in the “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” for his performance.

Violinist Sheila Fiekowsky ’75MM and cellist Owen Young ’87MM earned Grammy Awards as members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the “Best Orchestral Performance” category for the ensemble’s recording of Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 4 and 11. For that recording, which was engineered by Shawn Murphy, Nick Squire, and Tim Martyn, the Boston Symphony Orchestra also won in the “Best Engineered Album, Classical” category.

Erica Brenner ’89MM earned a Grammy Award for producing Songs of Orpheus, a recording that features tenor Karim Sulayman and Apollo’s Fire, conducted by Jeannette Sorrell, in a performance of music by Monteverdi, Caccini, d’India, and Landi. The recording won in the “Best Classical Solo Vocal Album” category. Brenner, who studied flute at YSM, is a member of the Recording Academy.

Published February 11, 2019
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NHSO honors YSM Dean Robert Blocker

YSM Dean Robert Blocker. Photo courtesy of the NHSO

Dean Robert Blocker was honored at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s 125th Anniversary Gala on Jan. 25, along with former Yale University Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives Linda Koch Lorimer. The NHSO cited Blocker’s steadfast support of the symphony and his dedication to the arts in the New Haven community.

“The New Haven Symphony was delighted to celebrate not only our 125-year partnership with the Yale School of Music, but to honor the valuable contributions of Dean Robert Blocker,” the NHSO’s chief executive officer, Elaine Carroll, said. “He was selected as our gala honoree because of his many years of service to the symphony’s board of directors, his willingness to share his extensive knowledge of our field, and his wonderful artistry when he has appeared as a piano soloist with the NHSO. On a personal note, Dean Blocker is one of the first people I turn to when I have a ‘big picture’ question, and he never fails to provide immediate feedback and useful information. It was a real pleasure to see someone who gives so much be acknowledged for his outstanding volunteer efforts on behalf of the symphony.”

The NHSO has been closely tied to Yale since its inception in 1894, the same year the Yale School of Music was established. Yale provided financial and organizational support, as well as composers and performers, to the growing ensemble. Woolsey Hall, commissioned by Yale in 1901, has served as the NHSO’s chief performance venue. Another important figure in the shared histories of the Yale School of Music and the NHSO is Horatio Parker, who not only served as the School’s first Dean, but served as the first conductor of the NHSO and was responsible for transforming the orchestra into a nationally acclaimed ensemble. The Yale School of Music will celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding from summer 2019 through fall 2020.

Published February 8, 2019
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Hurun Report recognizes YSM with New York-China Award

YSM Dean Robert Blocker

In January, YSM Dean Robert Blocker accepted an award, on behalf of the School of Music, from the Hurun Report. The Shanghai-based media company presented New York-China Awards “recognizing outstanding contributions to the New York-China relationship.” The Yale School of Music was acknowledged “for services to music education.”

Among the other award recipients at a Jan. 23 dinner at the Harvard Club of New York City were Carnegie Hall Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson and Steinway & Sons.

 

Published February 7, 2019
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Ensemble of YSM clarinetists to perform at Carnegie Hall

David Shifrin

It’s been 235 years since Mozart composed his Adagio in B-flat major for two clarinets and three basset horns. That is, clarinet ensembles have been a thing for centuries. In the mid-20th century, concertgoers in the United States heard performances by large clarinet choirs. YSM faculty clarinetist David Shifrin has organized a pair of concerts geared toward introducing today’s audiences to that tradition. Since Mozart wrote his Adagio, Steve Reich, Peter Schickele, and Jeff Scott have written for clarinet ensemble. Works by other composers have been so arranged.

The second concert in this season’s Yale in New York series, Shifrin said, will trace “the tradition of the sound of clarinet ensembles,” calling on current YSM students, alumni, and undergraduates from Yale College. The program, which includes music by the above-mentioned composers and others, will put on display the “versatility of the instrument as well as the homogeneity of sound.” Nearly two-dozen clarinetists will participate, along with two percussionists who will perform on Scott’s Expeditionary Airmen (Three Day Pass) and arrangements of Benny Goodman’s versions of tunes by Eubie Blake and Henry Lodge. An arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Shifrin said, will present concertgoers with “a living, breathing version of an organ,” with each stop played by a human and featuring the full range of clarinets, from the contrabass clarinet—which Shifrin described as the “size of a small vehicle”—to the piccolo clarinet.

By design, the program will show off the range of colors and styles that attracted Shifrin and other musicians to the instrument. It will also show off the musicians who have passed through Shifrin’s YSM studio and those who are currently studying at Yale. “To have this level of virtuosity, clarinetists coming together to play in an ensemble, is a rare type of event,” he said.

YSM faculty clarinetist David Shifrin will present Music for Clarinets as part of the School’s Yale in New York series, with a free preview concert at Yale on Thursday, Feb. 14, and a performance in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on Friday, Feb. 15.

PREVIEW CONCERT
YALE IN NEW YORK

Published February 6, 2019
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Pianist Roberto Prosseda, on making music in the 21st century

Roberto Prosseda

Pianist Roberto Prosseda will perform a program music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert on a Feb. 13 Horowitz Piano Series recital. We recently spoke with Mr. Prosseda about modern modes of communication, musical expression, and the repertoire he’ll perform here at Yale.

Q: You’ve found benefits in modern modes of communication and talked about the importance of direct, in-person experience. “Today we tend to live through too many filters: for many people it now comes more naturally to communicate their states of mind and everyday experiences through social networks, rather than by meeting a friend directly in person,” you’ve written. “Live music, both for those who play and those who listen, is an experience of far greater depth, able to open channels of communication that are profound and direct.” Would you talk about how we, as artists and audience members, should use the tools at our disposal and when we should put them down?

A: Tools such as the internet and smartphones are very useful also for musicians, of course. For example, we have the possibility to find rare scores online (also browsing the digital catalogues of several libraries), or to compare several recordings of the same piece using streaming services: they are invaluable resources that past generations could not use. But today there is a concrete risk that we become slaves to our smartphones and lose the ability to keep our concentration and to enjoy “real life”: a coffee with a friend is a much more rewarding experience than a Facebook chat with the same friend. In the same way, a live concert is not comparable with a CD, and a live piano lesson is something completely different from watching a master class on YouTube. To prevent the risk of being addicted to smartphones or social media, I suggest to my students some “digital detox” during practicing sessions, switching off the mobile phone and the computer, as we do when we attend a concert.

Q: Technology has been an area of interest to you. To that end, you conducted an experiment with a robot-pianist called Teo Tronico in which you each performed the same piece of music and studied the resulting performances. What did you learn about your own playing and interpretations in that exploration?

A: The project with the pianist robot, Teo Tronico, was conceived to explain the differences between a real “human” interpretation and a literal reading of the score. Comparing my own playing with the mechanical performances of the robot was a good way for me to become more aware of those differences, and to deepen the research towards the dramaturgic and poetical elements of music—something that a robot is not able to achieve, yet.

Q: You’ve written, “A cold and calculated performance in which the only aim is to avoid mistakes will prove much more ‘wrong’ than a spontaneous, profound and not faultless performance.” In what ways do you apply this lesson to your own practice and playing and how do you communicate this idea to students who might aspire to a kind of “performance perfection”?

A: The above mentioned robotic performances should never be a model for us, but nevertheless there are students who think that “perfection” consists in just playing the right notes, literally respecting what is written in the score. From my point of view, the priority in making music is the intensity, depth, and sincerity of our musical expression. “Reading the score” also means knowing all the historical conventions, the meaning of each gesture corresponding to the indications written in the score. A wrong note played with the “right expression” is much better than a right note played with a wrong expression. But, while the score indicates the right notes in an incontrovertible way, the “right expression” is something that also relates to our own sensitivity, culture, and even creativity. And the same sign on the score (a staccato dot, or a slur) can have different meanings according to the context. When we perform a composition, we are at the same time film directors, actors, and photographers. It is fundamental to be aware of states of mind, expressive attitudes, dramaturgy, and rhetoric. Often, during lessons, I like to talk about the “depth of field” between the theme and the accompaniment, about the “focus” of a given melodic contour, of the temporal and spatial distance of the themes. The piano is, in fact, also a time machine, as it can “set” a theme in the present, the past, or the future, also defining the context in which it appears (reality, dream, memory, hope, illusion).

Q: Many of your projects have included an interdisciplinary element. Have these been informed by your curiosities, a desire to offer audiences something unique, or both?

A: When Franz Liszt, about 180 years ago, invented the format of the “piano recital,” this was a great innovation, breaking the traditional schemes and improving the connections between artist and audience. But I am quite sure that if Liszt were performing today, he would not give a piano recital in the way we are used to. The piano recital still works perfectly for audiences who are used to listening to classical music (and I still give about 30 piano recitals per year for those audiences), but there are alternative ways to present classical music in live formats, which fit better for other kinds of audiences. As a performing artist, I feel a responsibility to deliver a social and cultural service also to “the rest of the world.” There are millions of people who use Facebook and YouTube but will never enter a classical music auditorium if first we don’t help them “taste” and discover the intensity of a live classical music concert. Using multimedia formats or video teasers online can be an effective way to reach a wider audience and to give them the tools to understand and enjoy classical music.

Q: What is it about Mendelssohn’s music that’s been of particular interest to you?

A: I’ve always felt a close affinity with Mendelssohn’s lyricism. His music expresses a very wide range of moods, always keeping a perfect balance between complexity and freedom. I very much like Mendelssohn’s ability to write complex musical textures, never losing his unique linearity and rhythmical energy that are trademarks of his style. Then, I have always felt a special attraction for the “musical discoveries”: the piano repertoire still presents many unknown masterworks, and Mendelssohn’s piano output is, incredibly, lesser known than the one of Schubert, Schumann, or Chopin. For this reason, about 20 years ago I started researching Mendelssohn’s rare and unpublished pieces and got more and more enthusiastic about his music. After my first two CDs dedicated to Mendelssohn’s unpublished piano works were released, I started performing and recording the rest of his piano production, as even some published works are still quite unknown to the public and are seldom recorded. In the meantime, more unpublished manuscripts came to light, and in 2009 Breitkopf & Härtel published the new Mendelssohn Thematic Catalogue (MWV) by Ralf Wehner, which is now the reference for any Mendelssohn scholar. In recent years I’ve gradually completed recordings of Mendelssohn’s piano works, now released by Decca in a 10-CD box set. Soon after the release, I learned about a new discovery: a “Kleine Fuge,” MWV U 96, which was found among the papers of Mrs. Henriette Voigt (dated September 18, 1833). Of course, I recorded it as well, and it was digitally released worldwide on February 1.

Q: The program you’ll perform here at Yale features repertoire that was written over a 50-year period, roughly. What did this period yield in terms of innovations in the piano repertoire and the instrument itself? What do you hear of the period and the region in this particular repertoire? 

A: Those 50 years have probably been the most intense ones in the history of piano. Between 1785 and 1835, in fact, composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Clementi, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt gave their contributions to the evolution of the piano and its repertoire. The instrument had a very fast and radical evolution: the keyboard range expanded from five octaves to seven octaves and more; the action also underwent drastic developments, as did the sound production, thanks to the increased tension of the strings and the different materials used for the hammers and the other parts of the instrument. The piano language evolved in a parallel way, as composers themselves pushed piano makers to experiment with new models, and at the same time the possibilities offered by the newly built pianos inspired the composers to innovate their own ways to write for piano. For my recital, I chose the three composers to whom I’ve dedicated most of my studies: Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. The recital will open with two of the most revolutionary piano works written by Mozart: the Fantasia K. 475 and the Sonata K. 457 in C minor, published together as a diptych in 1785. Here, Mozart is very radical in using chromatic harmonies and experimenting with deep contrasts, which make this music incredibly dramatic and modern. After the Mozart I will continue with two of Mendelssohn’s masterworks: the Fantasia Op. 28 and the Rondo Capriccioso, along with some of my favorite Lieder ohne Worte. The concert will end with Schubert’s Four Impromptus Op. 90, written in the last year of his life (1828). The No. 1 in C minor has several elements in common with Mozart’s Fantasia K. 475. It will be interesting to compare the way Schubert uses similar harmonic and rhythmical patterns to reach completely new poetic results.

Roberto Prosseda will perform music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert on Wednesday, February 13, in Morse Recital Hall. 

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ROBERTO PROSSEDA

Published February 4, 2019
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A tale of two Tatianas: Yale Opera sopranos discuss challenging role

With performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin fast approaching, singers from the Yale Opera program are in their final stages of preparation. Sopranos Madeline Ehlinger ’20MM and Lauren McQuistin ’19MMA, who will be sharing the role of Tatiana, spoke with us about the rehearsal process and their reflections on the opera.

What do you think makes Eugene Onegin such a quintessential opera? 

Lauren McQuistin. Photo by Synthia Steinem

Ehlinger: I think a lot of the appeal of Eugene Onegin comes from its striking likeness to moments and people in our lives. Almost anyone watching this opera will see themselves or people they know reflected in these characters. This, coupled with the sweeping and unabashedly Russian phrases of Tchaikovsky’s melodies, creates an opera that has the ability to move any listener.

McQuistin: Eugene Onegin isn’t driven by its plot, especially compared to other operas. Despite this, it remains a staple in the operatic canon, which can be attributed to the idiosyncratic yet relatable qualities of the characters and their interpersonal relationships. The source material, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, is to Russia what Goethe’s Faust is to Germany. There is a reverence for this story that prevented so many composers prior to Tchaikovsky from even attempting to put it to music. You can clearly see how Tchaikovsky poured the more hidden parts of himself and his experience into these characters. This relation to them, paired with him being the master of melody, makes something that resonates with people in an unfiltered and very human way. There’s something enchanting about the bareness of the intentions of the characters—Tatiana’s uncensored confession of love, Lensky flying so quickly to anger, Olga’s unashamed wildness, and Onegin’s sole desire to fulfil his own needs. Their interactions and the way they grow (or fail to) create an electricity that drives the opera forward without a convoluted plot. The qualities they display are parts of ourselves that we conceal, but Tchaikovsky puts a magnifying glass on them and refuses to let us hide from them for three acts of exquisite music.

How would you describe Tatiana? How is this role different from other roles you’ve sung, and what have your preparations been like?

Ehlinger: Tatiana, on the surface, is shy, quiet, and lost in her world of novels. And though parts of that analysis are true, she is also bold, dynamic, and full of wit. In opera, you are not always presented with such a layered and complex character. Getting to explore the hugely contrasting elements of her personality through her words and her music has been a really rewarding experience. So many elements of my personality align with Tatiana’s, so I’m using those parallels to interpret her story in a way that feels authentic.

McQuistin: A lot of what has made Tatiana profound for me has come from my experiences as a woman. In operas, especially as a soprano, my role has been as an accessory to a man’s love story, to die, or to go mad. Much of the agency that I have attempted to apply to my characters wasn’t necessarily written into them by the male composers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Tatiana, however, is a character that is entirely in charge of her own destiny. She is an unashamed dreamer and a unique individual, despite those around her not understanding her. She doesn’t descend into madness or apathy, and, most important, she transforms her trauma into success on her own terms. This makes her already extremely relevant to the 21st century, rather than making directorial choices to achieve that. It’s very exciting to present that sort of power on the operatic stage. Her actions are deliberate, and her transparency is brave, which has required a lot of vulnerability during the rehearsal process. She is one of the characters in the opera who goes through a significant change in circumstances, so exploring how she presents before and after her defining moment of heartbreak, whilst maintaining her core values as a character, has been the main challenge.

Madeline Ehlinger. Photo by Andrew Saiz

What is the rehearsal process like for such a huge work? Has singing in Russian posed extra challenges?

Ehlinger: I am a little surprised at how smoothly and fluidly this rehearsal process has unfolded. It is quite a huge work. We all came into staging rehearsals with the music and text diligently learned, due to the help of our dedicated and knowledgeable coaches and teachers. With that base of knowledge, the staging rehearsals felt like the next organic step. And I think we would all agree that the staging has enhanced our singing and interpretation of the text. The Russian was at first a challenge, but it is a language that flows beautifully once it is understood. It was a bit of a challenge, but a rewarding one.

McQuistin: The level of commitment to Eugene Onegin has had to be nothing short of 100 percent from absolutely everyone involved. Due to the interpersonal relationships of these characters being so critical to the shows’ success we have had to commit fully to color them with our own experiences, imaginations, and everything we have in our artist’s toolkit—including dance and stage combat. I have been a Russophile since the age of 16, so I fortunately had a loose grasp of the language and history, but there is no room for approximation in this process. As a class we had the massive advantage of studying Russian lyric diction with Emily Olin last semester, which gave us the necessary tools to get started with reading and comprehension. The text in this opera is more like a novel than a play, with no repetitions of text and extremely florid language, so every ounce of our understanding is required. With the Russian language being so different from the many Romance and Germanic languages that opera fans are more acquainted with, we must be entirely clear with our interpretation and communication, else it becomes impenetrable for both ourselves and the audience. There are certain aspects of Russian opera that differ greatly from other operatic traditions. For instance, Italian emotional climaxes usually are conveyed with a high, sustained note, whereas in Russian opera the melodic lines will utilize descending lines and the lower parts of our range to indicate their points of great drama. Grasping certain characteristics like that is keeping this from becoming a one-size-fits-all operatic approach, and it’s been so exciting to explore and understand exactly how this vastly different musical tradition creates its distinctive sound world.

What has it been like to work with director Paul Curran?

Ehlinger: Working with Paul has been such a rich experience. He’s the best director I can imagine for this opera. He speaks Russian and knows the opera and story in great detail. His expertise has really elevated our work. I have been consistently pushed to overcome my fears as a performer, and Paul has taught me great ways to reach that fearlessness. And I have to mention Perry So, our wonderful conductor, who has really given this music a freshness and incredible energy.

McQuistin: Having direct contact with someone who has worked on the main stages across the world is an experience I will never forget. His resume and accomplishments speak for themselves, but even they can’t fully account for the level of commitment he has to the process, the amount that he demands from us, and his constant search for truth in our performances. As he has worked with the people we aspire to be, he can give us a first-hand account of their own struggles and successes within their individual process. This allows us space and acceptance for our own areas of development and what we still have to learn. The standard he holds us to is something to aspire to, but it is never forgotten that we are in a learning environment, and there is a firm kindness in what is expected of us. From a personal point of view, it is significant for me that he is Scottish. Though I am from Scotland myself, and lived there for most my life, I have never worked with a Scottish director. I believe there needs to be more visibility for Scottish artists, and I want to be a part of that. In my past I have hid my Scottishness to fit in in certain circles, so to work with someone so successful and so unapologetically Scottish has enriched my experience as a Scottish artist working internationally.

Madeline, now that you’re in your second semester of your first year, what are your reflections on your time here in the Yale Opera program thus far?

Ehlinger: I came into this program knowing that the work I was facing would be immense, and I hoped also rewarding. I am glad to say it has been more rewarding that I could have imagined. A lot of that is due to the fantastic group of singers I am surrounded by. The support for one another is abundant, and it really creates an environment with a perfect balance of seriousness and warmth. Yale Opera has helped me grow as a musician in every sense of the word.

Lauren, as a second-year student, now in your second semester, what are your reflections on your time here in the Yale Opera program?

McQuistin: I will never forget the sheer disbelief I felt when I received the call from Doris Yarick-Cross offering me a place in the program. For the longest time I couldn’t fathom that I could have earned a place in a program like this. The program sets a bar for you that initially seems like an absolutely impossible task, and eventually, through relentless support, encouragement, and tutelage, you are given opportunities and performances that make you realize you are achieving that level of performance you initially thought was impossible. Given the small size of the class, we have been able to create a supportive environment where we have been able to challenge ourselves in a safe and productive way. It is truly unique to have so much individual attention and care, which encourages us to take ourselves seriously as artists and performers.

Yale Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin on Friday & Saturday, Feb. 15 & Feb. 16, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2 p.m., at New Haven’s historic Shubert Theatre.

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Published February 4, 2019
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Director’s diary: Paul Curran, on rehearsing “Eugene Onegin” and working with a young cast

Acclaimed stage director Paul Curran will lead the Yale Opera this month in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Curran has been sharing his thoughts about the rehearsal process and about working with the Yale Opera cast. 

Diary Entry No. 2: Thursday, January 31—Studio rehearsals are drawing to a close this week, then we transfer to the theater to meet a whole new set of challenges and joys. This week is a critical one for the cast.

Finding your character, dealing with your voice, and rehearsing most of the day are all part and parcel of the opera business. There’s nothing unusual in that. When you’re in school, however, it makes every waking minute all the more vital and concentrated. I admire enormously the singers’ ability to go to their classes and then come to rehearsals and keep such focus.

So, what has been going on this week? Lots. Seriously—major steps forward for many people in many ways. Pacing always poses big questions. Do I sing out here? Do I save my voice? Not easy questions to answer. In all my years directing opera, I’ve noticed that singers tend to do the same thing: they explore the limits in rehearsal—especially of a new role—so they know their vocal/emotional/stamina limits and can adjust accordingly when it comes to bigger orchestra rehearsals and performances. Not everything can be at 100 percent all day. This has been one of this week’s learning curves.

In the process of exploring this piece, I’ve used a few of my teaching techniques to help some singers where they’ve had difficulties. Long pages of singing in Russian can be daunting to even the most seasoned singer. I often ask everybody to “speak out” their ” inner voice”—in other words, all the bits a character is thinking when not actually singing. It’s a way of keeping the brain and the “moment” alive and helps your colleagues know where your mind is. Another great game is “jumpy game”—you make a jump before every single thought. Not every word or phrase; every actual thought as you’re singing. The purpose is to activate your singing and acting—and it really does! It seems to have been a revelation for some cast members. Of course, being a game, it feels very silly and a bit embarrassing when you do it the first time. But when inhibitions fall away, you leave so much more room for creation and invention. I’ve loved watching the process.

Rebecca Welles, our costume designer, has also been around doing costume fittings, so everybody slowly but surely is getting to know the world they’re about to inhabit. Equally important have been our production meetings, where all the sectors of the show gather to discuss progress, problems, solutions, or to just say, “All’s well” … or not. Such meetings are never easy to schedule, given everybody’s busy schedules, but, thanks to technology, we’ve managed to have people there in person, on Skype, on FaceTime, and on the phone. I love technology!

By the end of the week we will have run the entire opera twice—each cast gets a full studio run.  That’ll be the last time they run the show until the orchestra joins us in the theater—so, hugely important to judge stamina and pacing. During the week I’ve managed to sneak in quite a few runs of acts and big scenes, so I think everybody’s a little more prepared.

The end of the week has brought a big freeze to the United States and we’re in below-zero temperatures. I hope people stay warm and protected and that the weather doesn’t bring a surge of illness with it. I grew up in Scotland and lived in Finland and Norway, so the weather’s no big deal for this wee Scotsman!

The show opens on February 15. Buy a ticket and come see it. You never know which star in the making you’re seeing right at the start of their career, and you never know how much you might fall in love with this beautiful, poetic piece.

Diary Entry No. 1: Tuesday, January 29—We’ve been rehearsing Eugene Onegin now for about two weeks and finally got to the final scene. It’s been quite a monumental and challenging journey for all concerned. Me included.

Just like a play, an opera takes a long time to rehearse, but, unlike a play, the rhythm and pace of the show is set already by the writer—it’s in the music. So a lot of our rehearsals have been about finding that pace and speed and about how our young singers can add their own interpretation to it, rather than just slavishly reproducing the exact note values on the page. Rehearsal is a lot of repetition … and a lot of getting it wrong.

This is the bit where I turn into the “senior” of the show and talk about me and the Millennials. Because I have to say: Getting it wrong is actually OK! The whole process is one of trying and trying again ’til something works or feels right. An “instant” result is almost impossible. We’ve had a few hilarious moments along the way and often not in the expected places. Who knew a tiny line by the Nanny could tell us so much about her teenage marriage, loss of virginity, and sadness at the loss of her husband? It’s all in there, if you know where to look.

We also met the chorus last week and started working on their none-too-small part in this big opera. We don’t have dancers, so our brave chorus is having to dance a peasant dance, a waltz, a polonaise, a mazurka, and two ecossaises! You might need to Google all of those. They’re coping terrifically but we still have a way to go, for sure.

At this stage, having covered all of the opera, we now have to go back and look at the beginning again. It feels like we rehearsed it a year ago! But all the good work of these later rehearsals always has to retrospectively inform the work we did earlier. The cast have been going back and adding new layers to their characters, and it makes a big difference.

Hands. What on earth do you do with your hands while singing? This is our daily challenge. Empty gestures? Or gestures linked directly to the thought process of the character that help express what we’re singing about? We try and try again and again. Studio rehearsal is by far my favourite part of the process. (Please don’t correct this to “favorite.” (I’m a Brit!)

I have nothing but admiration for these students all singing so clearly and correctly in Russian. I speak Russian and still find it difficult. How they’re dealing with it is miraculous.

Have there been tears this week? Yes, there have—tears of joy and surprise at how amazing it feels when it all comes together and you hit that magic spot as a performer and time really does stand still.

There’s lots more to do, lots more to rethink, develop, throw out, and guard like a tiger.

Now I need to check the schedule and see what we’re rehearsing today and spend an hour or so preparing it. The struggle is real, and it never stops.

Yale Opera will present Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin February 15-17 at the Shubert Theatre.

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Published February 1, 2019
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