An Interview with Professor Neely Bruce About Pianist Donald Berman and Chopin

CFA Intern Lucy Strother interviews Wesleyan professor Neely Bruce for details regarding Donald Berman’s upcoming concert.

This Thursday and Friday, Wesleyan welcomes pianist Donald Berman ’84 back to campus! Berman will hold a master class for piano students on Thursday, and on Friday night, he takes the stage in Crowell Concert Hall with a beautiful piano program, featuring music from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries (and the 21st, if you include professor Neely Bruce’s brand new arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment for the Chopin “La ci darem la mano” variations.)  I learned some more details about Berman’s career and his upcoming performance from professor of music and arranger-extraordinaire Neely Bruce.

LS: Is it typical for Berman to combine 18th and 19th century non-American composers like Scarlatti, Schumann and Chopin with 20th century and contemporary American pieces?

NB: Don Berman is a specialist in new and recent music, especially the music of Ives. That being said, he plays the music of the nineteenth century very, very well. I got the idea of inviting him to do this concert when I heard him play the Chopin variations on “La ci darem la mano” last season with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

LS: Is there an overarching connection between the pieces on the program? Why did Don Berman choose this particular program?

NB: The idea of this concert is to show how the music of Chopin is related to that of his contemporaries (especially Schumann) and the influence he had on posterity—which is enormous, by the way. Practically every composer who has written for the piano since Chopin is indebted to his approach to the instrument.

LS: Tell me about your arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment for the “La ci darem la mano” variations. What is your experience with this piece? Did you take any creative liberties with the arrangement?

NB: These variations are Chopin’s first work for piano and orchestra. Robert Schumann, who was a first-rate music critic as well as a composer, reviewed them with a flourish. “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.” That’s how he greeted his Polish contemporary in print. Both men were nineteen years old when Chopin performed the piece and Schumann reviewed it. My arrangement of “La ci darem la mano” is based on contemporary practice. In the nineteenth century, if one didn’t have an orchestra, or were performing a concerto in an intimate setting, one often arranged the orchestra parts for string quartet. I’m sure this was done for salon performances of these variations in Chopin’s lifetime, but no such arrangement survives. So I have made one. “Creative liberties” are the only way to approach such a project. There is a brief timpani solo in the orchestra original. I had a lot of fun figuring out how to do that.

LS: You were working at Wesleyan when Berman was a student here.  Did you cross paths?

NB: Of course. Don was a wonderful pianist, even as an undergraduate. He was the first winner of the Tishler Competition. He took my class in American piano music. (I haven’t offered it in many years, but used to offer it regularly.) We have stayed in touch over the years.

LS: Anything else that’s notable about Don or the upcoming concert?

NB: Don Berman was the last student of the late John Kirkpatrick, who premiered the Concord Sonata of Charles Ives and edited a great many of the Ives pieces for publication. This gave Don an inside track with lots of unperformed, and even unedited, Ives works. He has two spectacular CDs called The Unknown Ives which are revelatory. I’m delighted that he has chosen to make something special of the relationship of Ives and Chopin. Anyone who has played the music of Ives knows that Ives’s technique was shaped by the technique of Chopin. Don Berman’s recital will show how that works, and how the music of these seemingly so different composers can continue to delight listeners, both as specific pieces of music and through their juxtaposition.

Thanks, Neely! Come to Crowell Friday night to see this amazing pianist that the New York Times described as a “thorough, exciting and persuasive musician!”