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August 2014
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Pianist Amy Briggs on What’s New in Music

Pianist Amy Briggs plays Rush Hour with Third Coast and Daniel Schlosberg, c. Brian McConkey

Pianist Amy Briggs plays Rush Hour with Third Coast and Daniel Schlosberg, c. Brian McConkey

Rush Hour Concerts season finale at 5:45 pm

Pianist Amy Briggs has a passion for pristine and rugged terrains, be it a trek in the Spanish Pyrenees or a virtuosic piano score that no one’s ever performed before. As a working pianist and Director of Chamber Music and Lecturer in Music at the University of Chicago, Ms. Briggs knows her way around the standard repertoire of Brahms and Beethoven. But it is the music of our own time that finds its way under her fingers the most.

On Tuesday, August 26, Ms. Briggs performs music by American composer Steve Reich; his Sextet, which goes back to 1984 and was commissioned by the French government for a performance at the Pompidou Centre. The Sextet is part of the Rush Hour Concerts at St. James Cathedral. WFMT’s live broadcast from the Cathedral begins at 5:45 pm on Tuesday. Joining Amy Briggs are the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble and a second pianist, Daniel Schlosberg.

Amy Briggs answers some questions about her new music niche:

A lot of artists play new works. You seem to have specialized in new music and sought it out. What led you to having that kind of focus?


Third Coast Percussion Ensemble, c. Saverio Truglia

My ‘new music focus’ started by accident. As a graduate student, I was asked by my student composer friends to perform their pieces; at the time I was also pianist for the Civic Orchestra, and played in a lot of contemporary orchestral works. Not many of my pianist colleagues (at the time) wanted to tackle contemporary works; I found learning them came naturally and was a fun challenge. As I did this more, I began getting more opportunities, eventually professional ones. During this time, I had the opportunity to study with Ursula Oppens for my Doctor of Music degree at Northwestern – an amazing experience that taught me a lot about approaching a new work. I’m proud to have been a part of the CSO’s MusicNOW series since 2001, and this gave me the chance to work with a lot of composers, some very famous and established ones. Over the last decade I have had the opportunity to work very closely with some stellar and very important composers, like my University of Chicago colleague Augusta Read Thomas and Boston-based David Rakowski; this kind of collaboration has been incredibly rewarding.

Who do you think are some of the most gifted people writing for the piano these days?

This is a tricky question, because I know there are plenty of younger composers that are not on my radar…so my apologies for leaving out many people that deserve mention. David Rakowski, who is a colleague and friend and about whose music I am passionate, is a singular composer for the piano. He has 100 piano etudes, 40-something piano preludes, and several piano concerti. I premiered and recorded his Second Concerto this season with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (to be released at the end of 2014 on the BMOP label) and have recorded four discs of his etudes for Bridge Records (the latest, Volume Four, will be released in early 2015). There aren’t many composers of his generation who have devoted so much time and effort to the piano – he also has lots of chamber music, solo music for other instruments, orchestral and wind ensemble music. A big part of my mission as an interpreter has been to perform and record his work, giving it a wider audience. Other living composers with terrific piano music include Nico Muhly, August Read Thomas, Bernard Rands, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gyorgy Kurtag. But there are many more I’m not mentioning.

Are your piano students taking up some of these composers?

Yes! I am an Artist-in-Residence at the University of Chicago, where I direct the chamber music program, teach private piano students, and work closely with our graduate composition students. My university students and my younger private students are dabbling in new music. One of my high school students won a local award for his performance of an Augusta Read Thomas etude a few years ago; another high school student performed an etude of Nico Muhly on a recital at her school. Several of my university students are learning Rakowski etudes, as well as other important works from the repertoire by composers such as Ligeti, Berio, and Boulez.

We’ve had lots of experimentation in music, lots of atonality, lots of music that is interesting in concept, but maybe challenging for audiences. What would you say to audiences about beginning to understand a new piece that doesn’t have that tonal anchor?


Pianist Daniel Schlosberg joins Amy Briggs and Third Coast Percussion Ensemble for the final Rush Hour Concert of 2014

The absence of a tonal anchor is tricky for most people. Often, people become more comfortable with atonal and/or extremely ‘tonally-adventurous’ music the more they are exposed to it. It is helpful to see how many musical elements you can listen for: for instance, rhythmic development, melodic and linear progression, changes in color and timbre. There is so much to listen for in music, and it can be a lot of fun to approach a new and ‘adventurous’ piece this way as an audience member. It can be enough just to let the music wash over you and see what you notice the most. It’s impossible to glean everything about a piece in a first hearing (or 100 hearings), so it’s helpful to release any expectation of ‘understanding’ a new piece from the first hearing. As a scholar-performer I like to discuss and play excerpts of a piece first, or even repeat a particularly complex piece for the benefit of a second hearing. This usually goes over well with audiences, which leads me to believe that most people want to have positive experiences with new works, and appreciate information that will make the music more accessible on a first hearing.

Do you find composers have moved beyond some of those artistic trends?

Yes I do – there are so many little niches in what we call the ‘New Music World.’ There’s a place for everyone. For instance, the Sextet we’re playing this evening by Steve Reich is quite ‘tonal,’ but is considered an example of minimalism – that is, it takes some basic musical elements (simple chord progressions, simple rhythmic patterns) and develops them through repetition and layering to create something quite complex. Some contemporary composers are composing very traditionally tonal music (Aaron Jay Kernis comes to mind). Spectral trends in composition have been big in recent years – music focusing on timbral structures and incorporating mathematical analysis of sound spectra. There is plenty of music that falls outside the boundaries of ‘traditional tonality’ that is not atonal or serial!

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