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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YSM appoints Boris Slutsky Visiting Professor of Piano

School of Music Dean Robert Blocker recently shared with the YSM community news that pianist Boris Slutsky will join the faculty for the 2019-2020 academic year. Below is Dean Blocker’s welcome announcement. 

As we plan for the coming 2019-2020 academic year, I am pleased to announce that Boris Slutsky will join us as the Visiting Professor in the Practice of Piano, a position currently held by Professor Peter Serkin. Professor Slutsky has served on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University since 1993.

Professor Slutsky brings to our School extraordinary experience as a teacher and performing artist. He is frequently sought-after adjudicator for international competitions, and for master classes at leading institutions throughout the world. His students regularly win prizes at national and international competitions.

At YSM, he will teach applied piano and coach chamber music. Please join me in welcoming Professor Slutsky to our School. Next fall we will have an occasion to greet him personally.

Warmest regards,

Robert Blocker
The Henry and Lucy Moses Dean of Music
Yale University

Published December 22, 2018
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Boris Berman named Marx Professor in the Practice of Piano

School of Music Dean Robert Blocker recently shared with the YSM community news that faculty pianist Boris Berman has been appointed the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Professor in the Practice of Piano. Below is Dean Blocker’s enthusiastic announcement. 

It is with great pleasure that I announce the appointment of Boris Berman as the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Professor in the Practice of Piano, effective immediately.

An internationally renowned concert pianist and teacher, our esteemed colleague has established a piano program at Yale that is among the finest in our discipline. Among his students and alumni are prize winners of international competitions, university teachers, recording artists, soloists, and chamber music performers from across the globe.

Yale audiences know Professor Berman as a frequent and versatile artist who has inspired and touched them with his musical insights in recitals, orchestral appearances, and chamber music concerts. His lectures about music reveal an artist who understands the inextricable link between scholarship and performance, a value that is also evident in his books and critical editions.

Sylvia and Leonard Marx, along with their daughter, Nancy Better, are cherished patrons of the School of Music and Yale. Sylvia, a notable pianist, was honored by her family on a recent birthday with the gift of a new Hamburg Steinway concert grand for the Morse Recital Hall stage. This pianistic interest adds yet another dimension to the appointment of Professor Berman to this endowed professorship. We are thankful to the Marx family for their immense generosity and to Professor Berman for his many valuable contributions to the Yale School of Music.

Warmest regards,
Robert Blocker
The Henry and Lucy Moses Dean of Music
Yale University

Published December 21, 2018
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YSM Student News | December 2018

Maura Scanlin

Tenor Luis Aguilar ’18MM ’19MMA, bass-baritone Brady Muth ’19MM, mezzo-soprano Rachel Weishoff ’19MMA, and soprano Laura Nielsen ’20MM, were the soloists for the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah with the Hartford Chorale.

San Jittakarn ’19MMA won third prize and Yun Lu ’20MM was one of eight semifinalists in the piano division of the 2018 Geneva International Music Competition.

Violinist Bora Kim ’16MM ’17MMA ’23DMA performed with the Sejong Soloists at Carnegie Hall in November for the ensemble’s Annual Gala Concert, which included works by Wagner, Vivaldi, Ewazen, and a premiere by Augusta Read Thomas MM.

Violinist Julia Mirzoev ’20MM was featured as a soloist in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, with the Durham Youth Orchestra in Whitby, Ontario, Canada.

Violinist Maura Scanlin ’19MM has recorded albums with her two folk bands. The Celtic fiddle/guitar duo Rakish released a self-titled debut EP in October, and Pumpkin Bread, an experimental group that blends Celtic folk and jazz, will release its second album in March 2019.

Xiaoyi Xu ’20MMA placed third and Po-Wei Ger ’20MM placed fifth at the Panama International Piano Competition.

Published December 13, 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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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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YSM Alumni News | November 2018

Molly Joyce. Photo by Nadine Sherman

Flutist Amanda Baker ’00MM returned to Yale in April 2018 to become Senior Associate Director for Young Alumni for the Yale Alumni Fund. She was also a guest lecturer this spring at the University of Hartford, where she taught “Entrepreneurship in the Arts,” and continues to teach flute at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Double Bassist Mark Elliot Bergman ’97MM received a Performing Arts Fellowship in Music from the Wyoming Arts Council, one of four recipients in the state. Bergman’s winning original compositions include Ondine, The Temple, and Shenandoah Suite, a string trio commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of Shenandoah National Park.

Violist Emily Grace Brandenburg ’17MMA was named Administrative Assistant at the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. MORE

Published November 7, 2018
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Miki Sawada ’14AD brings music to rural audiences

Miki Sawada

Political divisions have had many musicians thinking about the artist’s role in society. “As a musician, what is the way forward?” pianist and YSM alumna Miki Sawada ’14AD began asking herself two years ago. “Playing piano like I’d always played piano was no longer an option.”

Sawada, an accomplished concert performer and music educator, decided that the way forward was to use the piano as an instrument of healing, a gathering place where people of all backgrounds could enjoy music together. The way forward was to bring performances to people who may not ordinarily have access to them. In August 2017, Sawada launched the Gather Hear project, which involved, to begin, touring Alaska for three weeks in a van with a piano and a filmmaker, documenting the journey and giving a total of 25 performances in the cafés, bars, parks, and schools of largely rural communities. Eventually, Sawada intends to tour all 50 states.

“Alaska has an almost mythical quality,” Sawada said. The state’s vastness and the sparseness of its communities appealed to Sawada, and the close-knit nature of people in rural areas allowed her to find collaborators. In addition to her own solo playing and engaging with audiences, Sawada connected with a young local musician at each venue. She ended up performing with students of all levels, from beginner violinists to high school pianists.

Booked into unorthodox and often noisy venues, Sawada’s biggest fear before embarking on the tour was that no one would want to sit quietly and listen. “The night before I left, I got cold feet,” she said. She thought, “What if no one wants to hear me?” But her experience was quite the opposite. “There was total silence,” she said, noting “a change in the room” when she began to play, wherever she was.

While the Gather Hear Tour was sparked primarily by a desire to connect with diverse audiences, Sawada had long been interested in taking classical music beyond the confines of the concert hall. “I always envied my friends who could take their instruments and perform in pop-up concerts,” she explained. While taking a piano on tour requires some extra labor, Sawada has shown that it can be done. The instrument with which she toured Alaska is a hybrid keyboard with no strings to tune, equipped with its own amplification. However more difficult the instrument is to transport than a flute, the piano is a necessary, central focus of the project — a gathering place where people are encouraged to stop and listen, and to participate in the music-making.

Following the Alaskan tour, Sawada turned her attention to West Virginia, where Gather Hear performances featured a new work by composer and fellow YSM alumnus Brendon Randall-Myers ’14MM, a West Virginia native. Randall-Myers’ new work, A Kind of Mirror, combines classical repertoire with original music. Created to reflect the mission of the Gather Hear project, A Kind of Mirror calls for audience participation, with theatrical prompts shaped with the help of director Daniel Pettrow. At one point, an audience member is asked to make tea on stage, and the ending of the performance involves a large amount of bubble wrap.

While performances of A Kind of Mirror are somewhat structured, there is room for collaboration. “The show is built in a way so that piano players in the audience could potentially, spontaneously take the stage,” Sawada said, “or if I meet a classical musician in town when I arrive at a tour stop, I could work a collaborative performance with them into the show.”

Sawada seems flexible when it comes to life on the road, which she has found enjoyable. States on the radar for future Gather Hear tours include Missouri, Michigan, and Florida. Sawada may even attempt to tour all three within the next year. She is in no rush, however. “If it takes 50 years, that’s fine,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how the project changes over time.”

MIKI SAWADA

Published November 6, 2018
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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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Boris Berman to perform program of Haydn and Prokofiev sonatas

Boris Berman

Boris Berman recently said that his Oct. 24 Horowitz Piano Series recital is “another step in (my) exploration of Prokofiev.” Berman, a faculty pianist at YSM and the series’ Artistic Director, has recorded the composer’s complete solo piano music, published a book titled Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas: A Guide for the Listener and the Performer (Yale University Press), and served as an editor of Shanghai Music Publishing House’s critical edition of Prokofiev’s piano sonatas. In April 2016, Berman organized “Prokofiev at 125,” a concert in which his students performed transcriptions of the composer’s ballet music. Reviewing an all-Prokofiev recital Berman gave at New York’s 92nd Street Y, and with the pianist’s recordings in mind, New York Magazine’s Peter Davis offered, “For a grand tour through the total Prokofiev, I can’t imagine a more observant or articulate guide.”

For his Oct. 24 recital, Berman has paired Prokofiev’s late piano sonatas with Haydn’s “London” Sonatas. In Prokofiev’s piano music, Berman said, he sees connections to the composer’s immediate predecessors, and to the Classical style—”perhaps more so with Haydn than with Mozart.” The three “London” Sonatas (Nos. 50-52), Berman said, are very different from one another, and some of that music indeed looks forward, beyond Classicism. The Prokofiev sonatas—Berman will perform No. 9 and No. 7—are also different in their personalities, the former more introspective and the latter more muscular, in Berman’s words.

Personality will be very much on display in Berman’s recital, in historical terms. When Prokofiev “burst onto the concert scene,” Berman said, the composer and his music shocked some concertgoers. “Some of his premieres were downright scandalous,” Berman said.

In addition to his recital, and to celebrating Haydn and Prokofiev, Berman is always eager to champion the Horowitz Piano Series, which he said is “one of very few piano recital series in the country.”

“Some of the greatest musicians of our time” have performed as part of the Horowitz series, he said. Yale is home to the papers of legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who died in 1989. Guest performers on the Horowitz series have included Emanuel Ax, Ran Dank and Soyeon Kate Lee, Angela Hewitt, Olga Kern, Radu Lupu, and Murray Perahia, to name just a handful. The series, Berman said, is “a great treat for all of us, right here on campus.”

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HOROWITZ PIANO SERIES

BORIS BERMAN

THE PAPERS OF VLADIMIR AND WANDA TOSCANINI HOROWITZ

Published October 16, 2018
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