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Why Composer Max Richter Wants to Put You to Sleep

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Composer Max Richter wants people to doze off during his latest composition, SLEEP, which he calls an “8-hour lullaby.” SLEEP has its world-premiere performance this September in Berlin, Germany, coinciding with the release of a full recording of the piece (as well as a condensed, one-hour version) by Deutsche Grammophon.

I spoke with Max from London to learn about this curious new project. He explained some of his inspiration for SLEEP. He also dispelled some of the myths being circulated by the media that he’s attempting to break records with the “longest ever piece of classical music,” as the Telegraph UK claimed in a recent feature.


What is some music that you’ve attended live that’s put you to sleep in the past?

In a good way or a bad way? [Laughs] Well, there are some composers who I kind of grit my teeth through – and, I mean, that’s just personal preference. I mean, Bruckner comes to mind. Maybe that’s not fair to him, because he just works on a very big scale, but in the sort of Church of Bruckner or Church of Mahler, I’m definitely in the Mahler side, 1000%. I just do feel like those long stretches, where not much happens – I do struggle with them a bit. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really nodded off, but I’ve definitely sort of wished to, sometimes.

You’d be totally lying if you said you never took a little “opera nap” once in a while.

Yeah… I can’t honestly think of specifics, but I mean, the opera is the sort of classic, isn’t it? ‘Cause the thing is, opera houses are sort of comfy, aren’t they? They’re dark –

You’ve had a little something to eat, a little something to drink. . .

Feeling warm and snug in this sort of red velvet… It’s just so cozy. Of course you’re gonna nod off, yeah.

For the premiere of Sleep later this fall, you’re going to let audiences get very comfy!

That’s the idea. We’re playing the piece in the round, so the ensemble is in the center of the audience. We’ll be surrounded by approximately 500 beds, and everyone gets their own little bed, and hopefully nod off, and then we play through the night.

I can imagine that arranging for 500 beds is a logistical nightmare. Can you tell me a little bit about the logistics that have gone into transforming the auditorium into a musical sleepover?

Well, we don’t know yet, but we’re going to find out. The logistics of this project – and perhaps I was naïve going into it – have been very challenging. Normally when you do a take of something in the studio it will take like, I dunno, 5-10 minutes or something, and when you listen to that take, it takes another 15 minutes, maximum. In this case, of course, you’ll do a take and it will be an hour, then if you want to listen to the take, then that takes another hour. So the days just go by doing seemingly small tasks. But because the objects are so big, everything just gets really stretched out. It’s a bit like that “slow food” movement – slow record production movement is what we’re doing.

Hearing about this project, I was reminded of certain pieces of modern classic art that people will see in a contemporary gallery and think, “Why is this art?” What would you say to someone who isn’t convinced that a piece conceived like this isn’t music?

I feel like, with the duration of the piece – it’s not some sort of record attempt. It’s the length it is because that’s the length, approximately, that we’re supposed to sleep. So it’s functional music in this really classical sense: it has a function, and its function is that it accompanies a night’s sleep. So, I mean, it isn’t really anything beyond that. I mean, I do see the connection to the durational movement in the fine arts. There’s been a sort of resurgence of this work, which has its roots in the early ‘60s – y’know, someone like Marina Abramović, for example, with the emphasis on long spans of time and relatively small groups of material to focus on during that period. It’s classic minimalism, really. And La Monte Young and Terry Riley and all these sorts of people were doing overnight concerts at that time. So I think it’s a set of ideas which is finding a new audience.

You mentioned Terry Riley. What other composers have influenced your style – this functional, minimalist musical style?

Well, Satie was really a visionary. In fact, I heard such an interesting performance of Vexations – not all of it, I have to admit! – but I dipped in and out during a brilliant performance a couple of years ago, and it was such fun. The thing about Satie is, he wanted his music to fade into the background and really be furniture. But the thing is, it’s such charming music, such beautiful music; it’s actually very difficult to ignore! I think that’s the paradox of Satie, and I think he would enjoy that paradox himself.

It’s also very difficult to play, despite seeming easy on the surface. It requires a whole different concentration and technique.

Yes, it’s very easy to play badly. And that’s the thing: we’re accustomed to thinking millions of notes on a page is hard, and it is, often. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. When there’s not that much data on the page, not that many notes, it becomes much more about intention, concentration, and focus. That was one of the challenges with recording this piece, especially for the strings. Long expanses of not too much happening – that’s kind of a string player’s nightmare!

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A lot of the music on your album, the full version, is for keyboard instruments. So, in those ways, you are working in the tradition of Satie and Glass in applying minimalism to the keyboard. Can you tell me about the different keyboard instruments you’re using?

Prepared piano is the sort of central sound – I say “prepared,” but it’s really minimally prepared. It’s a felt piano, with an extra layer of felt between the piano and the strings, so it just has a very dark sound. Next we have a little chamber organ, and various sorts of synthesizers and computers, which are mostly busy doing very low-frequency things. Then the rest of the ensemble is a string quintet and two sopranos. So it’s quite a neat and tidy band – I mean, it sort of has to be, because from a performance perspective, the more folk you have, the more complex the whole thing becomes.

So, for the premiere do you have people coming in in different shifts?

Well, what I’ve done is I’ve structured it in such a way that people do get breaks, individually, so not everyone is on the whole time. It’s actually just one to a chair, which is, y’know – I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to manage it, but it turned out just fine. Except me: I have to play the whole time! [Laughs] That’s my own fault.

How are you going to personally prepare to play all night long?

I’m going to sleep a lot beforehand and try to get plenty of rest, basically. I do think the best thing would be to come in from another time zone and just sit down, but that would be even worse, probably.

What kind of music do you yourself enjoy? Not necessarily minimalist music, but any kind of music that you listened to as you found your own voice as a composer.

I have a lot of different musical enthusiasms. I mean, probably the same ones that most composers would cite: Bach, obviously. You know, he wrote the language, so that’s where it all starts. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t play something on the piano of Bach’s. Talking about Bach is like talking about Mt. Everest – he’s just there.

So, there’s Bach. Having had an English music education, Purcell is hugely important, and I love Purcell’s music. For later composers, Schubert is a big hero of mine, in a way, because of his directness. Also, his harmonic language I love. Then, in the twentieth century, Stravinsky, obviously; it’s kind of an obsession. Then, a little later, my teacher Berio – I love his music, because it’s this very complete and omnivorous way of thinking about music and music history.

Then the minimalists were very important for me, and still are. So it’s a whole range of things.

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What would you say to people who write off minimalism?

The thing is, the world is big, and it’s not like we all have to like everything. It’s personal preference, really. I would say that one of the things about minimalism is that it is imbedded in the tonal system. The tonal system itself, it grows out of physics. It’s not an opinion; it just is like that. So in that way, it’s a sort of outgrowth of the harmonic series. So, for me, it’s very persuasive as a way of structuring a language, because we inhabit the same physical universe as the one that gave rise to the harmonic series and the tonal system. So, for me, I don’t need to ask questions about it.

Of course, I very much appreciate atonal music and all sorts of other musics, but for me, one of the persuasive things about minimalism – or what we might call classical minimalism – is its enlargement and refinement of what’s possible within tonal music. It is a fascinating thing, because when it started in the early ‘60s, generally speaking, the European-American, avant-garde, modernist culture was so anti-repetition, anti-legible structures, it was what you might call anti-“whistleability” and easy decoding. And minimalism broke every one of those rules, and it was incredibly subversive, actually. If we think of Schoenberg as a historical figure, with this historical project to revolutionize music, thinking of himself as writing this language that would last for hundreds of years – well he did do that, in some ways. But equally, the minimalists have done it, arguably even more influentially.

So I think it’s interesting. What I’d say is that there’s room for all sorts of plants in the garden. I think the prescriptive attitude of “This music is better than that music” for some abstract, philosophical reason – I’m a bit suspicious of that, honestly. I think it’s about music as a conversation between the composers, the performers, the listeners. I think that’s really the interesting thing, and that abstract, philosophical reasons are, for me, less interesting.

Have you had any “Aha!” moments or encounters with specific pieces of music or composers?

There’ve been many, but two come to mind in my own personal history. First of all, being taken as a kid to Fantasia, and hearing the Rite of Spring in the dinosaur sequence. I was about six or something, that I was so freaked out and blown away that I basically had a tantrum and forced my mother to take me back to the same show so I could hear this incredible music again. And as a kid, I probably hadn’t heard anything later than Schubert at that point, so it really blew my mind. I still love Stravinsky; he’s such a brilliant composer.

So that’s one. And the second one actually involves Philip Glass, and it happened a bit later, when I was about 12. I was practicing the piano and stuff as a kid, and we had a milkman who delivered the milk in the morning. In the afternoons, once a week, he’d come back and be paid, and stuff. He’d hear me practicing, and he decided to take me on as a project. At that time, being a milkman was one of those jobs you could do while secretly being a novelist or a painter or something like that. And this guy was a composer; he was into music. He was collecting all these early recordings of Philip Glass on vinyl, which nobody really knew about in the UK – and certainly I as a 12 year old wouldn’t know.

So he would deliver the milk and the latest Philip Glass on vinyl in the morning! So I heard music – Contrary Motion, Music in 12 Parts, Music with Changing Parts – as this 12-year-old kid who knew nothing. There I would sit for hours on end, just going through this material, and it really did blow my mind. And I think that’s one of the things Glass’s music can do, because it’s deceptively simple. It comes across in this very plainspoken way, and you think, “Yeah, I know what that is.” But it’s actually a lot smarter than it appears, and I think that’s one of the great things about it. I can’t remember who said that about Wagner, y’know – that his music is better than it sounds. But Glass absolutely falls into that category, too; he’s a really, really smart composer. His sense of architecture and drama is very great, and very fine, I think.

What would you say to someone who is suspicious that a project like this – an eight-hour long piece meant to put listeners to sleep – is only conceived as a kind of gimmick or novelty piece?

The first thing, really, is that the piece is an experiment and an investigation into how music can coexist or operate within this other state of consciousness – which, y’know, neuroscience tells us is actually not a passive state. It’s very busy, but just busy in a different way…

And I guess the second thing is that the duration isn’t meant to be something like a world record attempt. If I really wanted to do that, I’d just put a repeat sign at the end and make it 16 hours! For example, there’s that Cage piece, As Slow as Possible, that I think is due to finish in about 600 years’ time.

So that’s neither here nor there. It’s functional music, in the classical sense, and it’s the length it is because it’s intended to be slept through. It’s as simple as that, really; it’s to accompany the act of sleeping.


For more information about composer Max Ricther, visit his website.

Beethoven Violin Concerto

Grammy® Award-winner and violinist extraordinaire James Ehnes returns for a fiery performance of Beethoven’s exquisite Violin Concerto in what promises to be a truly stunning evening.

Grant Park Orchestra
Carlos Kalmar, Conductor
James Ehnes, Violin

Hanson: Elegy
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Lindberg: Aventures

VIDEO: Matthew Aucoin on his new opera “Second Nature”

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Composer Matthew Aucoin, whom the New York Times called “operas great 25-year-old hope,” is about to premiere his latest work at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. His opera Second Nature was commissioned by Lyric Unlimited, a new initiative of the Lyric Opera of Chicago that brings opera to the community.

I visited Aucoin during some of his final rehearsals for Second Nature at the Zoo, where we spoke about the opera and how he feels about the Wall Street Journal asking, “Is Matthew Aucoin the Next Leonard Bernstein?”

Aucoin candidly responded, “Look, I think the only response is to laugh it off and to recognize that for people to reach for a name like Leonard Bernstein or – god forbid – Mozart, shows how big a gulf there is between classical music and the rest of the arts in our world.”

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“When a young playwright is getting attention, no one says, ‘Oh, this person is the next Shakespeare’”, because it’s assumed that most people have heard of Tom Stoppard. You can say, ‘Oh, I see the Stoppard influence there, the Sarah Kane influence’ – whatever.”

“But somehow, with classical music – because it is so heavily a culture of recycling tried and true, sugarcoated masterpieces – those are the reference points people have,” he explained. “It’s kind of absurd. So I certainly don’t feel any pressure to make my music sound like Mozart’s. What would that even mean for an American composer in the twenty-first century? So I’m doing my best to ignore it. . . . Everyone else is taken, as they say.”

While Aucoin isn’t trying to be the next Mozart, he is trying to bring opera to broad audiences through projects like Second Nature. Watch the video above to hear what he has to say about his new opera.


To hear more from composer Matthew Aucoin on his new opera, be sure to catch his interview with Eddie Arruza from our sister station, WTTW, on their website.

To learn more about upcoming performances of “Second Nature” and to reserve tickets, visit Lyric’s website.

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Music of Glenn Kotche, David Skidmore, and Augusta Read Thomas performed by Third Coast Percussion.

5 Salieri Operas You Should Know But Probably Don’t

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Antonio Salieri. Poor Tony. Ever since Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, Salieri’s real historical rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been blown out of proportion. And why not? It makes for great drama on stage and on screen.

We often forget that opera companies started as for-profit business ventures, even if many of today’s opera companies are not-for-profit organizations. In any market, competition is natural.

Mozart’s letters are peppered with references to Salieri and his Italian colleagues, and suggest some professional rivalry. However, letters are highly personal, we can’t be sure how much of the rivalry was real or imagined. After Mozart’s untimely death, scholars interpreted his mentions of “Salieri’s trickery” to imply that perhaps Salieri poisoned Herr Wolfgang.

Regardless of his relationship to Mozart, Salieri was a successful composer in his own right, and we should not forget his music – particularly his operas! Below are a few Salieri operas you should know but probably don’t.

Disclaimer: try not to compare his music to Mozart! To listen to Salieri and expect Mozart is like biting into an apple hoping for an orange.

 

1. Armida

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Oh, Armida! How you have enchanted so many composers over the centuries. Armida is a character from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, an epic poem published during the late Renaissance about the Christian crusades against the Saracens. Armida is a Saracen sorceress who lures men to her magic island, eventually capturing the Christian warrior Rinaldo. Armida and Rinaldo’s tale has been dramatized by many composers from Monteverdi to Rossini. Salieri’s Armida was very successful when it premiered in Vienna. The coloratura for Armida extends to a high D in the aria “Tremo, bell’ idol’ mio,” and was composed to feature the strengths of Catharina Schindler, who premiered the role.

 

2. The Chimney Sweep (Rauchfangkehrer)

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So we shouldn’t necessarily compare Salieri and Mozart to say who is the better the composer… But, a listen to Salieri’s opera The Chimney Sweep and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio offers an interesting comparison because they both featured the same star soprano, Caterina Cavalieri. Salieri’s aria “Wenn dem Adler das Gefieder” from The Chimney Sweep features Cavalieri’s virtuosity in ways that Mozart would later in the aria “Marten aller Arten” that he composed for AbductionThe Chimney Sweep is, in some ways, a self portrait of the composer himself. The title character, like Salieri, was an Italian living an a predominantly German speaking nation, and constantly insists on singing in Italian!

 

3. First the Music, Then the Words

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Comic opera was all the rage in Salieri’s Europe. His opera First the Music, Then the Words (Prima la musica, e poi le parole) comically dramatizes an important debate that had been going on for literally two centuries: what comes first, the music or the words? Some argued that the libretto should be written first and that the music should be composed in a way that sets texts naturally. It’s no surprise that stretches of recitative in Monteverdi or Cavalli’s opera are almost as expressive as bits of mid-nineteenth century Romantic opera. In both, natural expression of the text is essential. Later, some composers began to focus on featuring virtuosic musicians and allowing the music to take precedence. Salieri’s opera explores what happens when a composer’s completed an opera before the libretto’s even been started.

 

4. The Great Kubla Khan of the Tartars

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Opera composers have always been fascinated by the orient, and Salieri is no exception. His opera The Great Kubla Khan of the Tartars narrates the chronicles of one of history’s most infamous leaders. Though completed in 1787, this opera did not have its premiere until more than 200 years later. The world premiere performance took place in Mainfranken Theater Würzburg in 1998. Diana Damrau performed the role of Prinzessin Alzima.

5. Les Danaïdes

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Though we often have an Italian-centric view of opera, especially early opera, we have to tip our hats to the French, who developed a great tradition of music drama alongside their Italian counterparts. Salieri’s opera Les Danaïdes was called a tragédie lyrique, tapping into the tradition begun by the founder of French opera, Jean-Baptiste Lully (who ironically was Italian!). The opera was incredibly popular in Paris during Salieri’s lifetime, and was adored by Hector Berlioz. In the overture to the opera, the dramatic chords that occur at 6:10 in the video clip above are hallmarks of the French style. We can almost hear echoes of Lully, whose stately overtures typically gave way to expansive fugues or dances, often ending with pungent, dramatic chords.

Recorded in the Martin Theatre July 28

Thomas Hampson, baritone
Kevin Murphy, piano
Recorded in the Martin Theatre July 28

Schubert: Excerpts from Schwanengesang
Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Songs of A Wayfarer, Songs of Youth
Burleigh: Ethiopia Saluting the Colors
Daugherty: Letter to Mrs Bixby from Letters from Lincoln
Higdon: Civil Words (Chicago premiere)

Kent Nagano’s “Violent Shift from the Status Quo”

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Kent Nagano conducts the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) during the fourth annual Virée classique festival in a world-premiere performance of Régis Campo’s “Paradis perdu” for coloratura soprano and orchestra which featured soprano Marie-Ève Munger as the soloist. 

Orchestras are often content to maintain the status quo by programming the same handful of works in order to appease subscribers who like hearing the “greatest hits” of classical music. Not Kent Nagano.

I spoke with Nagano, music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM), before the final performance of the OSM’s new annual summer festival, Virée classique – which roughly translates to “classical spree” in English. He explained how he hopes the festival will help create a “violent shift” away from the status quo in classical music.

The fourth Virée classique, which took place August 5, 7 and 8 2015, offered a unique format to attract broad audiences. Over 3 days in 6 different venues throughout Montréal, the festival presented 200 musicians in 30 concerts, all 45 minutes in length.

“That kind of festival structure, within cramped quarters, means that artists and symphony members are rushing from venue to venue, and they literally collide with the public,” Nagano explained before the festival’s final concert on August 8.

“The acclaimed artists who perform at the festival speak and meet with the public, and the same goes for the symphony members who are usually so far away on the stage! The public has many opportunities to ask questions and to share their thoughts on the performances.”

By presenting concerts in unique formats and increasing interactions between artist and audience, Nagano hopes the OSM will attract new and younger audiences.

“I think one of the things that we’re most proud of with the Montréal Symphony is that during the past ten years… we’ve built one of the youngest symphonic audiences anywhere. If you look into our crowd, it’s very young and mixed.”

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The Quartier des spectacles (theater district) of Montréal is all aglow during the Virée classique festival.

But does making classical music accessible to young people mean programming only the classics?

Not according to Nagano, who said, “You see a lot of young people here because we intentionally make the programs particularly attractive to them, but we don’t make the programs easy.”

“We take the opposite approach to some other organizations,” Nagano continued. “We feel that for young people, you should raise the bar. You should raise it as high as possible with as great and provocative repertoire as you can. When you’re young, the brain is the most active, open, and pliable. It can accept with the most flexibility. That is the time to make things more rich and complex, intriguing, inspiring.”

Nagano also described how the catalyst for bringing in young audiences and challenging them was in partial thanks to their series featuring the works of Pierre Boulez years ago.

“Everyone here was really nervous about it. But we respect our audience tremendously, and we thought very deeply about what dramaturgical context should envelop each one of these nine pieces. By the end of the Boulez series, concerts not only sold out but we had a remarkable discovery that our audience began to decrease in age. It was such a violent shift from the status quo, and we found that we were attracting all generations.”

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During the Virée classique festival, the public literally collides with the performers, not only going to and from the many concerts throughout the city, but in the many talks, workshops, and demonstrations that try to make music accessible for all.

Nagano and his team at the OSM have taken a similarly bold approach to programming the Virée classique.

For example, this year, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was paired with one of three OSM commissions at the festival. The world premiere of Régis Campo’s Paradis perdu for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra featured soprano Marie-Ève Munger in a piece based on texts of Québec poets Beaudelaire, St-Denys Garneau, Nelligan, Rimbaud, and Vivier.

Even if you are more partial to Beethoven, Nagano hopes you take away something new every time you enter the concert hall.

“The public doesn’t necessarily go to classical music concerts for the comfort of status quo. They go usually to hear another Beethoven 5 because when we go to hear a concert, we hope that we’re going to hear something that we never heard before.”

This idea of hearing something new in live music underscores Nagano’s overall outlook of the concert experience.

“There was this motto of the 1960’s that was ‘status quo has no meaning.’ We feel that very strongly about classical music here. When classical music falls under the influence of routine or habit or tumbles into the status quo, it is about the biggest enemy of classical music and creative thinking.”

Kent Nagano and the OSM strive to put old wine in new bottles when it comes to attracting audiences to a classical music festival. This year’s Virée featured not only new music commissions but also music for silent film and organ, saxophone quartet, Indian ragas, and everything in between.

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The opening night performance of the Virée classique in Olympic Park’s Esplanade Financière Sun Life.

With something for everyone, this year’s festival broke attendance records. The opening night concert on August 5 at Olympic Park’s Esplanade Financière Sun Life featured highlights from Bizet’s Carmen, costumes and flamenco dancers included. An estimated 45,000 people attended the free, open-air concert. Moreover, over 25,000 people attended the thirty concerts in the Place des Arts on August 7 and 8.

Nagano cannot be happier about the record-breaking attendance. “What especially pleases everyone is that we’ve seen more families than we’ve ever had in the past.”

One concert featured OSM organist in residence Jean-Willy Kunz performing Saint-Saën’s Carnival of the Animals on the Maison symphonique’s state of the art Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique. In addition to the performance of this beloved child-friendly piece, projections of artwork and readings of poetry from the École Buissonnière were featured.

Ultimately, Kent Nagano and the OSM recognize the importance of risk taking when it comes to establishing an international classical music festival in the twenty-first century.

“We love this idea of classical music as a risk. You’re going to have a possible collision or bump into something or somebody you didn’t know before. We like to have every Virée classique be a surprise.”


Michael San Gabino’s travel to Montréal was sponsored by the OSM and festival Virée classique.

WFMT is broadcasting music from the festival as part of its on-going series of summer music festivals from around the world. For more information, visit wfmt.com/mornings.

For more information about the festival Virée classique, visit the festival’s website.

 

Cuban Pianist Frank Fernández on His U.S. Debut, Revolution, and Reconciliation

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Internationally renowned Cuban pianist Frank Fernández has played in some 40 countries, but never the United States – until now. On August 18th, Fernández makes his long-overdue recital debut in the U.S. as part of the Ravinia Festival.

Fernández has lived through many landmark events in the fraught history between Cuba and the United States. His musical debut in 1959 coincided with the end of the Cuban Revolution, and more than fifty years later, in May 2015, he made international headlines soloing with the Minnesota Orchestra during their Cuban tour – the first by an American orchestra to visit the island since President Obama announced the normalization of relations between the countries.

About a week ago, I visited Fernández at his studio in Havana, where he treated me to a private performance and spoke about his unconventional education, the divide between popular and classical repertoire, and his warm relationship with the Ravinia Festival. Our conversation was facilitated by Roberto Cuba Álvarez, who served as our translator.


Describe your childhood and early musical exposure in Mayarí, Cuba.

Mayarí is a very small town, and the two main cultural centers there were a music academy run by my mother and the home of the director of our municipal band. In my house, we played classical music all the time, but all of the Cuban classics were played in the house of the director of the municipal band.

I started to play by ear when I was four, and at that age, you don’t know what’s considered “popular” and what is considered “classical.” For me, that was fortunate, because learning by both ear and formal study allowed me to assess music by its beauty alone, not by the academic level of the composers.

Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, classical music became like “cult music” out of the academy. All the great composers – Bach, Handel, Chopin, Schubert – they were all great improvisers. Now, it seems like the only improvisers are jazz musicians! And that in the twentieth century was eliminated, because of technological developments.

That’s why I’m very thankful for my life in Mayarí, because my atypical training allowed me to look at music as a purely aesthetic pleasure. There are all the other academies and levels of “knowledge,” or whatever – they don’t interest me.

Of course, you ended up having many teachers over the years: Margot Rojas, at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory in Havana, Victor Merzhanov at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow . . .

Yes, there is Margot Rojas, in the middle of my education. In New York, Margot was a student of Alexander Lambert, who was the last student of Franz Liszt. If Liszt was the greatest pianist of the nineteenth century, and the nineteenth century was the golden age of the piano, then Margot directly transferred those influences from that age to me – and that’s a miracle.

And then there’s Merzhanov. He died at 93 years old. My teacher was chosen from thousands of others to have his name inscribed in gold letters in the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

The most methodical contemporary school was the Russian, then-Soviet school. Many of these teachers taught in North America, in the United States. The United States has great masters all throughout the world, but it doesn’t have its own school. I don’t know the reason why – perhaps you can tell me!

However, in Russia – maybe because of the political approach of the system, where different humanistic and cultural values are being broadcasted – the people there force us to study the methods, the didactics, the unification of plans and programs. That’s why you can listen to a Russian pianist that can play wonderfully, and listen to another one that can play not so spiritually. But what’s universal is their technical mastery.

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I want to talk about the year you made your musical debut on the Cuban TV show La Corte Suprema del Arte. It was also the year you made your first recording, Frank Fernández y sus dos pianos.

Well, in Mayarí, people said I couldn’t become a concert pianist if I wasn’t born in Havana. I asked, “Why?” Nobody could answer that question.

I came to Havana, but I was not accepted into Amadeo Roldán. My father wanted me to be an accountant because he said that musicians die of hunger, so I began to study commerce, accounting. When I told my father that I wasn’t going to continue that, because it made me crazy, he said, “Well, OK, you aren’t going to earn any money – so you aren’t going to stay in Havana.”

I had no other choice, other than leaving, to perform in clubs and restaurants for a living. So, taking advantage of my personal training, I spent about a year and a half working on popular music. I was 15 years old, and I had to eat.

Like Brahms, right? He told stories about playing in clubs to support himself as a teenager he would have been about your age, too.

Him too, him too. I’ve recognized this, and there is a lot of concern about that.

I’d say that the difference between the classic and the popular is more a socioeconomic issue than an aesthetic one. There are many talented people who don’t have enough money to pay for school. But not having money doesn’t mean you don’t have talent.

This period when you were playing in clubs and restaurants coincided with the end of the Cuban Revolution and President Castros rise to power. Were you at all affected by the political environment or were you mostly focused on your music?

I was totally concentrated on my music. But also, the first major cultural activity of the Revolution was the universal literacy campaign, which taught more than a million people to read and write.

In that sense, the Revolution really influenced me because it emphasized that everyone had to learn, had to study. So I returned back to Mayarí to direct the local chorus, and less than a year later, I came back to Havana to take a course in choral conducting. Though I didn’t have formal training, I was given a positive recommendation, which said: “Frank Fernández could be a great choral director, but a better pianist.” That in itself allowed me to finally enter the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory.

And after a few years, I had another great challenge: Cuba held its first national contest for students and professionals. I applied for that, but I didn’t have a piano. People said that I couldn’t compete in the contest without a piano, but I thought, “Why not?”

On the day of the competition, I arrived at the Conservatory at 8:00 am, and every time my teacher went to the bathroom – for fifteen minutes at a time or so – I just went into the classroom and started practicing. I left the conservatory at 8:00 pm, and I ended up winning first prize. And that first prize award included a concert with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba and a scholarship to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

I recall that, as an emerging pianist, you either wanted to go to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory or the Juilliard School.

I knew that the greatest members of the Russian school of music were at Juilliard. But unfortunately – and this is another reason we have been separated for so long — the option of getting a scholarship to one of these places was given to me by the Russians, not the U.S. I was the first pianist that went to the Soviet Union after the triumph of the Revolution, but many have gone since.

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Just a few months ago, you performed Beethovens Choral Fantasy with the Minnesota Orchestra in Havana which, incidentally, is the same piece you played with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional after winning the competition you just mentioned.

I played that piece for the first time then, and prior to that, it hadn’t been played in Cuba before. When the Minnesota Orchestra invited me to play, I didn’t have time to prepare – I was very busy. But when they said, “We want you to play the Fantasy,” I said yes.

It was an emotional event. Could you imagine? I played it for the first time when I was 19, and later, I played it as part of the first Cuban-American musical greeting, after Raúl and Obama shook hands. Of course, we have never ceased having meetings between the U.S. and Cuba, but they haven’t been very official. But this one was official.

So I first played it at 19, and again at 71. How many years is that. . .? See, I can forget about my 71 years, but they are not going to forget about me! [Laughs]

A hallmark of your recitals is the pairing of Cuban classics alongside Western classical repertory. By performing the two together, do you hope to elevate Cuban classics to the same level of international recognition as the classical canon?

I don’t believe that any interpreter can just raise the level of any composer. I believe than an interpreter can demonstrate the real stature of a work — if it is a good interpreter. There are Cuban classics, like Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecuona, for example. They were recognized in Paris!

The fact that their music is not played that much — it’s a problem of the medium. It has nothing to do with quality. I mean, Bach wasn’t well-known for almost 100 years, and he knows a little something about music!

Now, youre poised to make your American debut at the Ravinia Festival on August 18th, a performance which comes just on the heels of the formal reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, effective July 20th. Did you think that all of this would happen in your lifetime?

I knew it was going to happen, but not so suddenly. I don’t believe that we’re ready for this yet – specifically, I don’t know if the American people are ready for this. And I also don’t think Cuba is logistically prepared to receive the American tourist boom. It’s been more than 50 years – I mean, I had to go to Hamburg to buy my pianos because New York couldn’t sell them to me. And I am the only Steinway artist in Cuba!

So it’s complicated. But I do feel as though the people who are most prepared for this encounter – and to whom this relationship is most dear – are the cultural communities. I myself am very happy that this is happening.

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Your performance on the 18th wont be your first association with the Ravinia Festival: youve invited musicians from the festivals Steans Institute to play in Cuba before. How did that come about?

I serve as president of the Festival de Música de Cámara in Havana, and I’ve actually invited them to play twice. Madeleine Plonsker – an American from Chicago – came to see me, and it happens that Plonsker is also a patron of the Ravinia Festival.

They came for the first time in 2014, and it was wonderful. They played Schubert spectacularly. I thought, I will make some friends so they can come back, and I told them that I already had a hotel reservation and transportation. . . I didn’t have a schedule yet, but I could take them out. So they said yes, and we thought, “Why not play together this time?”

That performance is now one of my favorites, and we did it after only two rehearsals! They don’t know how it turned out, but I’m sure they are going to be very happy when they see the recording. Watch the DVD of that performance and look at the smiles on my American brothers’ and sisters’ faces: there’s just sheer happiness.


For more information about Frank Fernández, visit his website.

For more information about his upcoming U.S. debut, visit Ravinia’s website.

Strauss Ein Heldenleben

After an impressive Festival debut in 2014, the award-winning pianist Natasha Paremski returns to perform the ferociously technical Four Parables. Strauss’ monumental tone poem completes the program.

Grant Park Orchestra
Carlos Kalmar, Conductor
Natasha Paremski, Piano

Wolf-Ferrari: Overture to The Secret of Suzanne
Schoenfield: Four Parables
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

FREE Download of John Adams’s “Absolute Jest”

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There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Free downloads? That’s another story! WFMT is excited to offer you a free download from the new album of John Adams’s Absolute Jest, Grand Pianola Music, released August 14, 2015.

Both Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music were commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), which recorded the works for the orchestra’s Grammy Award-winning SFS Media Label.

For Absolute Jest, the St. Lawrence String Quartet joins the SFS under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. For Grand Pianola Music, the composer himself leads from the podium, and the orchestra is joined by pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham, and the vocal group Synergy Vocals.

Stream or download an excerpt of Absolute Jest below. The full album is available on iTunes and the San Francisco Symphony’s online shop. Don’t wait to download, this free offer is available for a limited time only!

Click here to download.