Pulitzer Prize winning composer, eminent Bostonian elder statesman, and celebrated pianist Yehudi Wyner will be playing his Concert Duo for Violin and Piano with violinist Daniel Stepner at the 14th-Annual Scholarship Benefit Concert for the Aston Magna/Brandeis Unaccompaied Bach Workshop at the Brandeis University Slosberg Music Center, Sunday, November 10 at 3pm. Founded in 1972 by Lee Elman and Albert Fuller, the Aston Magna Festival (Daniel Stepner, Artistic Director) is the oldest annual summer festival in America devoted to music performed on period instruments.
Wyner received us in his studio, through a garden of asters, among musical scores, books, photographs and memories.
Anne Davenport and Leon Golub: The relationship of a composer to his own work is a bit mysterious. A couple of weeks ago, you felt prompted to re-commune personally with your 14-minute piano solo Refrain of 2011. Did you uncover intentions, nuances or details that had remained latent to you when composing it? How transparent is a work to the composer from the start?
YW: That’s a profound question. The process of going back and really learning how to play it as I think it should be played was an arduous one. I had to work really hard to master a lot of the accuracy and technical detail, especially in the fast parts. In doing that, I really, I must say, I found myself feeling more and more convinced of its legitimacy and rightness. The other thing I discovered is that there were all kinds of small emendations, edits, revisions, details, notes here and there, a phrase here and there — but not much.
When I was writing Refrain, I played a sketch of it for Susan [his wife Susan Davenny-Wyner]; she’s very very smart, to say the least. She said “I think this section is too short. Can you do something about it?” So I lengthened it. It was very interesting to have somebody else intervene and make a suggestion because normally I have no regard for anyone suggesting anything about my music. Returning to it, I was really intent on playing it as I hear it: with its inner dynamics, its subtleties, and its lapses, all of the parameters. But in a way it has a flaw. I’ve played so much classical music. The great works always convince you of their form. They don’t need special pleading: they run on by themselves, they tell you what to do, they tell you where the climaxes are and where the denouements are. In much of my music the performer has to find a way to maintain the tension of the narrative. Refrain has a trajectory towards a goal. It doesn’t meander. It transforms into another realm.
When you look back at your life’s work, do you see turning points of special significance for your approach to composing — landmarks that punctuated the journey, either reinforcing your independent approach or moving it in a new direction?
Residency at the American Academy of Rome was a true volte-face. It happened at a critical moment of my life. I was 23, 24, 25, capable of learning new things, new languages. It changed the path of my thinking. Let me give you a metaphor. The first year, I was very disappointed with Rome, it seemed a mixture—a shambles—without any kind of organized design. I didn’t like it! One day, I looked out and saw a golden glow. It was an epiphany. I began to appreciate the richness of variety, of cultures being cheek-by-jowl without some sort of categorical plan. I had received the Rome Prize along with Eliott Carter, who was already an established, wonderful composer. I studied his music and was so impressed by the creative independence that he showed. I was greatly influenced by it.
Concert Duo for Violin and Piano, which we are playing on Sunday at Brandeis, was the fruit of studying with Eliott. It has certain mannerisms that Eliott used, but in a more emotional way — I did it as a kind of wild expressionism. I also began to study what I had rejected out of hand before that, which is the Second Viennese School. So the Concert Duo for Violin and Piano is a watershed, starting in one place and ending in another.
When John Harbison heard that duo for the first time, he said “that piece hit like a meteor.” I had no idea. It has a sort of radical thrust, which I didn’t continue to indulge because I found more truth in my own nature of lyrical music that’s a little less acrimonious, with a lot more careful choice of intervals. The carelessness, or the indifference to certain choice, came from Eliott. It was liberating for me at the time, but I couldn’t sustain it.
Would you agree that your Quartet for Oboe and String Trio of 1999 is very purely “you” in that sense?
I think that’s an extraordinary piece. It is being performed tonight in Copenhagen. When I hear it, I can never remember what comes next — and when it comes, I think “Yes!” It’s a very surprising. A large part of it is a covert set of very loose variations.
I’ve played so much classical music. Great works always convince you of their form. They don’t need special pleading: they run on by themselves, they tell you what to do, they tell you where the climaxes are and where the denouements are. In much of my music the performer has to find a way to maintain the tension of the narrative. Refrain has a trajectory towards a goal. It doesn’t meander. It transforms into another realm.
Comparing the Cello Concerto Prologue and Narrative of 1994 and the Piano Concerto Chiavi in mano of 2005, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006, what thoughts come to mind?
Very easy. The Chiavi in mano is rather public. The Prologue and Narrative is quite private, very interior — and I think more important in the long run. I’ve never written anything more economical than Chiavi in mano. It is based on the smallest number of elements, a minor third and a major third.
Upon receiving the Pulitzer you said that your writing “reflects emotional and physical states of mind and motion.” The whole idea of “physical states of mind” points to embodiment. Is embodiment essential to your music?
The word embodiment is right there. If it doesn’t have that aspect, it’s missing an essential ingredient of communicative art. For instance, more and more studies have shown that Bach had quite a background in French dance. It comes out in a lot of his dance movements. It changes the way you hear and perform the music.
Dan Stepner adds:
I can hardly believe that it has been 50 years since I first asked my teacher, Yehudi Wyner, to play his Concert Duo with me. The work was only 12 years old then. I was a grad student at Yale, where he was junior faculty. At Yale’s summer school at Norfolk the summer before, I had studied composition with him, and had become enamored of his music. In the spirit of the times, I had the chutzpah to ask both Yehudi and another faculty member to perform in concert with me. (The other was John Kirkpatrick, curator of the Charles Ives Collection at Yale; we embarked on a ten-year perusal of Ives’s sonatas that resulted in many performances and a recording.)
I will never forget the withering look Yehudi gave me when I approached him about collaborating on the Duo — could I handle it? The work is daunting but immensely attractive – extravagant expression, invigorating be-bop, granite-like construction and at times a fine melancholy. For me it was a bootstraps piece — one in which I pulled myself up to another level technically and expressively. And collaborating with a composer in a substantial work of his own is, of course, a unique and fascinating experience. We have done it together many times now, and have recorded it for Centaur Records.
All proceeds from the concert will go towards scholarships for my annual Bach Unaccompanied Workshop at Brandeis. Next summer will be the 14th such workshop, which has attracted professional violinists as well as committed amateurs and students.
Aston Magna Scholarship Benefit Concert
Brandeis University Slosberg Music Center,
Sunday, November 10 at 3pm.
Stepner: Urban Partita
Wayner: Concert Duo
Beethoven: Sonata in C Minor
Bartok: Romanian Dances
$25 – $5