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Encores and Curtain Calls

Encores & Curtain Calls: Vienna in Vermont

Submitted photo
Jonathan Biss will perform a solo recital featuring the works of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and contemporary Hungarian composer Kurtag, on Friday, Jan. 10, 7:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt., as part of the Brattleboro Music Center’s Chamber Series.

Submitted photo Jonathan Biss will perform a solo recital featuring the works of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and contemporary Hungarian composer Kurtag, on Friday, Jan. 10, 7:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt., as part of the Brattleboro Music Center’s Chamber Series.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,

I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”

— Ezra Lazarus

Ever since the gods of music decided to favor western New England with their presence and convene amidst the foothills of southern Vermont in the embodiment of Blanche Honegger Moyse & Company, we in the extended region have been its beneficiaries. As the official story goes, “At the invitation of fellow emigres Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, Blanche came to Southern Vermont to help establish a music department at Marlboro College and, later, to co-found the world-renowned Marlboro Music Festival.” She later founded the Brattleboro Music Center in 1952.

This bright legacy was no random accident but the fruit of America’s taking in of fugitives and refugees prior to, during and after World War II. Many of them turned out to be the cream of their respective cultures — from the Serkins and Busches, the Arnold Shoenbergs and Otto Klemperers, to an elite core of Hollywood’s finest film composers and directors.

Lest the name and presence of Busch be obscure to us now, he was a German-born violinist and composer who lived from 1891 through 1952, a man “firmly opposed to Nazism” and who, when the Nazis tried to convince him to return to Germany, declared that he would “return with joy on the day that Hitler, Goebbels und Göring are publicly hanged.” Marlboro founding father Rudolph Serkin became Busch’s duo partner at 18 and eventually married Busch’s daughter, Irene.

This week, The Brattleboro Music Center will bring a young and vibrant American pianist Jonathan Biss back to this region with a solo recital featuring the works of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and contemporary Hungarian composer Kurtag, Friday, Jan. 10, 7:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.

Biss has garnered more accolades and awards than space allows listing and has played with many of the most prestigious orchestras, from the New York Philharmonic to the Boston Symphony. His 2009 album of Schubert sonatas was chosen as one of the two best albums of the year by NPR.

I found him an exceedingly bright and articulate artist, able to fully frame and express his ideas and feelings not only at the keyboard, but in dialogue:

JM: You’ve just returned from Europe?

JB: Yes, I got back on the 2nd from a concert tour.

JM: We spoke perhaps 5 years ago, but where escapes me just now.

JB: I’ve been to Marlboro many, many times, as well as Amherst, at UMass.

JM: Are you a Richard Goode (Marlboro Music Series Director) disciple?

JB: I’ve never been a student of Richard’s, but I’ve known him since I was 16, which is when I spent my first summer at Marlboro, and he’s been a big influence on my life, and my admiration has only grown since then.

JM: I was interviewing him about a year and a half ago and he was doing, as his wont, an all-Beethoven concert and I know you’re doing some Beethoven, as well. I shared with him my feeling that Beethoven’s piano and orchestral writing were horses of two very different colors.

JB: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. If you keep in mind the fact that at that time, solo music or even chamber music were not even being written for public performance, that colors everything.

The symphonies were meant to be publicly heard by large numbers of people and it was in his interest that they succeed and that meant that he place limits on the levels of difficulties for both listeners and the players. Whereas in the sonatas — that’s where his imagination was given free rein. And, as great as the symphonies are, I always feel that it’s in the piano sonatas and string quartets where we experience the full imaginative power of Beethoven.

JM: That makes a lot of sense, because, to me, as a composer, cohesion is a critical factor in music, that it not wander so far afield that the listeners might lose their way. For instance, in the case of my favorite composer, Ravel, there is very little — if any — dead wood.

JB: No, here’s not even a dead branch!

JM: So, in his sonatas, Beethoven did give himself wiggle room to feel free to experiment and explore.

JB: I feel Beethoven was so restless. I’ve played, by now, about 20 of his sonatas — I’m slowly recording them all — and I’m literally amazed at how little common ground there is between them. I feel that he reinvents the wheel each time.

JM: Do you therefore then feel that they are more authentically him than his non-piano music?

JB: I would say they are not so much more authentically but more completely him.

JM: What exactly are you playing?

JB: I’m starting with the Brahms Opus 119 Klavierstucke, the last four pieces he wrote for piano. I’m playing a set of eight very tiny pieces by Gyorgy Kurtag entitled “Jaeekok,” he’s in his late 80s at this point and one of the most masterful late 20th-early 21st century composers. The first half ends with two nocturnes by Chopin: Opus 62, and the Polonaise Fantasy, Opus 61.

JM: Do you have the same feeling as I that, as far as sheer naturalness of movement on the keyboard, Chopin is only perhaps rivaled or bettered by Ravel?

JB: Yeah, it’s really extraordinary. It’s, as you say, his naturalness of movement on the keyboard and his ear for sound, which is so unbelievably exquisite. There are other composers of the same generation whom I love as much — maybe more — but the exquisite sensitivity to sonority that Chopin had is one in a million.

And then the second half is two Beethoven sonatas, Opus 90, and the program ends with the “Waldstein,” Opus 53.

To purchase concert tickets, ($30, $20, $10), call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523 or visit www.bmcvt.org

Windborne folk quartet

The American folk vocal quartet Windborne will be launching its tour of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Angola with a concert Saturday, Jan. 11, 3:30 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt., as part of the State Department’s American Music Abroad program. The performers are Lynne Mahoney Rowan, Will Thomas Rowan, Lauren Breunig and Jeremy Carter Gordon.

Tickets will be available at the door. 802-254-9276.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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