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An Interview with Yehudi Wyner

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Yehudi Wyner in his Workspace. Photo Michael Miller 2010.
Yehudi Wyner in his Workspace. Photo Michael Miller 2010.

Yehudi Wyner, whose career as a composer and a performing musician goes back some sixty years, finds himself entirely focused on the present at the moment, and very positively so. For one thing, Bridge Records, who have issued the most substantial body of his work on CD, have released his collected sacred music, and Mr. Wyner is very pleased to have it all together in one place. Secondly, he is anticipating the premiere of a new work, a secular cantata called Give Thanks for All Things. As he explains in the interview we now offer as our latest podcast, the work didn’t come to him easily, and, although he refuses to pass judgment on it until he hears it played before an audience, he is looking forward to hearing it performed by one of his favorite groups and conductors, The Cantata Singers under David Hoose. Beyond that, he is busily at work revising his Fragments from Antiquity (1978) for a performance by his favorite soprano, Dominique Labelle, with the Lexington Symphony in February, 2011.

In this podcast we talk mostly about Mr. Wyner’s formative experiences at the American Academy in Rome, musicians and composers, opera production — yes, Regieoper, too — and his own music and the musical traditions he draws upon, above all his upcoming premiere.

Our conversation was an especially uplifting experience for me, because of the way he — not a religious man, as he has said — finds an affirmative view of the world through a critical acceptance of life’s realities, and this becomes an entirely genuine and edifying part of his music. Yehudi Wyner writes music because he has something inside him to communicate. Formal and technical elements come second, and, he has even undermined traditional forms, for example in his Cello Concerto, to which he gave the title “Prologue and Narrative.” Nonetheless, his grasp of the laws of music is so deep, that his music seems formally perfect, always concise and tightly organized, and always moving forward in the best classical tradition. This enlivening balance of expression and form recalls the experience of listening to Brahms, although his music occasionally recalls Brahms more tangibly than that. One should not be surprised to learn that he is the son of a composer, Lazar Weiner, who was renowned as a master of Yiddish art song.

For Yehudi, the Jewish secular and religious traditions form only a part of a predominantly secular body of work, in which American strains like the blues and jazz are as much of a presence as the great German stream of Bach and Brahms. He has been connected with the Boston music scene since the early fifties, when he obtained an MA from Harvard (1952). Before that he studied at Juilliard and Yale (BMus 1951, MMus 1953), where he studied with Paul Hindemith. After many years active primarily in New York City, his association with the Tanglewood Music Center (1975-97) a series of visiting professorships at Harvard (1991-97), and the beginning of his long association with Brandeis University in 1989 reestablished his ties with Boston. He was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome for an unprecedented three years (1953–6), and it seems he returns to Italy often. At least he wrote his Piano Concerto “Chiavi in mano” (2004) there, and in our conversation, he had a lot to say about the role Italy has played in his creative development.

The 2009 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood brought works by European and American composers in such a way as to invite comparision. While many of the European composers took their point of departure in a mood or an experience, the Americans tended to build their music around a concept, sometimes even a formal concept. In this way the American composers came across as rather abstract and academic. Yehudi Wyner has worked within academia for most of his career, either teaching or composing on fellowships. In this light it is truly striking that his music doesn’t affect the listener as academic in any way. His music begins and ends in human experience, and through all the work of composition, he never loses sight of humanity.

During the interview, you will hear excerpts from

Bridge Records 9282: Yehudi Wyner, Orchestral Music: Cello Concerto

New World Records 80549: Yehudi Wyner, On this Most Voluptuous Night: Puerto Rico Song

Naxos 8.559423: Yehudi Wyner, The Mirror; Passover Offering; Tants un Maysele: Tants


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