My parents and I traveled along the east coast for almost 3,000 miles this summer, and I was excited that one of my stops was at Bowdoin College in Maine for three weeks of immersion in solo and collaborative piano studies.
The Bowdoin International Music Festival in scenic Brunswick Maine had its 49th season this summer under the direction of Lewis Kaplan. I recently returned from session one where I was a student of Professor Elinor Freer, who teaches at the Eastman School of Music.
The program commenced with auditions in front of the entire piano faculty for placement in appropriate chamber groups and for the instructors to meet and hear each student performing something of his/her choice. I was assigned a Beethoven piano trio and for my session I met with my chamber members for rehearsals. Twice a week, my trio worked under the guidance of our chamber coach, Professor Constance Moore of Juilliard and discussed aspects such as balance, progression of musical ideas, and points of emotional significance in the score. The collaborative spirit in our coaching sessions allowed us to work towards achieving the highest level of musical intensity and conviction possible. I was fortunate enough to have worked with Maurice, who studies cello at Oberlin, and Erika, who studies violin in NYC. All performances were professionally recorded, and I have included some links to the trio performances below, as well as a movement of a Beethoven Sonata that I performed earlier in the session.
The majority of my time at Bowdoin however was spent on my solo repertoire in preparation for conservatory auditions this winter. Each pianist had his/her own assigned practice room and grand piano to use. Conveniently, the practice rooms were in the building directly across from the dorms. I had two lessons a week with Professor Freer, each of which I looked forward to with great excitement. Professor Freer was always enthusiastic about the music and well informed about the historical context of each piece and its composer. We would discuss how different voices within an idea could represent other stringed instruments to achieve different colors and textures. Professor Freer had an extensive knowledge of other instruments, especially the cello, as her husband David Ying is the cellist in the Ying Quartet. We spent much of the time working on the Mendelssohn Variations Sérieuses.
For each variation, Professor Freer always knew the appropriate technical approach needed to execute the notes on the page with musical clarity and intensity. Professor Freer would explain and demonstrate new practice strategies and ask for my opinions and thoughts. We shared ideas about textures and articulations and how each technical approach could be used to produce better sound all while remaining relaxed. Professor Freer’s keenness also extended to her deep insight of the structure of the score itself. We actively studied theory and its role in making the music – how diminished chords for example can be moments of conflict, and that studying the composer’s use of scale degrees and unique harmonic shifts allows one to understand long term direction of a line and uncover moments of emotional significance. Professor Freer’s deep and astute insight, her warm and enthusiastic approach, and her sincerity were the key factors that made my time at Bowdoin so productive and memorable.
While I received invaluable guidance from Professors Freer and Moore, all students at Bowdoin were expected to manage their own schedules to include planning rehearsals, coachings, lessons, practice time, extracurricular trips, and attending or applying to perform in concerts and master classes. Information would be posted at the box office and through emails, so it was up to us to plan and set priorities as many events overlapped. This was a true test of responsibility, independence, and organization, which helped to prepare me for a conservatory environment. Fortunately, I was able to attend numerous inspirational concerts featuring faculty members such as Lewis Kaplan, Elinor Freer, and Boris Slutsky, as well as other guest artists such as pianist Eric Zuber, a Van Cliburn competitor, and violinist David Coucheron, Concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Most of the performances including student solo/chamber performances took place in Studzinski Recital Hall on campus, but on Festival Fridays, we were treated to concerts in Crooker Theater at Brunswick High School. Eric Zuber’s Gershwin Preludes and his virtuosic transcription of the Rhapsody in Blue as well as David Coucheron’s powerful Barber Concerto with the Bowdoin student orchestra were highlights of one Festival Friday which honored this great nation and influential American composers Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland. I was especially excited to see the Ying Quartet perform at Crooker Theater and several other times in Studzinski Recital Hall. Each quartet, from Brahms to Prokofiev, was delivered with such emotional depth and cohesiveness and proved to be impactful and memorable.
Fortunately, I was able to attend several master classes to include those of Professor Boris Slutsky, cellist Professor Peter Howard, and even a composition class with award winning American composer Derek Bermel. I was thrilled to be able to perform in a master class with Professor Matti Raekallio of Juilliard. Professor Raekallio gave me interesting and advantageous advice for the Lutoslawski etude, as well as a unique approach to practicing articulation that no other teacher has suggested.
With so many opportunities to learn and grow, the Bowdoin International Music Festival proved to be an unforgettable and influential music experience. I was fortunate to work with some incredible faculty and interact and collaborate with students from all over the world. We were able share in the binding musical force which links us to one another. I have made lifelong friends whom I hope to work with for years to come.