IN: Reviews

150 Years of Piano History at NEC 


It seems like only yesterday that Bruce Brubaker joined the faculty at New England Conservatory of Music, where he would be appointed head of the Piano Department. Yet, as our memories go back to the concerts he so artfully put together in celebration of Chopin and Liszt’s bicentennials in 2010 and 2011, we realize that Brubaker’s brilliant programming, teaching, playing, and intellect have enriched our lives for well over a decade. Even the more predictable birthday celebrations of great composers present stimulating connections and clever thematic groupings. Brubaker’s idea of involving the Preparatory School’s Piano Department has nurtured much needed conversations between two distinct yet often distant realities within the same walls — a fruitful collaboration that shines light on younger pianistic talents in the Boston area, and that shows openness, vision, and wisdom.

Brubaker’s latest adventure saw the Piano Department collaborating with both the Preparatory School and the NEC Jazz Department in three evenings devoted to works by composers who have either taught or studied at NEC. The first performance, closed to the public but streamed online, took place on January 28th. The other two concerts were scheduled for live performances on February 18th and 22nd. The music was consistently fascinating, at times even revelatory. The performances were of the highest caliber. There was much to learn from this project, not least the historical and cultural richness of the school, which was apparent from the opening night.

St. James Hotel now Franklin Square House

When the Italian pianist Ferruccio Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924) left Moscow, enticed by William Steinway to join the faculty of what would become America’s oldest independent music school, the building at 290 Huntington Avenue had yet to be built. The conservatory’s home was the former St. James Hotel, a Second-Empire colossus built in 1868 facing Franklin Square in the already slightly old-fashioned South End, about a 15-minute walk from the current location.

The building still stands, today an unassuming retirement facility. Busoni is the only composer featured on this cycle of three concerts who never set foot in the new building on Huntington Avenue. In 1893, less than a year after beginning his post, he moved back to Europe, never to return. Allegedly, he could not bear the frigid New England winters. By Busoni, we heard the Toccata, BV 287, written in 1921. In three movements (Preludio, Fantasia, Ciaccona), it owes much to the composer’s own transcriptions of Bach’s organ and instrumental music, but also offers a window into future decades, both harmonically and pianistically. Hsin-Hao Yang played the difficult piece with élan, sensitivity, and flashes of brilliance.

Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), remembered today for his endlessly amusing “Dictionary of Musical Invective,” taught composition at NEC during the late ‘40s and ‘50s before he moved to California. Born in Saint Petersburg, Slonimsky leaves behind a number of piano works, including the “51 Minitudes” (mini-etudes) — aphoristic pages written between 1972 and 1976, cross-sections of the many idioms that sprung from the experience of a century of pianism. Motti Fang-Bentov offered an involved, visionary reading of nine of the quirkily titled pieces — Orion, Lambent Flames, Borborygmus, Bach in Fluid Tonality Bach x 2 = Debussy, Felinity, Schoenwagnerberg Boustrophedon, Old Russian Song, and Implosion.

From Slonimsky’s studio at NEC hails Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019), featured on the first concert in his 1957 piece The Willows are New in a performance by pianist Wenhao Shou. Slonimsky encouraged Chou to explore his heritage through the lens of contemporary compositional languages — as Slonimsky himself framed it, “the conciliation between melodic pentatonicism and dissonance.” The sinister clashes in the low register of the piano in The Willows are New — one of the composer’s earliest experiments with this new approach — found a unique voice in Wenhao Shou’s profound and intimate interpretation.

Another crucial figure in the history of NEC was George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931). One of the school’s first students, he was eventually appointed its Director in 1897. Chadwick’s compositions reflect late-19th-century European traditions filtered through quintessentially American sensibilities, giving way to the so-called Second New England School. On the program, Preparatory-School pianists Kingsley Chen and Chi Vu presented two excerpts from Chadwick’s 1882 “Six Characteristic Pieces, Op. 7” — Scherzino and “Reminiscence of Chopin,” respectively. These brief works trace back to the tradition of the character pieces of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Grieg. “Scherzino” was delightful in its playfulness, while “Reminiscence of Chopin,” generously borrowing from the Mazurka op. 33, No. 1, was redolent in its inflections. Pianist Janice Yun Lu followed in an agile and sensitive reading of Chadwick’s late character-piece “The Aspen” (1924), a vignette that seems to evoke the trembling of a quaking aspen in the wind.

In 2003, on the occasion of Daniel Pinkham’s 80th birthday, I had the honor of premiering his four-hand suite Forest Music with my dear friend Angel Ramón Rivera. The pieces had been completed only a few months earlier. Dan, as he insisted I call him after I graduated, was one of my theory professors during my master’s degree at NEC, and would periodically mail me his piano works as they were being published. “Forest Music” was among these. It was a pleasant surprise to see Pinkham’s suite programmed on the first of the three concerts. The performance by Jinyoung Kwon and Saehyun Kim, both students at the Preparatory School, displayed careful ensemble work and highly expressive playing. Pinkham studied with towering figures such as Walter Piston, Samuel Barber, Wanda Landowska, Arthur Honneger, and Nadia Boulanger, and taught at the conservatory for nearly five decades.

John Arthur “Jaki” Byard (1922-1999) was one of the first jazz musicians to become involved in music education when he joined the newly formed Jazz Department at NEC in 1969. His knowledge of jazz history was legendary. Byard, who would have turned 100 this year, was primarily a pianist, but was equally at ease on the alto and tenor saxophone. He shared the stage with some of the giants of jazz. Pianist Ari Chais offered two selections by Byard the composer in an exuberant rendition of Seasons and an infectious and insanely virtuosic The Hollis Stomp. Both pieces were originally featured in Byard’s 1969 album “Solo Piano.”

Another star of the jazz world, Geri Antoinette Allen (1957-2017) was an influential pianist who devoted her life to music education, joining the faculty at NEC in the early ‘90s. Her career was enwreathed with many commissions, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and numerous performances alongside modern-jazz legends. “Unconditional Love,” from her 2004 album “The Life of a Song,” has become one of Allen’s most well-known compositions, and Jazz Department member Eleanor Pruneau’s rendition revealed its lyricism and irresistible rhythm in all its splendor.

Steeped in the vibrant world of the Harlem Renaissance, J. (John) Rosamond Johnson’s (1873-1954) career spanned over four decades of performing and songwriting, and even included the creation of two Broadway operettas. Johnson was a composition student at New England Conservatory in the 1890s. He often collaborated with his brother, the poet and activist James Weldon Johnson. With elegance and verve, pianist Hongzhen Wang played The Siberian Dip, a ragtime written in 1911 and Johnson’s only known work for solo piano — a page that reveals a distinct harmonic and melodic voice.

Sandpoint Rag (1986) by Gunther Schuller (1925-2015) closed the first program. Schuller was an educator, writer, composer, conductor, French-horn player, historian, publisher, and jazz musician for over six decades. He served as President of NEC during the 1960s and ‘70s and was the founder of its Department of Jazz Studies. By forming the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble in 1972, which performed orchestrated versions of many of Joplin’s rags, Schuller was singlehandedly responsible for the genre’s renaissance in the late 1900s. The title “Sandpoint Rag” invokes the town of Sandpoint, Idaho, where Schuller was the Director of the Music Festival in the mid-1980s. Jessica Yuma gave a poised performance, punctuated by deliberate, effective stresses on dissonances. The truncated ending, especially as it also concluded the evening, left the listeners tickled.

The second evening of performances opened with “Five Egyptian Folkloric Pieces” (1940), an early set of piano miniatures by Halim el Dabh (1922-2017). Bingye Ren, of the Preparatory School, gave a poised yet persuasive reading of the set, which relies on strong rhythmic and melodic signifiers from folkloric traditions, perhaps stemmed from the “roots revivals” of the 1930s. Hailing from Cairo, Egypt, el Dabh studied agriculture before transitioning to music and devoting his life to composition. By the mid-1940s el Dabh was already making a name for himself in the world of electronic music, having composed one of the earliest known examples of “musique concrète.” After moving to the United States in 1950, he studied at NEC with Francis Judd Cooke, and worked with Aaron Copland and Luigi Dallapiccola.

Also from the year 1940 is “Clouds,” a brief work for piano by Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953). Price is still being discovered as one of the United States’ musical treasures. Much of her unpublished music languished in her abandoned summer home after her death, and as of a few years ago it had yet to be systematically catalogued. Price is the first African-American woman to be recognized as an orchestral composer, and the first to have had a work played by a major orchestra. In 1902, she enrolled as a student at New England Conservatory, where she majored in organ and piano pedagogy. She also studied composition with George Chadwick, who encouraged her to incorporate rhythmic and melodic elements of African-American spirituals in her music. “Clouds” is in many ways music from its own time and presents extremely sophisticated writing that echoes blues and popular music. It was played with flair, inventiveness, and iridescence by XueYing Fan.

A leap forward of more than half a century brings us to the music of Lee Hyla (1952-2014), a familiar face to everyone who walked the halls of NEC in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Hyla graduated from the conservatory in 1975 as a student of Malcolm Peyton, and was then hired in 1992 to teach composition. He chaired the Composition Department until 2007. Peyton said that “Lee’s voice was unique: one part rock and roll, one part heady, complex music; one part cognizant of 19th-century Romanticism; all of which was cast in structures of uncompromising vigor — powerful, yet tinted with the most delicate beauty. The range of his palette was remarkable.” Hyla’s Basic Training (1994), played by Qi Liang with great authority, is premised on complex rhythmic patterns with incisive outer sections that bookend a more inward episode. Liang’s fortissimos were truly monumental.

The mood changed when Rafe Sharberg walked on stage and caressed the opening arpeggios of the first of Three Character Studies, written by Fred Hersch in 2004. Hersch (b. 1955) studied with Jaki Byard at New England Conservatory, and on graduating was offered a teaching position at the institution. His career focuses equally on educating, performing, and composing. Many of his works have been published by Peters Edition, including the studies heard on this program. The first, Nocturne for Left Hand Alone, is a seductive work of harmonic complexity and melodic beauty. It was interpreted with unusual intensity by Shaberg, who continued with a light-footed second study Little Spinning Song and a sensuous, energy-driven tango portrayed in the Study in Thirds and Sixths.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) was born the year NEC was founded and was the first American woman to have a symphony published and performed. Her Gaelic Symphony was premiered in 1896 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One of most influential American composers of her time, Beach was instrumental in furthering the careers of young musicians. She served as NEC’s President of the Board of Councilors, and following the death of her husband, worked with young composers and pianists affiliated with the conservatory. Two pieces were featured on this second program: Dreaming, Op. 15, No. 3 (1892), an intimate nocturne-like work interpreted with sensitivity and a vibrant dynamic palette by Joseph Vasconi; and the Prelude and Fugue, Op. 81 (1917), a large work reminiscent of César Franck’s late experiments at the piano, played by Bairun Liu with extraordinary control and ravishing sonorities.

The difficulty in playing the music of Cecil Taylor (1929-2018) is that his performances of his own works largely relied on improvisation. Classically trained, Taylor studied at New England Conservatory, where he majored in composition and arranging. As a youth, he claimed to have been in debt to Bartok and Stockhausen. However, he soon found a niche for his art, creating a voice for himself in the jazz avant-garde. Because of his eclectic and percussive approach, he was famously described as the man who had “turned the piano into 88 tuned drums.” The drummer Sunny Murray said of Taylor that he “was the first man to play piano like it wasn’t a European instrument.” Jonathan Paik of the Jazz Department offered a (re)interpretation of Lono, a work originally conceived by Taylor in 1973, but which saw endless transformations and arrangements in the composer’s own hands in the following decades. As Paik explained in a recent interview for the conservatory, it would be reductive (and, in fact, impossible!) to listen to a recording by Taylor and simply copy his playing. Instead, Paik selected motifs from Taylor’s performance, and developed them into an original improvisation. His performance was riveting. Knowing Taylor’s disdain for reading a sketch of a composition too literally, we sense that he would have approved of Paik’s extraordinary revisitation.

Ran Blake (b. 1935) was already a legend when I arrived in Boston in 1998. Everyone at NEC talked about him with wonderment. Blake’s music combines genres that span from classical to blues, from gospel to film noir. The result is a unique, highly recognizable jazz sound. For over 40 years, Blake has taught at NEC in the Contemporary Improvisation Department, originally called “Third-Stream.” The kaleidoscopic harmonies of “Memphis,” composed in 1999 and featured on the album “Something to live for,” lured in the listener with an inspired, poetic performance by Jazz Department member Santiago Galeano.

The music of Lei Liang (b. 1972) closed the second evening. Lei Liang was a student of Robert Cogan at NEC, where he received his undergraduate and master’s degrees. He was represented on the program by Garden Eight, a suite composed between 1996 and 2004 whose movements are dedicated to heaven, earth, and the four elements. With the piano bench brought off stage and the sustain pedal permanently engaged, pianist Pin-Chieh Jewel Chen stood in front of the keyboard and mesmerized the audience with supple, enchantress-like motions and diaphanous, hypnotic sonorities — layered sounds produced from the keyboard and interspersed with plucking and muting of strings. 

The third concert opened with the first four movements of Fantasies and Impromptus (1981) by Donald Martino (1931-2005). Martino studied composition with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Luigi Dallapiccola. He joined the NEC faculty in 1969 and chaired the Composition Department until 1981. In 1974 he won the Pulitzer Prize. The “Fantasies and Impromptus” confirm Martino’s affinity for the twelve-tone idiom, and superimpose improvisation and structure, expression, and virtuosity. What comes to the fore is music of utmost intensity, conveyed through bold gestures and a refined counterpoint of layers. Three pianists were featured in this selection. Lucas Amory was impressive in the way he molded the rich vocabulary of the first fantasy; Yujin Han’s performance of the first and second impromptus was characterized by vivid colors, a lighthearted mood, and shimmering effects in the upper register of the keyboard; and Songhyeon Kim’s reading of the third impromptu (“Omaggio”) was stunning in its emotional depth.

Possibly the world’s most prolific composer, Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) left over 500 works, not counting the 500 early works (some say up to 1,000) that he destroyed after the unfavorable feedback he received from Roger Sessions. In the early 1930s, Hovhaness studied with Frederick Converse at NEC, where he won the Samuel Endicott prize for composition with his “Sunset Symphony.” Of Armenian descent, much of the music he wrote in his 20s and 30s was inspired by modes and subjects from his ancestral heritage. Later on, he ventured into styles and languages from a variety of sources. The Two Ghazals for Piano, Op. 36 were written in 1933 while Hovhaness was still a student at the conservatory (the current version is a revision he made in 1966). “Ghazal” is a form of amatory ode originating in Arabic poetry, and pianist Delvan Lin captured the intimate spirit of Hovhaness’s compositions in a sensuous, narcotic interpretation.

Around the time Hovhaness enrolled at NEC, Quincy Porter (1897-1966) was in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. His creative output from this productive sojourn includes an ambitious Sonata for Piano, completed in 1930. We heard the piece performed by Sandy Ssu-Hsuan Li, whose technical clarity and control were always at the service of form, melody, counterpoint, and voicing. The orchestral textures of the first movement, the meditative adagio, and the concluding presto — a tarantelle in the Lydian mode — left the audience ecstatic. Porter’s affiliation with New England Conservatory is of relevance to the school’s history during the dark years of the Second World War: not long after publishing the Sonata for Piano, Porter was appointed Dean of Faculty (1938-42) and then Director (1942-46).

Pianist Ranfei Wang gave a fiery performance of Toccata on Bach, a work that NEC alum Donal Fox (b. 1952) wrote in 2001. Boston-born and classically trained, Fox’s “focus on creating over recreating became stronger and stronger” over the years, according to a recent interview. Indeed, his international career as a pianist, composer, and improviser fuses jazz, Afro-Latin, and classical idioms into intricate new works. “Toccata on Bach” shows precisely that. The subject of the final fugue from Bach’s own Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914 is quoted literally at the onset of the piece, accompanied by an ostinato figuration in the left hand. However, its relentless rhythmic drive becomes the impetus for a frenetic display of syncopations, grooving, and swinging. Virtuosity is here in full display, and Wang’s command of the keyboard certainly did justice to the piece’s technical demands. Enjoying a worldwide performing career, Donal Fox became the first African-American composer-in-residence with the Saint Louis Symphony in 1991, in a long list of residencies that includes institutions such as Harvard University and MIT.

The career of Steve Peisch (b. 1952) began immediately after his studies at NEC in composition, violin, and improvisation. His teachers included Robert Cogan and Ran Blake. For years, Peisch focused on education, starting in the Theory Department at NEC, then as the Chair of the Theory Program at the Preparatory School. His music ranges from punk rock to folk, country, and contemporary classical. Pianist KeXin Tian played Peisch’s Four Ostinati. The first ostinato was written a few years ago, while the other three were written in 2021, and were premiered on the third evening of performances. The set is reminiscent of a multi-movement sonata, with substantial outer works framing two shorter ones — one lighthearted, scherzo-like, and the other slow-paced. Peisch’s treatment of melodic and rhythmic motifs was truly compelling. Tian’s transparent performance, particularly in the metric foreshortening of the opening ostinato, cleverly revealed Piesch’s compositional strategies.

Bruce Brubaker

Just like Amy Beach, Margaret Ruthven Lang (1867-1972) was coincidentally born the year NEC was founded. Her music was very much affected by the style of George Chadwick, with whom she studied composition and orchestration at the turn of the 20th century. Lang is credited with being the first woman whose music was performed by an American symphony orchestra. In 1893, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered her “Dramatic Overture,” Op. 12, conducted by Arthur Nikisch. Pianist Luo Mei offered a thoughtful and affecting performance of Twilight, a character piece Lang wrote in 1894, and that displays typical traits of the Second New England School. Beginning in the tone of devotional music, the left hand eventually unfolds in arpeggiated figurations and joins in a shimmering middle section that is vaguely reminiscent of Grieg’s Lyric Piece “An den Frühling.” 

126 years separate Lang’s Twilight from the last work on the program — Apology, by Anthony R. Green. Born in 1984, Green is an African-American composer, performer, and social justice artist currently based in Holland and Germany. An NEC alum, Green studied with Lee Hyla and Robert Cogan. His works have been performed in 25 countries across six continents and include a commission for The Celebrity Series of Boston. While piano is his main instrument, Green writes for a variety of ensembles, solo instruments and also for voice. “Apology,” written in 2020, was masterfully interpreted by Ariel Mo, who was tasked with additional techniques such as silent glissandi (the hands, gliding over the keys, produced a gentle rattling effect) and vocal interventions. Apology is an autobiographical work. It depicts Green’s encounter with an older white gentleman who, during a church service in which the members of the congregation were asked to share their thoughts, confessed to have been a racist. His remorseful apology nearly brought the people in the pews to tears. “I hope one day to be a brother,” the older gentleman confessed. Embracing him, Green replied “I definitely consider you to be one.” In the composer’s words, “Apology” is a juxtaposition of the “sparse and focused as well as inwardly tumultuous.” The final chord of the piece, which concluded the relatively short but greatly satisfying third program, is for Green “a symbol of an awakening.

Roberto Poli is a pianist, author, and recording artist, and holds positions at New England Conservatory and Boston Conservatory.


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Very interesting and well written article!

    Comment by Elaine Bresnick — February 26, 2022 at 10:04 am

  2. Fun fact: The St. James Hotel/Franklin Square House was used for exterior shots of St. Eligius Hospital in the TV series “St. Elsewhere.”

    Comment by Vance Koven — February 26, 2022 at 2:19 pm

  3. Busoni returned to Boston several times after he was no longer teaching at New England Conservatory. He played as soloist with the Boston Symphony more than thirty times as late as 1911. Busoni also played recitals in Jordan Hall including a performance on March 16, 1910.

    Comment by Gaby — March 4, 2022 at 1:53 pm

  4. Busoni played at Harvard Musical Association in 1891 1892 1893

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 4, 2022 at 2:37 pm

  5. “But the everyday reality of Busoni’s life in Boston was a sharp disappointment to him. He was engaged at the conservatory as a professor of piano and composition in the graduate department. However, as a young institution, the New England Conservatory was still not firmly enough established to be too selective about its pupils. And the Boston Brahmin influence was no match for hardnosed financial calculation of positively Gradgrindian proportions: in their lessons individual piano students were given exactly fifteen minutes teaching each, and cur off practically in mid-bar when their time was up. This sausage machine approach horrified the young idealist. (Just a few years later Sir Henry Wood, having learned of this method of instruction in American institutions, turned down an extremely generous offer to teach singing in the United States.) Also, of Busoni’s eighteen piano pupils, sixteen were female! Busoni’s low opinion of female intelligence, the fact would seem to indicate that piano playing was still principally considered a pursuit for young ladies. Furthermore, not one of his Boston pupils ever had any success then or later on the concert platform, although there must have been such aspirations, whether personal or parental, as some of his students came from as far afield as Kansas, Tennessee, and Iowa. His annual salary was $3,240, divided over four terms, which was generous for the time.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 4, 2022 at 8:07 pm

  6. Thank you all for the clarification.

    Comment by Roberto Poli — March 17, 2022 at 9:57 pm

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