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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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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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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Pianist Peter Serkin to perform Schoenberg, Mozart, and more Oct. 22

serkin_p

Peter Serkin, piano

The Yale School of Music presents a piano recital by Peter Serkin on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 at 7:30 pm. The highly acclaimed pianist will present a program of works spanning several hundred years, from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.

From William Byrd to Charles Wuorinen, Mr. Serkin displays a unique prowess in performing virtually anything written for the keyboard. The American Record Guide considers him “one of the most perceptive and provocative pianists of his generation, as comfortable exploring the music of the past as he is in some of the most stimulating works of our time.”

Serkin will begin with a short piece, Ave Christe, written by the Renaissance composer Josquin and re-worked by Charles Wuorinen  (b. 1938). The program continues with two Renaissance works, Sweelinck‘s Capriccio (originally written for organ) and John Bull‘s Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la: A Gigge (God Save the King) phantasy, originally for harpsichord. MORE

Published October 8, 2014
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Orion String Quartet performs Bach, Beethoven, and Kirchner

Pianist Peter Serkin joins the ensemble for the Brahms piano quintet

orion_blogThe Orion String Quartet, one of America’s foremost chamber ensembles, will perform with the stellar pianist Peter Serkin at the Yale School of Music on Tuesday, February 23 at 8 pm. The first half of the program will offer string quartets by Bach, Kirchner, and Beethoven: Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Art of the Fugue; Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 4, written in 2006; and Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 74. The evening will conclude with the Brahms Piano Quintet, featuring Serkin in the demanding piano part.

The members of the Orion String Quartet are violinists Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy. Daniel and Todd Phillips are brothers who share the first violin chair equally. Serkin, recognized as one of America’s leading pianists for over forty years, has been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards and is a versatile artist who has recorded and performed music from Bach to Brahms to the twenty-first century. He is the son of the pianist Rudolf Serkin and the grandson of the violinist and composer Adolf Busch.

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Published February 5, 2010
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