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Friday, November 18, 2011
A Conversation with Peter Serkin

imageToday we have an interview with one of the giants of the piano, and good friend of 92nd Street Y, Peter Serkin. Honored to count him as a long-time friend, Serkin’s debut at 92Y was October 30, 1965, with the Guarneri String Quartet, when he was still in his teens.

One of our joys at 92Y is the opportunity that Mr. Serkin is giving us in this performance—to be part of the creative process. On December 10, we are fortunate to present Peter Serkin’s world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Adagio, which follows the premiere of his Scherzo in 2008; 92Y was proud to be a commissioner of both works.

Please enjoy an interview with him below:

As you began planning for the recital on December 10, how did you begin? What was the initial spark?
The first thing that I felt sure about was that I wanted to include a work by Charles Wuorinen, composed for this concert. Then on the same program, I thought of playing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

Wuorinen had composed a work for my previous recital at 92nd Street Y in 2008. His Scherzo was a fast and exuberant piece, so I thought that this time, it might be an Adagio. When I asked Charles if he would write an Adagio, I mentioned that I had just had a dream of this piece, and in it, towards its ending, there was a sense of everything kind of stopping….

I have played much of Wuorinen’s music with great pleasure, beginning with his beautiful Fourth Piano Concerto. There has also been Flying to Kahani with chamber orchestra, Time Regained with full orchestra, and three works that were all premiered here at 92Y: the Second Piano Quintet, the Scherzo for solo piano and now this Adagio. In the 1970s, he collaborated with my quartet Tashi. One work, Tashi, was prepared in two versions: one for us with large orchestra, the other for us alone. Other Wuorinen works for Tashi were Fortune and arrangements of pieces by Josquin and Thomas Morley. How fortunate we are to have a living master like Wuorinen composing such varied and wonderful works for us.

What came next?

With the Adagio on this program, I wanted an opening piece that is lively and fully awake. Stefan Wolpe’s Toccata is brimming with jazzy energy. Like most of his music, it really swings. His counterpoint, both melodic and rhythmic, is galvanizing. The Toccata’s middle movement is subtitled, “too much suffering in the world.” The third movement is a wild three-voice double-fugue.

I had met Stefan Wolpe a few times socially; his presence was unforgettable. But this was before I had yet played any of his music. Years later, I visited his second wife, the wonderful musician and pianist Irma Wolpe, to whom the Toccata is dedicated and who was the first to have played it. Those visits were like lessons for me. I played many of Stefan’s works for her—the Passacaglia, Form IV, the Oboe and Piano Sonata and the Toccata—works which she herself had played many times for audiences and, of course, for the composer.

Is there a “back story” to Takemitsu’s For Away?
For Away was inspired by a trip to Bali that left Tōru Takemitsu particularly enthusiastic—he loved Bali and its music. This was his first work for solo piano in more than ten years, since his much earlier Uninterrupted Rest and Piano Distance, and I was excited about this new piece. I then found it to be very difficult to play! The title comes from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, as do those of many other Takemitsu titles. Toru and I were best friends, and I often heard him play parts of For Away himself on the piano, or sing and dance and whistle parts of it.

I have played more than 20 of Takemitsu’s works. Seven of these were written for me: three with orchestra, three chamber works and one solo piece, Les yeux clos II, which was partially funded by and first performed at 92Y in 1989.

I have played Wolpe’s Toccata and Takemitsu’s For Away quite a few times. As important as first performances are, equally important, it seems to me, are the second, third and further performances. While we hear some classics over and over, good new music would benefit too by being heard more than just once, no doubt. An interesting composition seems to grow and become even more interesting as one hears it more.

After intermission comes the Diabelli Variations. How would you describe it?
It’s modern, adventurous, bold and outrageous. It is full of fun, too. The piece is like a kind of inebriated improvisation, at a transcendent level. Self-generating, the work somehow continually opens itself up further to new levels and to deepening expression.

Wolpe, Takemitsu, Wuorinen and Beethoven—these are all composers of such integrity, even defiant spirit. These masters have in common an outrageous aspect as well as a capacity to be easy-going and carefree.

Do you have a philosophy of programming, especially contemporary works that audiences might find difficult?
Not particularly being based on concepts, my programs are “unjustifiable,” except, hopefully, in the playing of them. I prefer programs which are neither overly ingratiating nor didactic. I think that programs show integrity when there is no attempt to win anyone over at all. We can welcome programs that are somewhat challenging. It is out of respect for the intelligence of an audience that one plays programs that may not be particularly easy to listen to, but that present something genuine, with integrity. Anyhow, how can one possibly determine what is “easy” or “difficult” to listen to for someone else—is Beethoven really easier to listen to than Wolpe or Wuorinen? In any case, we do not need to shirk from that which may be more outrageous and provocative; people do want to hear interesting music.

(Photo of Peter Serkin holding the score of Charles Wuorinen’s Piano Concerto No. 4, written for him by the composer. Credit: Kathy Chapman)

[Peter Serkin, piano - December 10 at 92nd Street Y]

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