Thursday, June 28, 2007

Barnhill and Gurga, each improvising in concerts

Two wonderful young classical pianists whom I am privileged to know gave performances yesterday combining improvisation and classical music, perhaps simultaneously.

Eric Barnhill
participated in a recital at the International Dalcroze Institute in Boston. From an email he sent to friends and colleagues:
I'm here at the Dalcroze Summer Institute in Boston and the institute put on a public performance tonight. I decided, especially since it would be a friendly audience, to do my first public improvisation in concert. I was listed on the program as "Three Chopin Etudes With Improvised Preluding" and I asked three different people in the audience to pick their favorite etude from the op. 10 set (a gambit that wouldn't work on a more general audience obviously) and improvised preludes into and between the three etudes. I also talked a bit about what I was doing and why.

Naturally, as with anything that would be tremendously important to me to record, I had major audio problems. Anything above mezzo-forte blew the levels on the condenser mic I put out in the crowd. What is this, 1975? The etudes being loud and fast, some parts are mostly distortion - but you'll be able to hear the improvs and figure out what I did.
Eric is passionate about the widespread nineteenth-century practice of playing improvised preludes before composed pieces. Carl Czerny, pupil of Beethoven and teacher of Liszt, wrote a whole book about it. Eric's working on reviving the art. Listen to his first public go at this.

Meanwhile . . . .

At 7:30 PM here in Greencastle, perhaps around the same time as Eric's performance, the wonderful young pianist Stephanie Gurga played a recital which began with an extended free improvisation, and ended with an encore that began and ended with the Chopin "Minue Waltz" and also had "Someday My Prince Will Come" mixed in. Stephanie called the recital "Songs I learned while my mom was cookin' dinner," and in it she combined reminiscences about growing up, practicing as her mother cooked, with performances of pieces which had special meaning for her.

Stephanie, a DePauw grad who has been doing our publicity and marketing this year, has much technique, and an incredible ear, a brilliant mind, and an expansive imagination. She has embraced improvisation and what, for lack of a better term, I'll call the responsibility to be creative when she makes music. This recital was her "farewell to Greencastle" piano performance. She moves to Germany soon to continue her performing career and do further study.

I'll post audio clips soon, if she'll let me. The concert, both informal and intense, was remarkable. She played with an engaging freedom that might drive some work-concept addicts nuts, but captured the audience. Christopher Small, the author of Musicking and other books, says (I'm paraphrasing) that performances don't exist to present works, but works exist to give performers something to perform. And that the right question isn't "what is the meaning of this work?" but "what is the meaning of this performance in this place and at this time?"

As I experienced Stephanie's concert, it was so clear to me that this was music-making and communication that had a very specific meaning in this place, at this time, and for these people. A particularly enjoyable concert for some. A bittersweet final mutual embrace for others.

The recording sounds good. But the human experience of being together was so special that I find myself reluctant in some ways to listen to it or even preserve it (though I will).


Mike Lunapiena said...

While I can't say the style particularly grabbed me on Barnhill's improv., This is exciting nevertheless

A lot of the bands I listen to do this with intros to their songs, or they'll change something up a bit just to add a cool little flavor to it .. I love it when they do that..

Anyway, I think I'm going to try doing this with the Bach suites (it will give me a good excuse to do some harmonic analysis of em)...

Eric Edberg said...

Have fun with it, Mike.