Professor Paul Berry on scholarship, performance, and Brahms

Paul Berry

Paul Berry

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

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

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

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

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Published February 27, 2019
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Wei-Yi Yang to perform all-Schumann program

Wei-Yi Yang

On Wednesday, Nov. 7, faculty pianist Wei-Yi Yang ’95MM ’96AD ’99MMA ’04DMA will perform an all-Schumann program that includes the composer’s Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, and Fantasie in C major. We spoke with Yang about the repertoire and his approach thereto.

Q: What is your connection to Schumann’s music? What about his piano writing resonates with you and why (if that can be articulated)? How and why did you choose these three works?

A: I always have a special place in my heart for Schumann’s music. Right now, my heart is saturated with it. Schumann’s obsessive, at times possessed, ways of expressing his emotions never fail to amaze me. I find it helpful to approach the heart of his music by approximating the obsession that drove him. I return repeatedly to his lieder and movements from his chamber music to mine his creative energy — though it was the piano that served as the extension of his soul in his earlier period. Inspired by his forlorn love for Clara and the difficult circumstances surrounding their forced separation, these opuses are Schumann’s ultimate love letters to her. Deciphering such personal and intimate pieces requires a certain psychological projection; it is uneasy study and work, but personally, I find a certain voyeuristic pleasure in this effort.

Q: What do these pieces require of you, physically (technically), mentally, and emotionally?

A: So much of this music is spurred by fragility, obsession, and whimsy, but at its heart lies one of the most challenging interpretive aspects: it is the portrayal of loneliness. In handling the many varied moments of heightened intensity, the succession of moods requires enormous imagination and sound resources. Often, I remind myself in practice: the hands need to move, but the ears need to move faster.

Q: These pieces were written during the same period. What do they tell us about Schumann’s life and work at that point? This music is informed by E.T.A. Hoffman’s Kreisler, inspired by the work of Beethoven, dedicated to Liszt and Chopin, and reflective of Schumann’s feelings for Clara. What do they require from an audience?

A: Schumann had a voracious appetite when it came to his attention to literature. In many ways, this repertoire represents his diary or love letters to Clara in musical form; I would further liken these pieces to three types of literary manifestation: if Kinderszenen were a collection of haiku miniatures, then Kreisleriana would be a novella rooted in violent schizophrenia, while the Fantasie represents an arching epic. Shifting between desires, fears, resignation, make-believe triumph, and longing, these are deeply personal works that cover enormous emotional terrain and can only be defined, and united, by conflicts between dreams and reality and mood swings. As a performer, I find it necessary to feel open and vulnerable, and let all guards down; as for the listeners, I would recommend the same.

The Horowitz Piano Series presents faculty pianist Wei-Yi Yang in an all-Schumann program that includes the composer’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15, Kreisleriana, Op. 16, and Fantasie in C major, Op. 17.

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Published November 2, 2018
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Concert to showcase former students of Boris Berman

Boris Berman

On Wednesday, April 4, several former students of faculty pianist and Horowitz Piano Series Artistic Director Boris Berman will perform a concert that celebrates his 70th birthday, which takes place the day before, and the work Berman has done at YSM since joining the School’s faculty in 1984.

“We have so many wonderful alums among the graduates of the piano department,” Berman said. The challenge in putting this concert together was identifying which alumni would perform. He decided to build a program around recent graduates who have had success at international competitions.

The program will feature sisters Esther Park ’12AD ’13MMA ’17DMA and Sun-A Park ’16AD ’17MMA, performing together as Duo Amadeae; Ronaldo Rolim ’20DMA; Henry Kramer ’13AD ’19DMA; and Larry Weng ’14MMA ’19DMA and Yevgeny Yontov ’14MM ’20DMA, performing as part of the icarus Quartet, which also includes percussionists Jeff Stern ’16AD and Matthew Keown ’16MM ’20DMA. Berman asked each pianist to propose several pieces of repertoire, then “tried to make a varied program of different styles.” The program will feature works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Albéniz, Ravel, and Bartók.

Duo Amadeae won first prize at the Chicago International Duo Piano Competition in 2016. Rolim won Astral Artists’ 2017 national auditions. Kramer earned second prize at the 2016 Queen Elisabeth Competition, of which Weng was named a laureate. And Yontov was a finalist at the 15th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

While the April 4 program showcases Berman’s students, he is quick to celebrate the collaborative nature of YSM’s piano department. When pianists arrive at YSM to study, they can expect to cross paths with all piano faculty members. “We have a department in which we truly enjoy being together,” Berman said. “Very often, I send my students to play for my colleagues.” Two of those colleagues, Wei-Yi Yang and Deputy Dean Melvin Chen, are Berman’s former students. The primary criteria Berman and his piano faculty colleagues use in selecting pianists for admission is artistic individuality. “We are in the position to select people who are both very engaged intellectually and also wonderful artists,” he said of the students who enroll at the School of Music. “It is not by accident that every year we have applicants from the best schools.”

Esther Park enrolled at YSM and joined Berman’s studio after earning an undergraduate and graduate degree from The Juilliard School and then studying at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover. “He respected the background that I came from,” she said. “He knew exactly what I needed.” Talking with Berman about music, Park said, is “like speaking with Yoda.”

The piano department at YSM is unique, Park said, because of the faculty members’ relationships. When she was working on music by Schubert or Schumann, Berman would encourage Park to play for Peter Frankl. In turn, pianists from other faculty members’ studios play certain repertoire — Prokofiev, for example — for Berman. Park takes that approach at East Tennessee State University, where she is an assistant professor of piano.

Kramer, who is an assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, also spoke about the collaborative environment at YSM. “We all would play for each other and help disseminate ideas that had come to us through Prof. Berman,” Kramer said. “The overall environment at YSM is very intense and expecting the highest caliber of music-making, but at the same time you feel that the fabric of the faculty, students, and administration weaves together to create this wonderful network of support propelling you to achieve your own personal best results. I am honored to have the opportunity to celebrate my school and my professor during this concert.”

Berman points out that he, in turn, learns plenty from his students. Sometimes a student’s performance will remain “a reference for me,” he said, explaining that he will find himself “convinced,” after hearing a particular interpretation.

“It’s a fascinating field,” he said, “and it is a great privilege to work with so many talented people.”

On Wednesday, April 4, alumni who studied with faculty pianist and Horowitz Piano Series Artistic Director Boris Berman return from international successes to perform at the School of Music.

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Published April 2, 2018
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Yale Philharmonia principal conductor Peter Oundjian on “The Rite of Spring”

Peter Oundjian. Photo by Sian Richards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published September 8, 2017
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Pianist Robert Blocker performs Brahms and more Oct. 23

Robert Blocker, piano

The Horowitz Piano Series at the Yale School of Music presents a recital by the pianist and Dean of the Yale School of Music Robert Blocker on Wednesday, October 23. Blocker, a renowned pianist and a leading arts administrator, will perform music by Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms.  MORE

Published October 2, 2013
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Ilya Poletaev and friends perform a tribute to George Enescu

Program includes a newly-discovered violin work by the Romanian composer

Enescu

Enescu

Canadian pianist and Yale faculty member Ilya Poletaev brings together his faculty colleague, tenor James Taylor, guest violinist Jennifer Curtis, and alumni cellist Mihai Marica for a tribute to the Romanian composer George Enescu on Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 8 pm in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall (470 College Street, New Haven). Enescu (1881-1955), described by Pablo Casals as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart,” was a virtuoso violinist, pianist, and conductor as well as an educator and composer. His mature works are noteworthy for their refinement, complexity, and emotional depth, but have been celebrated little outside of Enescu’s native Romania.

This concert will introduce to the public some of the most important chamber works in Enescu’s oeuvre: Sept Chansons de Clement Marot, Op. 15; the newly-discovered Airs in Romanian Style for solo violin; the Cello Sonata, Op. 26, no. 2; the Piano Sonata, Op. 24, no. 1; and Impressions d’Enfance for violin and piano, Op. 28. This will be the first time the Airs in Romanian Style has been performed in New Haven; Curtis recently gave the work its New York premiere. Admission to the performance is free. For a live video stream of the concert, and for more information, visit the School of Music’s website.

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Published January 12, 2010
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Lunchtime Chamber Music December 9

lcm_emailThe Yale School of Music will present a Lunchtime Chamber Music concert on Wednesday, December 9 at 12:30 pm in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall (470 College St., New Haven). This free event features a colorful variety of ensembles composed of graduate musicians who have come from around the world to study at the Yale School of Music. Violinist Wendy Sharp is director of the chamber music program.

Admission to the recital is free. For more information, visit the Yale School of Music website or call 203 432-4158.

Published November 27, 2009
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