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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Melvin Chen to perform piano arrangements of orchestral works

Melvin Chen, faculty pianist and Deputy Dean

Melvin Chen

Faculty pianist and Deputy Dean Melvin Chen’s 2018 Horowitz Piano Series recital program features Otto Singer II’s solo piano arrangement of Brahms’ Third Symphony, Sibelius’ piano arrangements of his Finlandia and Valse Triste, and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. We spoke with Prof. Chen, whose background includes piano and violin studies, about the repertoire and his recital preparation.

Q: How did you arrive at a program of piano arrangements (with the exception of the Ravel)?

A: I’ve always loved orchestral music—when I was playing the violin, one of my favorite things to do was to play in an orchestra. So while I’m almost always a pianist now, my love of orchestral music hasn’t diminished, and this is my way of staying in touch with the orchestral repertoire as a performer.

Q: What are some of the more challenging aspects of these arrangements? 

A: The Sibelius pieces feature music that is quite direct and powerful, although in different ways, so the piano arrangements retain those qualities. The Brahms is a different beast—the textures are thick and contrapuntal, so I find it quite difficult to handle on the piano, not just physically, but also mentally.

Q: Has your approach to practicing changed at all as a result of playing piano arrangements of orchestral music?

A: Of course when one plays orchestral arrangements, you can’t get the original instruments out of your head. So it informs the way I practice these pieces, and stretches my technique. For example, how can I create the legato of the strings, or illustrate the differences in timbres of each of the wind instruments?

Q: What do these arrangements tell us about the compositions—that is, what do they reveal that we might not hear the same way in orchestral performances?

A: Because of the nature of the piano, these works, especially the Brahms, are revealed in a more skeletal way. I think it’s easier to hear the large scale structures.  Also, because there is only one person playing, there are expressive possibilities that can be realized in a way that might be impossible for an orchestra to achieve.

Q: Ravel orchestrated his Valses nobles et sentimentales a year after the work had its premiere as a piano collection. Has the composer’s orchestral arrangement informed your approach to the original?

A: Ravel was such a master of orchestration that knowing how he orchestrated each waltz gives you a clear idea of what he was thinking about the color and mood he was going for. In a way, a pianist can feel like he is receiving a coaching from Ravel!

Q: What would you want the audience to know about the program before listening to it?

A: I’m interested in thinking about the purpose of these arrangements. There are mundane reasons why someone would make a piano transcription of an orchestral piece—it was a way of getting to hear new works before there was technology like the CD or Spotify. But for the audience, does hearing a piano transcription change the way you hear the orchestral piece? In the case of the Ravel, was there something missing from the piano version that prompted him to want to orchestrate it?

Faculty pianist and Deputy Dean Melvin Chen performs Otto Singer II’s arrangement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, along with works by Sibelius and Ravel, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall.

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MELVIN CHEN

Published November 26, 2018
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Oundjian explores “Also sprach Zarathustra” with Nietzsche expert

Karsten Harries, left, and Peter Oundjian

Peter Oundjian has conducted Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra many times. Never, though, has he dived so deep into Nietzsche’s text, which inspired the tone poem. “It’s a very rare thing to have the opportunity to speak with someone who’s lived with Nietzsche your entire life,” he said to Karsten Harries on Saturday, during a discussion at Harries’ Hamden home. Harries, the recently retired Howard H. Newman Professor of Philosophy at Yale (Harries is also a Yale alumnus and now Professor Emeritus), taught courses on Nietzsche, among others, and on the philosophy of art and architecture. He is also impressively well-versed in music.

In program notes for the work’s 1896 premiere in Frankfurt, Strauss wrote: “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work.”

“He chose which passages would suit his tone poem,” Oundjian, Principal Conductor of the Yale Philharmonia, said, paging through his score.

“There is a clear intellectual progression,” Harries said, a German-language copy of Nietzsche’s text in-hand. “He bends the Nietzsche text to his own ends.” Strauss, Harries pointed out, studied philosophy, aesthetics, and art history in Munich.

With a performance of Also sprach Zarathustra playing, Oundjian and Harries analyzed the music alongside Nietzsche’s text, discussing the notion of eternal recurrence—the idea that “time is a circle,” Harries said, paraphrasing from Zarathustra—and other elements of Nietzsche’s autobiographical narrative.

“It sounds completely like Wagner,” Oundjian said of the second section (“Von den Hinterweltlern”) of Strauss’ tone poem.

“Strauss is looking back,” knowing he has to distance himself from that, Harries said. “He thinks of Wagner as the Hinterweltlern (the “backworld”).” Similarly, Harries said, “Nietzsche clearly struggles with his proximity to Wagner.”

Just as the past is reflected in Strauss’ Zarathustra, the present and the future, and the conflict inherent in living with both in mind, is of importance in both Strauss’ and Nietzsche’s work. “To be human is to be open to the future,” Harries said. Joy, though, is only available in the present. To be human is also to engage with “the rabble,” he said, referring to Zarathustra’s descent from the mountaintop. Nietzsche’s famous line “God is dead” marks Zarathustra’s arrival at humanity.

As the recorded performance of Zarathustra arrived at “Das Tanzlied,” Harries gave Oundjian something to think about. While the music seems to offer a nod to the waltzes of Johann Strauss II (no relation), Harries dismissed that analysis. “I see very much the alpine element and the beer-hall element,” he said. Decades before he composed Zarathustra, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony had captured his fascination with the mountains. As for beer, Strauss’ mother, Josephine, was part of the Pschorr (now Hacker-Pschorr) beer-making family in Munich. Oundjian hadn’t made those connections. Harries’ opinion, Oundjian said, was a “complete enlightenment for me.”

As the recorded performance came to an end, Oundjian, conducting the music (something Harries had said seemed a difficult undertaking), remarked, noting Strauss’ harmonic manipulations, “He can’t resist being a genius.”

Earlier in the conversation, Oundjian had asked Harries, somewhat rhetorically and pointing to the Zarathustra text, “Is it possible that he could express all this musically?”

“I would argue that he was a very astute reader of Nietzsche,” Harries said.

Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian leads the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Strauss’ Nietzsche-inspired tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA, on Thursday, Nov. 15, in Woolsey Hall.

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Published November 12, 2018
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