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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Brentano String Quartet to perform program of “Lamentations”

Brentano String Quartet

The Brentano String Quartet, left to right: violinist Serena Canin, cellist Nina Lee, violinist Mark Steinberg, and violist Misha Amory. Photo by Ian Christmann

Commenting on a concert program called “Lamentations,” Brentano String Quartet violinist Mark Steinberg explained, “There exists an old tradition of professional lamenters, who, as a service to those who grieve, digest and transfigure that grief in giving it voice,” asking, “What greater faith in art can be imagined?” The program, Steinberg said, “celebrates that art of cathartic expression in songs of lamentation from Purcell through Bartók and Carter, evincing strength and vulnerability in equal measure, through the intimacy and immediacy of the string quartet.”

The Brentano String Quartet, YSM’s outstanding ensemble-in-residence, will perform its “Lamentations” program at Yale on Tuesday, Jan. 29. We spoke recently with the group’s violist, Misha Amory, about the program.

Q: What are the origins of this program? How did you and your colleagues conceive “Lamentations” and choose the repertoire?

A: This project is a brainchild of Mark’s and has two origins behind it. One is the idea that music of mourning or lamentation is everywhere in our canon, composed and expressed in all periods and in all styles, and Mark felt it would be interesting to gather up examples of this into a single program so that we can appreciate how a diverse body of music can spring from a single, universal urge. The other idea propelling the project is perhaps more of a practical one, which is that each of these little pieces, taken on its own, is awkward to fit into a conventional string quartet program, which typically consists of three or four substantial works in several movements. In that type of program, smaller works might end up marginalized or lost in the bigger picture. This program enables us to perform these beloved pieces in a setting where their power is not dimmed, but rather thrown into relief.

Q: What other works of art, if any—literature, visual art, etc.—have you considered as you’ve developed this program?

A: We have not referred to works of art or literature that are not directly connected to the pieces on the program. That said, almost every piece on the program has some point of reference beyond “pure music.” The Haydn [“Eli, Eli” from the Seven Last Words of Christ] of course is music depicting the spirit of Christ’s final utterances, meant to provide time for meditation during the Good Friday service; Lekeu’s Molto Adagio is similarly religiously themed. [Purcell’s] Dido’s Lament connects us to Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic poem of antiquity, and more nearly to the world of Baroque opera, intertwining the sensibilities of two artistic periods pre-dating the string quartet. Shostakovich’s Elegy is his own transcription for string quartet of the extraordinary aria from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: like the Purcell, it displays the grief of a solitary and unloved one, and like the Purcell it is from an opera based on a great literary work of the past. The Gesualdo madrigals have their own poetic texts (of course not heard in a quartet performance), and madrigal form is the most literary of music, with every note and turn of phrase intimately connected to and entwined with its text. All in all, this program has deep ties to many primary strands in Western culture.

Q: Mark has asked, rhetorically, “What greater faith in art can be imagined?” What has music meant for you during times of grief and what is it about music that it can reach us so deeply?

A: This question needs a whole book to answer! I believe, personally, that the power of music in this sense is somehow connected to its non-verbal nature. Nobody can escape the experience of grief, and yet it will come to each person differently. Likewise, virtually no one is unaffected by music, but each listener will hear his own version. Music does not explicitly state its meaning in performance, leaving the listener to construe it according to her own lights. Sometimes music can be consoling, sometimes unbearable to one who is grieving; either way, it unquestionably penetrates deep into the psyche.

Q: What have conversations between you and your colleagues been like as you’ve rehearsed this repertoire? In what ways have you explored the composers’ motivations and intentions?

A: Mark once told me a story about being coached by Fritz Maag, a great cellist and musical thinker who was on the faculty at Indiana University. Mark was in a student group that was playing the grief-stricken opening of the finale of Beethoven’s Op. 95, a devastating passage of just a few bars. Mr. Maag memorably said, “As human beings, I hope you never have to experience the suffering contained in this music … but as artists, you have to be able to imagine it.” This is about as good a set of marching orders as there is for a musician aspiring to meaningful expression. We are always method actors of a sort, trying not just to understand the composer’s intention, but to crawl into his mind, to become him, or the person he is depicting. Of course it is part of every performer’s job to be well-grounded in the biographical and stylistic details of the composer he is performing, and I believe that this knowledge casts a kind of penumbra that deepens the performance and gives it resonance.  However, the chief part of our labor consists in engaging with the piece itself, at a molecular level: pondering the expressive aspects of a subphrase, meditating on the contours and textures of a single work by a single person, identifying what makes it unique by dwelling within it as a primary source. In fact, to spend too much time examining external considerations (for example, events in the composer’s life in the year of the composition) can have an oddly distracting, or diluting, effect on our work. We do best when we scrutinize the composer’s motivations and intentions as seen in the music that is on the page, before our eyes.

Q: Does this repertoire require a unique performance headspace? To what extent is each of you experiencing catharsis through playing this music and is that something you’ve discussed?

A: This program of lamentations is certainly concentrated on a special theme, a special state of mind. At the same time, the fabric of Western music is shot through with threads of grief and mourning—it is a powerful and ever-present trait in the music we play, and I can’t think of an important work that doesn’t contain at least moments of sorrow. So it would be fair to say that the feeling of playing music of this sort is almost second nature to us. I expect that an audience member might be surprised if he could enter into our thoughts as performers during a program, how they might seem dry and practical in comparison to the music itself. This is the double nature of being a performer, to take care of the laundry list of details while never losing sight of the transcendental nature of the art that confronts us.

Having said that, we find that the audiences that have heard this program do indeed enter into a “unique headspace,” which is very much what we hope for. Taken as a body of work, the pieces on the program slow down time; they invite a meditative state and ask for the listener’s compassion as she contemplates these manifold expressions of grief and loss expressed from so many different times and places. The catharsis will take place, it is hoped, in the minds of those who are listening.

The Brentano String Quartet will perform its “Lamentations” program on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall.

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Published January 22, 2019
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Paul Curran, on directing Yale Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin”

Paul Curran. Photo by Christopher Reece-Bowen

Acclaimed stage director Paul Curran will lead the Yale Opera next month in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Curran has shared the following words about working with the Yale Opera casts and will continue to take us behind the scenes of the rehearsal process and the performances. 

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is not only one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, it is also one of the greatest. Why, you might ask, is it so great? An easy answer: extraordinary music and vocal writing; a whip-crack-hot plot; fantastic, fascinating characters; and relationships that span the decades and centuries so as to feel they could be happening today or any day in our lifetimes. For me, as director, this is exactly why Onegin is such a splendid choice for young voices and developing artists.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about our production as it takes shape, tracking our rehearsal process at Yale and even reflecting on the most difficult and personal learning process of all: the performances themselves. I hope you will find time to check out what we’re up to!

Onegin is essentially a story of a teenager falling in love with a slightly older man and the struggles she endures coming to terms with his rejection—and his desire for her when it’s too late and she makes the smart, adult decision to stay with the man she’s married. I have heard this story told and retold for decades by friends of mine (no names!); rejection remains as difficult a pain to endure today as it was in the 19th century. Our casts need to make this story come alive, to make it their own. In relating, through performance, such a private and painful story, they need to show a vulnerability that makes you feel like writing to your best friend and telling her or him to get over the creep they’re dating and move on. Onegin is a modern tale—very modern.

As a story, Onegin needs very little explanation beyond what’s provided by the vivid, rounded characters and their compelling relationships. This is the challenge for all artists but particularly young singers. Memorizing hours of music, especially in a language as difficult as Russian, is not easy, but it is the challenge we embrace in taking on this piece, and that is at the heart of young singers’ development.

My aim with this production is to feature and support its young cast. I truly believe young singers need as much help in development as they can get, not to be bogged down with the unnecessary ideas of an added-on “concept” that’s often contrary to the piece itself. That is not to say such concepts are not part of the opera world or in any way invalid. Many pieces not only benefit from a very strong “concept,” but actually need it. Our casts will meet these ideas in the fullness of time, but, right now, for them, it’s a question of mastering a character and the myriad emotions that come with her or him. Singing and acting are very personal—after all, nobody at a bank or an office is spending six to eight hours a day expressing their heartache after a major rejection or crying into their pillow over a lost love, are they? Our task as directors, designers, and musicians in this venture is to afford these singers every bit of help we can offer.

So, we begin …

We hope you’ll join us on our journey as we prepare to stage Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at New Haven’s historic Shubert Theatre, and that you’ll be in the audience when the curtain rises.

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

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Published January 16, 2019
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Yale Philharmonia to perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11

Commissioned by Soviet leaders to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday—January 22, 1905—a day on which members of the working class approached the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg asking that working and living conditions be improved, composer Dmitri Shostakovich didn’t write his Eleventh Symphony until 1957, a year after the Hungarian Uprising. Hundreds had died in St. Petersburg a half-century earlier, and thousands, over the course of a few weeks in 1956, had been killed in Budapest, all at the hands of Russian/Soviet troops.

Shostakovich was a savvy enough artist to make sure that his Symphony No. 11 was appreciated by Soviet officials when it had its premiere, in Moscow, in 1957. Still, what most listeners hear, beyond the familiar revolutionary songs and military evocations that imbue the music, is a composer railing against tyranny and its costs.

Though Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg less than a year after the events of Bloody Sunday, he endured the oppression that gripped Russia/the Soviet Union for most of his life. Shostakovich spoke largely, and enigmatically, through his music; his Symphony No. 11 captures the struggle of the many against the power of the few.

In a recent conversation with Sergei Antonov, an assistant professor of history at Yale who specializes in Russia after 1800 and who grew up in the Soviet Union, Yale Philharmonia Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian asked what led the working class, in January 1905, to rally at the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II.

“Petersburg,” Antonov said, “had this mystique of this wonderful sort of legendary city, but in many crucial ways it was just like any other late 19th/early 20th century city: poor transportation, poor hygiene and sanitation, a lot of labor turnover, a lot of risk, poor health care. So, all of those issues were, of course, real. And there was a pretty powerful labor movement. In other words, workers gathering together, going on strike, asking for economic conditions. And then if you add to this a political component … we get this pretty volatile kind of climate.”

On January 22 of 1905, the Russian Revolution began with an event that Shostakovich recounted, more than 50 years later, in his Eleventh Symphony.

“We have this extraordinary scene of the palace square, pre-dawn, this iciness in the air as if people are gradually approaching at the beginning of the symphony,” Oundjian explained. “And then you hear a trumpet fanfare, which is extremely ominous.”

“These horns were a signal to open fire for the troops,” Antonov said.

“The second movement begins and suddenly the atmosphere changes,” Oundjian said. “Suddenly, we are in the action of things.”

Bloody Sunday, as it has come to be known, resulted in hundreds of deaths and marked the beginning of the larger revolution which got traction in 1917 and led to the establishment, in 1922, of the Soviet Union.

Oundjian has called Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony “one of the most powerful pieces ever written,” saying, “It is really about the power of the human struggle and about human defiance.”

Peter Oundjian will lead the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905” on Friday, Jan. 18, at 7:30 p.m., in Woolsey Hall.

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Published January 9, 2019
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Pianist Peter Serkin to perform Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations

Peter Serkin. Photo by Regina Touhey Serkin

Visiting Professor of Piano Peter Serkin is set to perform Bach’s enduring “Goldberg” Variations, BWV 988, on Wednesday, January 16, as part of the Horowitz Piano Series. The program also includes Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, K. 540, and the Sonata in B-flat major, K. 570. We spoke with Prof. Serkin about his relationship with the monumental “Goldberg” Variations and his views on performing the work on a modern instrument.

Q: You’ve performed the “Goldberg” Variations since the beginning of your career. How has your approach to the work changed over the years?

A: The Aria with 30 variations by Bach is such a great work that one keeps discovering more in it; working on it and considering it can easily be a life’s project. I first started playing it when I was about 13. When I had a lesson with my teacher, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, he listened to the whole piece and when it was done sat there for at least two or three minutes in silence. Then he said about Bach, “What a great heart this man has!” Then a few years later it was on my graduation program at Curtis. Since then I have kept coming back to it.

I have five recordings now of this work. One, from Freiburg, Germany, is of a live performance. Right before the concert there, the presenter, who is a friend, came back to say that he would like me to take no repeats so that we can go out to eat and drink sooner afterward. So, after playing the Webern Variations, I defiantly, and mischievously, played the Bach with all its repeats. This was the very first time I had performed it like that. I was actually surprised at how compelling and convincing that was.

I had initially followed [Donald Francis] Tovey’s advice to not take the repeats, which he said would be “as unmusical as it would be unscholarly.” But later I started experimenting, never taking one repeat in a variation and not the other, but taking both repeats in some variations and none in others. I have often made those decisions on the spot during a performance.

My most recent recording of it has just been released on Vivace Records, also a live performance, which I gave in St. Paul last year. It is a two-CD set, and on the other CD is the Partita in E minor and the wonderful Suite for Lute-Cembalo in C minor. All live performances.

I never was a believer in waiting to be old to play certain works—what if one doesn’t make it to be that old? So I started early, and I am glad of it.

Q: The work was composed for a two-manual harpsichord. What are your thoughts about performing the “Goldberg” Variations on a modern piano?

A: Much has been made of the difficulties of negotiating the crossing of hands in this music that was designed for a two-manual keyboard. And those difficulties are formidable—sometimes it seems almost impossible to play! Once I encountered a Wurlitzer piano that was constructed with two manuals, a bit circular in design. It was fun, as it is on the organ or on the harpsichord, to play such music without the fingers and hands getting so entangled in each other. I personally do not rearrange any of it to make it easier on a one-manual (piano, or sometimes I play it at home on the clavichord) keyboard; I play everything as written, to keep the voices separate and clear, all the while visualizing internally that I am playing on two keyboards—each hand, like in much four-hand music, making room for another, just enough to make it possible for each to play without hindrance.

Q: Do you revisit previous recordings or ideas you had earlier in your career, or do you approach this piece differently with each new performance?

A: I play this work, and other works by Bach, too, differently each time I play. It is said that Bach himself played the same piece differently each time. These composers were magnificent improvisers, after all. Apparently Chopin played his works radically differently, each time, too. Of course this cannot be based on arbitrary caprice, but with familiarity and insight into the music that then frees one to make spontaneous choices. In no way do I try to solidify a way of playing this work. I try to approach it with great openness, knowing something about what options are possible and then going with one or another, or with something not yet discovered—I often am surprised myself—and hopefully with some of the spirit of freshness, adventurousness, and spontaneity in which it was composed. Playing each variation and the theme quite differently each time concerns tempi, character and expression, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics, and in allowing for variety of each, especially in phrasing and articulation. It is an adventure to live with this work. And, profound as it is, somehow this composition is in the spirit of fun at the same time.

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PETER SERKIN

Published January 7, 2019
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Yale Percussion Group to perform Kagel, Xenakis, Jarrett, and Wood

Members of the Yale Percussion Group (YPG) are a tight sextet—personally, professionally, and, most important, musically. The enthusiasm they have for being here at Yale, and for performing the repertoire that showcases their instruments and musicianship—from well-known to new compositions—is clearly reflected in their playing. This year’s Yale Percussion Group concert will feature small chamber works and solo pieces. Kevin Zetina ’20MM, who will be performing in his first YPG concert, explained, “When you work exclusively with five other people for an extended period of time you get to develop together as a unit, rather than as an individual.” Even solo performances by YPG members are imbued with the ensemble’s artistic ethos.

The YPG’s Dec. 8 program will include performances of Mauricio Kagel’s Dressur, Iannis Xenakis’ Rebonds (movement B, arranged for guitar by Manuel Barrueco and performed on marimba), a marimba arrangement of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert (Part IIC, arranged for marimba), and James Wood’s Village Burial with Fire.

Russell Fisher ’20MMA described Dressur, a theatrical percussion work from 1977, as “a truly unique piece of chamber music,” one that constantly toys with audience expectations. Dressur features three performers (Fisher, Arlo Shultis ’20MMA, and YoungKyoung Lee ’19MMA) playing more than 50 wooden instruments, “some conventional, and some unconventional.” With its dramatically choreographed movements and staging, Dressur is as entertaining to the eye as it is to the ear—a goal of the composer, who wrote that his music was “a direct, exaggerated protest against the mechanical reproduction of music” that resulted from music after the 19th century being “reduced to the purely acoustical dimension” thanks to recording technology. “What I want is to bring the audience back to an enjoyment of music with all senses,” Kagel has said.

Rebonds is considered one of Xenakis’s most important and influential works. Shiqi Zhong ’19MM, who will perform movement B of Rebonds—a movement scored for bongos, tumba, tom-tom, bass drum, and five woodblocks—said the piece, composed between 1987 and 1989, is “all about rhythm and time.”

Jisu Jung ’19MM will perform the encore that Jarrett played at a January 1975 concert in Cologne, Germany—a performance that was recorded and released as, simply, The Köln Concert. Jarrett performed the music on a piano with which he was disappointed; Jung will play it on marimba.

Just as Dressur will showcase a YPG trio, so, too, will Wood’s Village Burial with Fire. “I’ll never forget my first time hearing Village Burial with Fire,” Zetina said. “It is safe to say that it changed my life. It is such a powerful piece of music.” The work depicts an ancient Hindu burial ceremony and begins with the performers (Jung, Shultis, and Zetina) chanting and wailing in imitation of villagers communicating with a deceased spirit. When a funeral pyre is lit after a noisy procession to the river, “it seems as though the whole village has exploded into music and dancing—soon, some go into trance,” wrote Wood, who composed Village Burial after a trip to Bali. In its visceral realism, Zetina likened Wood’s musical depiction of a funeral to that of “a field recording, rather than simply a programmatic work.”

The dedication of YPG members to their art is evident. “It is rare for a music group to rehearse only two pieces for four months and eight hours a day,” Zhong said, referring to Dressur and Village Burial with Fire. “Therefore, the level of music-making at each YPG concert is incredible.”

“Performing in YPG is truly an honor,” Fisher said. “I struggle to think of other ensembles that have such an incredible lineage of musicians. To now be a part of this ensemble and legacy is really humbling.”

The Yale Percussion Group, under the direction of Robert van Sice, will perform music by Mauricio Kagel, Iannis Xenakis, Keith Jarrett, and James Wood on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall. The concert is free and open to the public.

Published December 4, 2018
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Yale Philharmonia to perform music by student composers

The Yale Philharmonia, in rehearsal.

On Dec. 6, guest conductor and YSM alumnus Julian Pellicano ’07MM ’09MM will lead the Yale Philharmonia in a program of new orchestral music by the School’s student composers. As part of the New Music New Haven series, New Music for Orchestra is an annual occurrence, but each performance is distinctly different and offers audiences the opportunity to see brand-new works by YSM’s innovative and talented composition students.

Every year the concert features the orchestral works of different student composers, each of whom has a unique musical style. Tanner Porter ’19MM, whose work Here Comes the Rain will be performed on Dec. 6, said, “One of the things that makes the Yale composition department so particularly wonderful is the fact that everyone is working in largely different sound worlds. While musical tastes and interests overlap, the ways in which we internalize our influences and create from our experiences renders totally diverse works. Our many compositional styles are sure to give this concert a fantastic array of soundscapes to experience.”

New Music for Orchestra presents an exciting program to its audience, but it also provides YSM’s composition students an invaluable learning tool by enabling them to work closely with an orchestra throughout the rehearsal process. “The only way to learn orchestration is to hear your own work,” faculty composer and New Music New Haven Artistic Director Hannah Lash has said. “You can study scores all you want, but there’s nothing like having that hands-on experience.”

There is also something very special about having music performed by an orchestra of one’s peers, in this case the Yale Philharmonia. Ryan Lindveit ’19MM, who will present his piece Pray Away on the concert, said, “I love working with musicians who are around my age, because they are more likely to understand the particular set of cultural circumstances that led to my creating the music on their stands.” About his piece, Lindveit said, “Taking for granted my deeply held belief that music can be a vehicle for emotional transformation, Pray Away is a musical metaphor for unpeeling layers of personal shame to find authenticity.”

The concert on Dec. 6 will feature works by Porter, Lindveit, Aaron Levin, Grant Luhmann, Frances Pollock, Anteo Fabris, and Nate May. Asked about the importance of presenting new music in live performance settings, Porter said, “In my experience, the orchestra is one of the most powerful engines a listener can inhabit. Many of my most meaningful musical memories are from live concerts, where I witnessed the music I’d loved in recordings take shape as it reverberated through the space. But there’s nothing like falling in love with a new piece as you hear it for the first time, and in an orchestra hall—where you can not only listen to but sit inside of and feel the music as it forms.”

Guest conductor and YSM alumnus Julian Pellicano ’07MM ’09MM leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program of new orchestral music by the School’s student composers on Thursday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 p.m., in Woolsey Hall. This New Music for Orchestra program, presented by New Music New Haven, is free and open to the public.

Published November 30, 2018
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Russian Liederabend to showcase Yale Opera singers

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, Yale Opera will present a Russian Liederabend (“evening of songs”) featuring a wide array of Russian vocal music, from solo songs and arias to ensemble pieces. The program will include works by such composers as Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glinka, Shebalin, Pakhmutova, and Rachmaninoff.

With Yale Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin slated for two performances in February, Russian was a natural choice for the language of this year’s Liederabend. Integral to both projects is Emily Olin, Lecturer in Voice and Opera at the School of Music, who organized the Liederabend and will perform as the evening’s collaborative pianist. Olin put together the concert program with current Yale Opera singers in mind, tailoring musical selections to students’ individual voices.

In addition to her musical guidance, Olin has taught weekly Russian language classes and diction coachings throughout the semester. Soprano Laura Nielsen ’20MM described Olin as “an incredible resource” for the singers in the opera program. “In addition to her warm and loving personality,” Nielsen said, “she has a wonderful way of communicating subtle differences in pronunciation and helping us non-native speakers improve our Russian.”

Singing in Russian presents challenges for many singers. For Nielsen, one of the most difficult aspects of learning Russian music has been becoming proficient in reading Cyrillic. “I have only just started to be able to absorb this new alphabet and the new sounds that it includes,” Nielsen said. “I have to do so much extra work in reading that it makes learning a piece much more challenging than learning a piece in English, Italian, or French.” In many undergraduate vocal programs, it is not unusual for students to focus on Italian, French, and German repertoire, and to skip Russian works entirely. “I am so grateful to have been exposed to so much more Russian music this year,” Nielsen said.

In addition to showing off their newly enhanced Russian language skills, Yale Opera singers look forward to sharing rarely heard repertoire. “I am singing a wonderful aria from a Russian adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew by Vissarion Shebalin, written in 1957,” Nielsen said. She hopes people will come to broaden their musical horizons and to hear “the best of what each of the singers has to offer.”

Yale Opera’s Russian Liederabend, on Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall, is free and open to the public.

Published November 29, 2018
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