Gunther Schuller was the toughest mentor I ever had. He expected professionalism from day one—no introductory foolishness. Gunther challenged us, particularly at New England Conservatory, to do things we thought we were incapable of. What other conservatory would put on performances of Wozzeck and Gurrelieder within a few months of each other?
The summer festivals of the Berkshires and Hudson Valley are to a large extent about young artists. Some festivals, like Tanglewood, Marlboro, Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company, Yellow Barn, and Norfolk, are basically music schools or have an educational institution as a core adjunct. Marlboro and the Tanglewood Music Center focus on musicians who have just completed their conservatory work and are ready to begin their professional careers. Others, like Music Mountain, offer courses for adults and students. The benefits cut both ways: young musicians, actors, and dancers get to perform, and audiences get to hear fresh talent and new insights.
On the day following her amazing recital with Katherine Chi at Jordan Hall, Paula Robison and I met at the house she shares with her husband, Scott Nickrenz, with its bird’s eye view of Frederick Law Olmsted’s house and garden. In the hour or so we talked we covered a lot of ground: the concert, her preparations for it, and some of the music she played…we talked about Sidney Lanier, the poet, linguist, and self-taught flute virtuoso, who died at 39 of tuberculosis contracted as a Confederate prisoner of war, and Charles T. Griffes, who died at 35 of the same disease, leaving behind a remarkable body of exploratory compositions, Paul Taffanel, the founder of modern flute playing and the teacher of Ms. Robison’s teacher, the great Marcel Moyse.
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Although Katherine Chi played Charles T. Griffes’ Three Tone-Pictures, Op. 5, for solo piano, there could be no question that this program was primarily a feast of specialized flute repertoire. (Simply hearing the sounds of Paula Robison’s playing in Jordan Hall’s extraordinary acoustic is enough to make this an exciting event.) One piece, Sidney Lanier’s “Windsong,” is even known relatively little outside Paula Robison’s flute recitals. Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) is remembered primarily as a great flute virtuoso, who developed the modern technique of playing the Boehm flute and modifications thereof—the foundations of the instrument and technique that prevail today. While Taffanel sought above all to enrich the emotional content of flute music and to extend the expressive capabilities of the instrument, he composed much of his music for technical display at his own recitals and as exercises for his students. Nonetheless the appeal of the concert went far beyond the immediate concerns of flute-players and their pupils and offered a wealth of insights, which were both fascinating in relation to music as imagined and constructed by the composer and as re-created within the specificities of acoustics, instrument, and player, and deeply moving as expressions of the human spirit.
I don’t mind confessing that I never fully appreciated the flute until I heard Paula Robison play the instrument. The range of color and expression she can create with it are truly astonishing, and she has the ability to make every note count, as Pablo Casals could, and a few of the very best of the musicians who have passed through Marlboro.
On Sunday she will play for her students and colleagues at the New England Conservatory, as well as the rest of us, and I think that will bring a special sense of occasion—not that that is ever lacking at any of her concerts. Lately she has been venturing out into other forms of expression, notably the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, in which she has also played the flute part. As when she plays her flute, she approaches this with terrific concentration and fanatical preparation.
I first heard Minsoo Sohn play at an Emmanuel Music Bach concert in January 2008, where he played with a chamber group as well as solo, in a couple of Busoni arrangements of Bach chorale preludes. I was so impressed with the musicality and seriousness of his playing, that I made a note to follow his future appearences. Although he has been very active, this has been my first opportunity to hear him play a full solo recital.