Passionate educator, solo/collaborative pianist, and recording artist Leann Osterkamp talks about her time in NYFOS’s Emerging Artist program and reveals her (crazy) solution to winter weather’s wear on her fingers. Leann will return to NYFOS’s Mainstage in Hyphenated-Americans on February 20, 2019 at Merkin Hall.
You were the first pianist to participate in NYFOS’s Emerging Artist program at Caramoor. What was your experience in that program originally designed with singers in mind? How did it impact your playing at the time? Is there anything particular from that residency that has stayed with you?
Caramoor was one of my first times getting to work extensively with Steve and Michael. I remember feeling star-struck every rehearsal. I would stare at Steve’s fingers for hours each day, trying to frantically absorb every bit of wisdom that I could. Steve’s way of improvising stayed with me and completely transformed how I approach American Songbook. I remember how infectious Michael’s coaching style was. His way of coaching and teaching has played a huge role in how I teach and conduct today.
You’ll be appearing with NYFOS in February 2019 in Hyphenated-Americans, which will feature primarily contemporary music, including the Daniel Sabzghabaei piece you premiered to rapturous audience response last December. How do you approach music that you are premiering? Is it different from how you would approach learning a piece with a long performance history or one that you might have become familiar with as a listener before performing it?
It is actually not very different in approach for me, personally. Even with music in the standard repertoire, I try to never listen to or have a pre-formulated approach to a piece before I work on it and perform it. I try to approach every Chopin Nocturne and Beethoven Sonata as though it is a premiere. The fun in music comes from reading and interpreting what is on the page, not from trying to uphold a performance tradition.
What advice would you give to prospective listeners who might feel like they don’t understand new music or know how to approach it as audience members?
Music is a soundtrack for emotions and life. It can really help, when you are baffled by a piece of art or music, to close your eyes and see what images and emotions appear to you. Instead of trying to understand the score itself, it can be more engaging to try to understand your own response towards the music. Learning about the historical and personal context behind a piece of music can also help as an entry point.
Are there any upcoming projects on your calendar that you are particularly excited about? (Other than Hyphenated-Americans, of course.)
I will be doing a solo recital for Steinway in Denver in March. It will be my first solo appearance in Denver since the move!
Both Colorado and NYC have cold and often snowy winters. What are your cold weather must-haves that keep you and your fingers in playing shape? Any favorite gear?
I keep myself in shape mostly through martial arts, running, and weight-lifting…. So, luckily, all of those can be done indoors yearlong. For my fingers, my secret is Krazy Glue. Yes, I know it is a wood glue. During seasons like last year, when I had a series of solo concerts that had a lot of technically demanding repertoire, my fingertips split with the cold weather (gross, I know). Over the years, I learned bandaids just get in the way, so I, desperately, put wood glue under my nails to try to repair my fingers. It is a miracle glue. I would usually put it on before the concert and then spend intermission putting on another coat.
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
I just finished rehearsing Jerome Kern songs with my Boys Choir. In fact, it was music that I was introduced to by Michael and Steve when I was in school. It has been an amazing experience to carry on the Jerome Kern legacy to upcoming singers.
When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?
I am a big fan of cooking, hiking, and Krav Maga and Jiu Jitsu. I love finding correlations between martial arts and musical arts. My new cooking discovery was learning to make ravioli from scratch! I also have started learning about motorcycles and am trying to learn how to ride so that I can go riding with family. I also have an amazing puppy named Rio that I spend a lot of time spoiling.
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you? Is there anything about this particular form that is significant to you?
This question is almost impossible to answer from a listener’s standpoint. Song has meant so many different things to me throughout my life. As a performer, however, song provides you with some of the most incredible personal performance/rehearsal experiences. The process of rehearsing and performing lieder with someone creates a very special and unique type of friendship that is impossible to describe. I met some of my best friends through song and we shared some incredible unspoken (though sung) moments together as we learned the repertoire. Perhaps that is why the NYFOS family is so uniquely connected and wonderful.
Perhaps the most famous contemporary cross-cultural composer, Bright Sheng has an original compositional dialect that combines Western traditions and Chinese traditional and folk music. His music results from both his personal cultural upbringing and his intentional study and research of the principles underlying both nations’ musical traditions. His schooling was primarily in America. However, he is constantly involved in compositional and academic endeavors that strive to blend and define international musical styles. One such example was his participation in the Silk Road Project. Born in China in 1955, he moved to the United States in 1982. These Three Chinese Love Songs come from shortly after his immersion into American schooling in 1988. Within a very traditional chamber music setting, the music demands extended techniques to achieve certain Eastern sounds to blend with the lyric lines of the soprano. Even after only six years of studying in the United States, Sheng developed a very enticing and organic blend of cultural styles, marrying different traditions into three beautiful songs.
Igor Stravinsky became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1945. After a little over a decade of living in the United States, Stravinsky entered into what is often referred to as his Serial Period. Arnold Schoenberg and Stravinsky often butted heads in their time, arguing over the future of classical music. Though Stravinsky was known to criticize Schoenberg’s compositional process, he quickly made use of the serial techniques and dodecaphony that had been associated with Schoenberg’s style immediately upon Schoenberg’s death in 1951. His cantata, A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer comes from the years 1960-61. The work exemplifies a blending of his neo-classist style with the serialist trends commonly seen in the United States during the first half of the century. For example, the work uses canons, a technique Stravinsky often modeled after J.S. Bach or earlier polyphonic composers. However, in this piece, the blending of the canonic style with serialism parallels Stravinsky with composers like Pierre Boulez. The evolution of Stravinsky’s style post-immigration to America is striking.
At the turn of the century, political unrest and a new desire (and ability) to travel the world led many classical composers to call America their new home. One such political event was the Russian Revolution, which forced Sergei Rachmaninoff to flee to America around 1918. Though he longed for his home country, he earned great success in front of American audiences. Most of his fame (and money) came from his performing and conducting concerts in the 20+ years immediately following his arrival in the country, which allowed him time to complete only a handful of compositions during this period, the only vocal piece being his Three Russian Songs for Chorus (1926). Therefore, these Six Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 38 are the final lieder he wrote the year before fleeing his home country. Prior to this cessation, Rachmaninoff had composed over 80 songs for voice and piano, making this stark halt in vocal composition poignant and a bit devastating. Dawn Upshaw and Margo Garrett brilliantly perform the subtle nuances and mastery of his compositional style during this time. He adapted the style of his later compositions to fit the demands of his American performing career. The subtleness and style of these lieder are very unique and not heard in much of his later work.
Although the February 20th concert will feature many of today’s talented first-generation American composers, the concept of American music being redefined by immigrants is far from a modern phenomenon. Antonín Dvořák, a Czech composer, is a prime example, coming to American around 1892. Upon coming to the United States, Dvořák was a pioneer in defining American music (years before the discussions and writings of some of the most prominent figures related to this topic, such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland). He wrote many articles discussing the importance of African-American and Native American musics in defining American musical identity. Though this song Když mne stará matka zpívat učívala (Songs My Mother Taught Me) was composed prior to his move to America, it is a poignant example of how Dvořák uses his cultural depth and understanding to inspire his compositional style. The clear Czech influences in this song can be heard later in his American compositions, where he mimics the elements of American spirituals. He is an early example of cross-cultural composing, as well as an influential artist in defining American music from an objective outsider perspective.
What makes Daniel’s music so riveting is its ability to educate and challenge the ear while also providing small fragments of classical familiarity. His vocal music is always technically challenging, melismatic, romantic, and organic. His song “Khaham keh bar zolfat” challenges our ear with Farsi, an unfamiliar language to most of us, but also provides us with strings of beautiful Persian sounds and language patterns. Even though I don’t speak Farsi, my experience in listening to his music makes me feel as though I have heard it my entire life. His music brings out essential concepts and emotions central to Sufism, the all-encompassing desire of intimacy and unification. These concepts, when considered, though well-articulated in Sufism, are really central to all human experience and, therefore, illicit an emotional response that every listener can immediately relate to. Daniel also seamlessly spins in harmonic and motivic elements that incorporate elements that sound Baroque and jazzy. These small elements give the American audience a musical familiarity which constantly engages cultural relationships. Daniel’s music could not be more fitting for Hyphenated-Americans in that it always seems to exhibit his own personal heart, experiences, and mind in extraordinary ways.
Daniel Sabzghabaei: Khaham keh bar zolfat (2016) from Four Glimpses of Desire
From his 1977 song cycle Songfest, “A Julia de Burgos” uses the text of poet Julia de Burgos.
Jack Gottlieb describes the cycle terrifically:
Originally commissioned to be a work in celebration of the American Bicentennial Year (1976), Songfest could not be completed in time. Although the commission was vacated, the idea persisted: to draw a comprehensive picture of America’s artistic past, as seen in 1976 through the eyes of a contemporary artist. The composer has envisioned this picture through the words of 13 poets embracing 300 years of the country’s history. The subject matter of their poetry is the American artist’s experience as it relates to his or her creativity, loves, marriages, or minority problems (blacks, women, homosexuals, expatriates) within a fundamentally Puritan society.
This particular song portrays the voice of a woman who has broken free of societal roles and expectations. She sings that through her art, she is authentically herself and is not at the ownership or disposal of anyone or anything. Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican civil rights activist who lived from 1914-1953. Traveling between Puerto Rico, New York, and Cuba, she was fully involved in the nationalist philosophies that defined her life. It is important to remember that women’s suffrage in the United States was at a boiling point during her life, with the 19th Amendment arriving in 1920. Julia’s perspective as a minority activist woman during the first half of the century is indeed a defining artistic perspective to encapsulate America’s past.
This terrific remastered original cast recording from the 1953 rendition of Wonderful Town portrays Wreck, a guy who describes his fame and glory days as a student because of his ability to pass the ol’ pigskin. In this hilarious song, Wreck can’t spell, read, or write… but he introduced Albert Einstein, passed the bar exam, had every girl he could ever want, and got every scholarship… because he could pass that football!!
Bernstein had an amazing knack for capturing the humor of everyday life. The relatability of his characters make his theater works timelessly relevant.
Perhaps Bernstein’s most well-known work, “Somewhere“ has an inherent timeless relevance. It expresses the hope of a world in which conflict is absent and people are able to live without prejudice and hatred. Bernstein spent his entire life being involved in social justice both in the U.S. and abroad. He was famously quoted, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” It is chilling how necessary and relevant these words are to our world today.
This recording of the incomparable Jessye Norman dates from 1993.
“Little Smary” is an example of Bernstein’s art song repertoire outside of the theater. The words are by Jennie Bernstein (Bernstein’s mother). The story depicts a young girl playing with her “wuddit” (rabbit). The story was a common bedtime story told to Bernstein by his mother.
The piece comes from a song cycle entitled Arias and Barcarolles, completed in 1988 and dedicated to S.A.B. (Shirley Anne Bernstein, his sister). The cycle exists in a piano four-hand version and an orchestrated version by Bright Sheng. It is said that the ironic title of the cycle originated from a statement Dwight Eisenhower made at a 1960 performance of Bernstein. He stated, “I liked that last piece you played, it had a tune. I like music with a tune, not all of them arias and barcarolles and things.”
Unlike Bernstein’s theater works, this song is very fragmented. The singer is more narrative than tuneful. This wonderful recording comes from the NYFOS family in 1994 with Steve Blier and Michael Barrett at the piano. The fabulous Judy Kaye masterfully paints a clear story and also characterizes a distraught little Smary.
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