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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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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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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Pianist Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA, on performing with the Yale Philharmonia

Sophiko Simsive. Photo by Marco Broggreve

Asked about Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, which she will perform with the Yale Philharmonia on Thursday, Nov. 15, Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA does not get into musical details. “I’ve been trying to think in a more abstract way,” she said, explaining, “I like to relate to pieces on a personal level.” Simsive described herself as “a musician that always tries to identify the emotion in a piece” and wants the audience to feel that though her performance. “I feel very strongly about this piece,” she said. “I want to bring out my personality and I’m trying to bring out the story I’m trying to tell with it.”

While Simsive has long been familiar with the concerto, it was not until she played a piano arrangement of the orchestra part, for a March 2017 recital here at YSM by Dong Won Lee ’18MM, that she started “thinking deep and really getting my hands on” the piece.

Just hours removed from her first rehearsal with the Philharmonia, Simsive said, “I feel very much part of the orchestra.” Thursday’s concert in Woolsey Hall, she said, will be a high point of her time here at Yale, largely because she will be performing alongside colleagues. “I feel completely like I’m playing at home,” she said.

At the first rehearsal, Simsive said a few words to members of the Philharmonia. “I felt so grateful for the opportunity to play with the Yale Philharmonia. I wanted to let them know that for me it felt like playing chamber music with each and every one of them.” Simsive has worked with many musicians in the YSM community and pointed out that she played piano, celeste, and organ as a member of the Philharmonia in September.

As the soloist on Thursday’s concert, Simsive is looking forward to sharing a bit of herself with the Woolsey Hall audience. “I can tell a lot of different stories,” she said, “but they have to feel something—and that something is my life at Yale.”

Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA will perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with the Yale Philharmonia on Thursday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m., in Woolsey Hall. The program also includes Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra.

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SOPHIKO SIMSIVE

Published November 12, 2018
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Yale percussionists prepare for “Symphonie fantastique”

Left to right: YoungKyoung Lee, Russell Fisher, and Jisu Jung

Just a few hours before guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni arrived on campus to start rehearsing the Yale Philharmonia for Friday’s concert in Woolsey Hall, the orchestra’s percussion section played through several passages of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The work, a wildly imaginative piece of program music that calls for a giant ensemble including four timpanists (in the third movement, specifically), will close Friday’s program and introduce concertgoers who are unfamiliar with Berlioz’s score to the heights of the composer’s creativity and the brilliance of his orchestration.

“We can’t help but remind ourselves to be sticking with the story of the music or how Berlioz was while he was writing this piece,” percussionist Jisu Jung ’19MM said.

The program notes (by Liam Viney, ed. Aaron Levin) for Friday’s performance explain: “In the printed program of the first performance, Berlioz provided an outline of the plot: the love-sick hero (presumably himself) is plagued by images of his beloved and troubled by a spiritual sickness. He … is constantly visited by his beloved’s image, accompanied by extreme emotional reactions. Eventually, disillusionment sets in during the third movement, and he poisons himself with opium to assuage the anguish of his unrequited love. Delirium sets in, and he descends into the horrific dream world of the fourth and fifth movements.”

In Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation and Modern Orchestration, percussionist Russell Fisher ’20MMA said, the composer “describes different instruments, he describes also the emotional responses that go along with them. You can really see that in this piece in particular.” And, Jung, said, “You can see how detailed he was when he was writing this.” Fisher added, “There’s very little left up to interpretation.”

“He even suggests sticking,” percussionist YoungKyoung Lee ’19MMA pointed out, which is “really rare, especially at this time.” Symphonie fantastique was composed and premiered in 1830, revised thereafter, and published in 1845.

As they rehearsed the timpani parts in the fourth movement (“March to the Scaffold”), percussionist Arlo Shultis ’20MMA offered, “YoungKyoung’s part and mine are so interlocked. Since I’m playing second timpani, I’m really watching her and watching the conductor, as well.” Shultis and Lee are using similar mallets and the same stickings.

With equal attention to time, sound, and consistency, Fisher and Jung ran through their bass-drum parts in the fifth movement (“Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath”), Fisher executing crescendos and Jung providing attack and decrescendos, with percussionist Kevin Zetina ’20MM playing the chimes. Discussion was had about dynamics, or course, though those will largely be up to Zeitouni, and, to a degree, to Woolsey Hall. That Zeitouni trained as a percussionist will likely factor in to how extreme those dynamics will get. “Our goal,” Jung joked, “is: Play until you get the hand,” the hand being a conductor’s “that’s too much” signal.

Returning to a more serious note, Jung said she and her colleagues (including Shiqi Zhong ’19MM, who doesn’t play on the Berlioz) are “very, very tight.” They bring the skills required of outstanding chamber musicians to the Philharmonia. “We just develop this huge trust in each other,” Fisher said.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni leads the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and music by Saint-Saëns and Debussy on Friday, Oct. 26.

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Published October 23, 2018
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Marin Alsop to lead Yale Philharmonia in program of Bernstein, Beethoven

Marin Alsop. Photo by Adriane White

Yale Philharmonia Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian has described Marin Alsop as “one of the greatest conductors of her generation.” A 2005 MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”) recipient, Alsop has served since 2007 as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She has also led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and has appeared with many of the world’s most celebrated ensembles. Alsop was recently appointed chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the latest in a series of “firsts” as a woman conductor.

“I’m very honoured to be the first, but I’m also rather shocked that we can be in this year, in this century, and there can still be ‘firsts’ for women,” Alsop told The Guardian. She made similar comments, at greater length, at the final concert of the 2013 BBC Proms.

Eager to see others succeed as she has, Alsop established the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which helps prepare women conductors for work on the podium and in offstage leadership areas, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, which was “designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City neighborhoods,” according to the organization’s website.

Alsop has not been shy about using her position in the music world to point out inequities. Her social activism was inspired in part by her mentor, the late Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday, which falls on August 25, the performing arts community has been celebrating.

“He was a very generous human being who believed in access and inclusion and equity for all people,” Alsop said of Bernstein, with whom she studied at Tanglewood. That legacy, she said, “inspires me to try to use the opportunities I have to create a more just landscape for people.”

On Friday, April 20, Alsop will lead the Yale Philharmonia, Yale Glee Club, and Yale Camerata in a performance of Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony, on a program that also includes Bernstein’s Opening Prayer and Chichester Psalms. Beethoven’s Ninth, she said, “was a critical piece for Bernstein,” one that represented possibility and hope. It’s a piece he famously conducted in Berlin, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a performance that featured musicians from East and West Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. It was the hope that Bernstein found in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that Alsop is eager to celebrate, along with Bernstein’s birthday and his music.

In addition to Bernstein’s Opening Prayer, which was composed for the 1986 reopening of Carnegie Hall and eventually became part of his Concerto for Orchestra, the April 20 Yale Philharmonia program includes Chichester Psalms. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Alsop said, Chichester Psalms is “a piece about hope and possibility.”

Having worked closely with Bernstein certainly informs Alsop’s performances of his music. “Knowing a composer as a human being gives us that added dimension, that added insight” into the motivation for writing a piece, she said. It is her responsibility, and the Philharmonia’s, to tell the music’s story. And that’s the same wherever she’s conducting. “I approach every orchestra as professional musicians whom I respect,” she said. While more might be expected of her, in terms of providing insight or direction, from a younger orchestra than from a veteran ensemble, “I don’t think about it any differently.”

On Wednesday, April 18, Alsop will join School of Music Dean Robert Blocker for a conversation about Leonard Bernstein’s legacy and music, the pursuit of diversity in our field, Beethoven’s revolutionary Ninth Symphony, and working with the next generation of orchestral musicians.

On Friday, April 20, guest conductor Marin Alsop will lead the Yale Philharmonia, Yale Glee Club, and Yale Camerata in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, on a program that also includes Bernstein’s Opening Prayer and Chichester Psalms.

A CONVERSATION WITH MARIN ALSOP
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Published April 13, 2018
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Winners of 2018 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition announced

The 2018 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition took place on Sunday, April 8. This year’s competition yielded three winners: tubist Jacob Fewx ’18MM, who performed Arild Plau’s Concerto for Tuba and Strings; pianist Sophiko Simsive ’18MM, who performed Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15; and flutist Jungah Yoon ’19MM who performed Carl Reinecke’s Flute Concerto in D major, Op. 283. As winners, these students will perform with the Yale Philharmonia during the 2018-19 season. Cellist Samuel DeCaprio ’18MMA was selected as an alternate, and violinist Ariel Horowitz ’19MM received an honorable mention.

The judges were violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv, who serves as assistant professor of violin and viola and coordinator of strings at the University of Connecticut, André-Michel Schub, who is on the piano and chamber music faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, and New York Philharmonic bass trombonist George Curran, who is a faculty member at Rutgers University and the Manhattan School of Music.

We congratulate our outstanding students and look forward to hearing them perform next season with the Yale Philharmonia.

Published April 9, 2018
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