The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Collaborative pianist and UW-Madison professor Martha Fischer is The Ear’s “Musician of the Year” for 2015

December 31, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

There is now so much outstanding classical music in the Madison area that it is hard to single out one performer or even one group as the Musician of the Year.

So this year The Ear was wondering how to honor all the musicians who generally go nameless but perform so well — all those string, brass, wind and percussion players and all those singers –- and not just the higher-profile conductors or soloists.

Then he was sitting at the astounding debut recital by Soh-Hyun Park Altino, the new violin professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, given the night of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Her partner was faculty pianist Martha Fischer.

And then is when The Ear decided that the Musician of the Year for 2015 should be Martha Fischer (below).

Martha Fischer color Katrin Talbot

I’d say “accompanist,” but we really don’t call them accompanists any more. The better term, and the more accurate term, is collaborative pianist.

And if you heard Martha Fischer play the thorny piano parts of the violin sonatas by Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms, you know you heard amazing artistry. (Park Altino also played a solo work by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Here is the rave review by The Ear:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/classical-music-if-a-perfect-debut-concert-exists-new-uw-madison-faculty-violinist-soh-hyun-park-altino-gave-it-last-friday-night/

Now, The Ear has to disclose that he knows Martha Fischer and is a friend of hers as well as of her husband Bill Lutes.

But none of that takes away from Fischer’s many accomplishments, which too often fly under the radar and go uncredited.

Indeed, by honoring her, The Ear also hopes to draw attention to and to honor the many mostly anonymous ensemble and chamber players, including those in the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top in a photo by Greg Anderson), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as the UW Symphony Orchestra, the Edgewood College orchestras and choirs, the UW Chamber Orchestra and the UW Choral Union (below bottom) and other UW choirs.

Too often, the members of those groups and so many others — such as the Ancora and Rhapsodie String Quartets, the Oakwood Chamber Players and the Willy Street Chamber Players, the Madison Choral Project, the Festival Choir and the Wisconsin Chamber Choir — pass unnoticed or under-noticed, much like Fischer. But like her, they deserve attention and respect.

Because they too are collaborators.

They serve the music. The music does not serve them.

And the truth is that most music-making is collaborative -– not solo performing.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Choral Union Joel Rathmann, Emi Chen

In addition, Fischer is also the model of the kind of academic that Gov. Scott Walker and the go-along Republican Legislators don’t seem to recognize or appreciate. They prefer instead to scapegoat and stigmatize public workers, and to hobble the University of Wisconsin with budget cuts and so-called reforms.

Remember that old saying: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach? It’s nonsense, especially in this case.

Martha Fischer is someone who both teaches and performs. She also participates in faculty governance and heads up the committee searching for a new opera director. When The Ear asked her for an update on the search, she provided records with complete transparency up to the limits of the law. Our corrupt, secretive and self-serving state government leaders should be so honest and so open.

Fischer is a first-rate collaborator who performs and records regularly with other faculty instrumentalists and singers. They include UW trombonist Mark Hetzler, trumpeter John Aley and singers baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Julia Faulkner, who has since moved on to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

A model of the Wisconsin Idea in action, Fischer also serves as a juror for piano competitions, gives talks around the state and helps recruit talented students.

As a researcher, Fischer – who trained at the Julliard School, Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory of Music — traveled to England and interviewed famous collaborative pianists about playing Schubert’s art songs.

By all accounts, Fischer is a phenomenal teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students. The Ear has heard her students in concerto and solo recital performances, and was impressed. He also talked to her students and heard nothing but praise for her teaching.

He has heard Fisher herself sing, from Schubert lieder to Gilbert and Sullivan songs. She does that amazingly well too.

Fisher is one of the co-founders, co-organizers and main performers of the UW’s Schubertiades (below). The third annual Schubertiade is on Saturday, January 30, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. Go there and you can hear her sing and play piano duets and other chamber music. It is always one of the outstanding concerts of the year.

Schubertiade 2014 stage in MIlls Hall

Well, The Ear could go on and on. The personable but thoroughly professional Martha Fischer works so hard that there are plenty of reasons to honor her.

So, for all the times her playing and other talents have escaped attention, The Ear offers a simple but heartfelt Thank You to the Musician of the Year for 2015.

Please feel free to leave your thanks and remarks in the COMMENTS section.

If you want to hear Martha Fischer in action, here is a link to the SoundCloud posting of her playing the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100, for Violin and Piano with violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino:

https://soundcloud.com/uw-madisonsom

Then listen to the delicacy, balance and subtleties, of Fischer’s playing in this YouTube video of a lovely Romance for Trumpet and Piano:


Classical music: If a perfect debut concert exists, new UW-Madison faculty violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino gave it last Friday night. Plus, a concert of music for two harpsichords takes place Saturday night.

November 19, 2015
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ALERT: On this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Madison Christian Community Church, 7118 Old Sauk Road, on Madison’s far west side, Northwestern University music Professor Stephen Alltop and Madison Bach Musicians’ artistic director Trevor Stephenson will present a program of masterworks for two harpsichords including: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in C major (BWV 1061); selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s elegant “Pièces de clavecin en concerts“; and a very zingy transcription of Luigi Boccherini’s famous “Fandango.” Plus, Stephen Alltop will perform selections from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and Trevor Stephenson will play three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Tickets are $20 and are available at the door.

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday night saw the bloody terrorist attacks and murders in Paris, France. And we were all understandably preoccupied then with those events.

That would not have seemed an auspicious time for a new music faculty member to make a debut.

Yet that is exactly what the new UW-Madison violin professor Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) did. And it turned out to be a remarkable event: a pitch-perfect concert for the occasion.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

Let’s start by saying that Park Altino is a complete violinist and has everything: pitch, tone, speed, depth and stage presence. But hers is the quiet and self-effacing kind of virtuosity. There were no show-off works by Paganini or Sarrasate on the program.

The concert opened in dimmed lighting, as she played (below) the Solo Sonata No. 3 in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. She dedicated the opening movement –- which you can hear played by Arthur Grumiaux in a YouTube video at the bottom –- to the people of Paris and said that the slow movement reminded her of a mysterious prayer or meditation.

She was right.

Simultaneously alone and together: Is there a better summing up of how we were feeling that night? And her mastery in voicing the difficult fugue was impressive as well as moving.

Let others play and hear once again Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or “La Marseillaise.” The Ear will long remember that Bach played in that context. Thank you, Professor Park Altino.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino playing solo Bach

Then she turned effortlessly from grave seriousness and talked about the Sonata No. 2 by Charles Ives (below) and how it borrows from hymn tunes and songs from popular culture. And with laughs she then related all that background to herself when she was growing up in Korea and forming her image of America from popular culture and TV shows such “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Anne of Green Gables” and from cartoons such as “Popeye.”

She was both informative and charming as she Ives-ified Korea and Koreanized Ives. And she totally connected with the audience. If you were there, you could tell. You felt it.

Charles Ives BIG

After intermission came a charming and relatively unknown miniature: the Romance in A Major, Op. 23, by the American composer Amy Beach (below). How refreshing it was to hear an immigrant musician enlighten us natives about our own musical history. It is all about new perspectives. Are you listening, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and other isolationists, anti-immigrationists and xenophobes?

Amy Beach BW 1

And then came a masterpiece by Johannes Brahms.

She chose the Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. It is not as dramatic as the other two violin sonatas, but relies instead on slow tempi to convey the geniality of its beautiful melodies and harmonies.

It proved the perfect ending to the perfect recital on that dreadful night of massacres and loss, fear and terror. It proved what so much music can do and should be doing, especially these days: offering a balm for the heart and soul.

Her program and playing brought to mind the inspiring words of Leonard Bernstein, who had to conduct a program right after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which happened 52 years ago this Sunday:

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It must be also be said that Park Altino had the perfect partner in Martha Fischer, who heads the collaborative piano program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Even during the most difficult and thorny piano parts, such as in the Ives sonata, Fischer never upset the balance, never departed from the right dynamics, never lost a sense of transparency and always saw eye-to-eye with the violinist in interpretation. She possessed complete technical and interpretive mastery.

The two musicians really proved to be co-equal partners. They make a great pairing or partnership, and it was clear from their stage presence that they like performing with each other and are on the same wavelength.  With their seamless playing, they showed exactly the difference between accompanying and collaborating.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Martha Fischer

That makes The Ear very happy. He loves the combination of violin and piano, and now he hopes he has a lot more of it to look forward to from these same two performers -– works he once hoped to hear from the outstanding partnership of Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry and UW-Madison virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor, which started but never fully materialized.

So many works come to mind. The violin and keyboard sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli and Tartini. (The Ear admits it: He prefers the piano to the harpsichord in Baroque works.) The violin sonatas, perhaps even in complete cycles, of Mozart and Beethoven. The various violin works by Schubert, perhaps in the annual Schubertiades. Sonatas by Schumann and Brahms. Sonatas by Faure, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. Sonatas and rhapsodies by Bartok. Sonatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

And then there are the possibilities of her performing violin concertos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (apparently its music director, Andrew Sewell, is a close friend of hers) and the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The possibilities make The Ear swoon with anticipation.

So when you see that Soh-Hyun Park Altino will play again, be sure to mark your calendars and datebooks. You do not want to miss her.

Ever.

 


Classical music Q&A: The Annals of Accompanying, Part 2 of 2. The Ear talks with baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, about the challenges of accompanying in their joint FREE performance this Wednesday night of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook.”

March 25, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer have been performing songs and song cycles together for almost two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Some performances, like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” have even been published and recorded in book-and-CD format that features moody song-related, black-and-white photographs by the Madison-based photographer and violist Katrin Talbot.

Winterreise UW Press

Fischer, who teaches Collaborative Piano at the UW-Madison, has also accompanied countless instrumentalists.

This Wednesday night, March 26, Rowe and Fischer will give a FREE performance of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook” at 7:3 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

To The Ear, it seemed like the perfect occasion to explore the complexities of accompanying and musical collaboration. The two musicians (below with UW alumna Julia Foster, who teaches voice at Rollins College and who will join in the singing) generously agreed to respond to the same questions. Those questions and their answers have been featured yesterday and today on this blog.

Here is a link to yesterday’s posting of Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/classical-music-qa-the-annals-of-accompanying-part-1-of-2-the-ear-talks-with-baritone-paul-rowe-and-pianist-martha-fischer-both-of-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-school-of-music-about-t/

 

Paul Rowe, Martha Fischer and Julia Foster 2

What qualities make for a great accompanist or collaborator?

PAUL ROWE: The first requirement is to be a great pianist and musician. Then, I think, especially if one is going to work with singers, the pianist needs to be interested in the poetry and the smaller format of the song. It is very important to have a working relationship where the leading role is constantly switching back and forth. To be able to exchange ideas and interpretations is also crucial to a rewarding working arrangement.

MARTHA FISCHER: Great artist-accompanists are able to both be supremely flexible and yet maintain a true artistic profile. Great accompanists bring a point of view to the table and play their parts with the same artistic integrity that one would bring to any solo work. They are able to meld with their partners to create a single artistic statement.  And they usually need to be nice people!

accompanying singer and piano

What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of working together? Technical matters? Psychological and emotional aspects? How does each of you affect the other one? Does a collaboration develop and deepen over time and as you get to know each other in other collaborative projects?

PR: Martha and I have done many performances together of a variety of different types of music. We have, from the first, been able to hear and see things in similar ways. In many cases, we don’t need much rehearsal at all.

The most challenging thing has been finding time to work on things in a relaxed way, when we have time to discuss the pieces and the best ways to present them. Often, we are both running from lessons or meetings and trying to squeeze in some quality time.

It helps that we share a great love for this repertoire. We even team taught a special literature class a couple of years ago which was lots of fun to share our feelings and knowledge of the music with a group of students.

MF: For me, encountering the vast and amazing art song repertoire is, in itself, the most rewarding part of collaborating with singers.  And then when you are able to create this music with a sympathetic partner who already shares your values, it is one of the greatest experiences a pianist can have.

The challenges these days are mostly logistic — not enough time to practice and prepare on your own as well as together. Paul and I have been working together now for about 17 years. I knew when I first played for him that we were a good musical partnership. We rarely have musical disagreements — we are both flexible and open to each other’s ideas and we both listen to each other — musically and verbally.

And yes, our artistic collaborations (below, in Schubert’s “Winterreise” at the First Unitarian Society of Madison), like many others that I have enjoyed over the years, do develop and deepen over time, just like any important relationship in life. You come to trust one another and we definitely have a special connection.

Winterreise applause

Is it easier to do some kinds of music (vocal versus instrumental) or composers and styles (Baroque versus Romantic or Modern) than others? Which ones?

PR: We have had the easiest time with the famous works of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf. Some of the more rewarding performances have been of the works of some lesser-known composers or of works by famous people that are not heard as often. Some example are the William Blake songs of Benjamin Britten, the Francois Villon songs of Claude Debussy, some works of Francis Poulenc and Georges Enescu, Ivor Gurney and even Louis Coerne, Louis Spohr, Franz Schreker and Carl Loewe.

MF: There are different challenges in vocal and instrumental accompanying.  In vocal accompanying, you have to deal with and understand the words, poetry, languages, diction and style as well as the technical challenges presented.  The pieces tend to be shorter, but in recital that presents a challenge in itself because each new song is its own universe and there is often no time to gradually arrive there. You will find the same technical and musical challenges that you find in the solo piano repertoire.  Debussy is Debussy.  Brahms is Brahms.

Instrumental music is generally closer to solo piano music in that you don’t have the issues listed above (texts, languages, etc.) and you often have the challenge of playing longer forms such as sonatas — of planning and pacing a performance over a longer trajectory. But again, the challenges depend quite a bit on the composer and the piece and each experience is unique.

piano and violin accompanying

What would you each like to say about what has gone into your upcoming performance of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Song Book”? What are the challenges for each you in relating to each other and best serving the music?

PR: I think we have had a great time getting to know these songs. The level of detail on which Hugo Wolf (below, in a photograph from 1902) works is astonishing. The quick transitions from humorous to serious moods, the sarcastic, snide commentary that is sometimes explicit and sometimes obscure, the quick dynamic and tempo changes as well as the sometime dicey harmonies are what make these songs such a delight.

The technical demands on both singers and pianist are extreme but they are never random. The “Italienisches Liederbuch” is probably the most entertaining and demanding of all the Wolf collections. Luckily for us, it is also the most rewarding for performers and audience.

Hugo Wolf 1902 photo

MF:  Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” encompasses every aspect of human relationships and emotion. It is so incredibly rich on every level. Pianistically, the intense chromaticism presents its own problems –- it is hard to keep track of what key you are in and which accidentals carry through the measure — and there are very, very wide stretches in both hands that have to be either placed between the hands or played as rolled chords.

Most of the songs are quite short (2-3 pages each) and go by so fast that it can be like an emotional roller coaster. Of course, that’s the fun of it as well. There is a lot of humor and reverence and love in these songs, and they certainly are some of the best that the German Lied, or art song, has to offer. It is a privilege beyond words for me to play these pieces with both Julia and Paul, and it has been a complete joy to do so.

What else would you like to say or add from your specific point of view?

PR: I realize that this is a very specialized repertoire that may be intimidating to many concertgoers. Even the title is somewhat confusing. Why are these Italian songs in German? How can this music be relevant for a modern audience? I would encourage anyone who does not know the music of Hugo Wolf to give this music a chance. There is so much beauty, humor and variety that it is worth the time and effort to experience it. (At bottom is a Hugo Wolf sampler in a YouTube video that includes a dozen songs from the “Italian Songbook” sung by baritone Hermann Prey and accompanied by pianist Daniel Barenboim.) 

MF: For the listeners who might come to hear the “Italian Songbook,” I would urge them to really pay attention to the piano parts. Just about every nuance of emotion in the text is presented in the piano writing through tiny harmonic shifts and stunning, sometimes sudden dynamic changes.

Also, I’m playing every piece on the program -– a total of 46 songs — where Paul and Julia get to share the stage (equally divided between them).  It’s a bigger job for me than anyone else!  And … lucky me!

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Classical music Q&A: The Annals of Accompanying, Part 1 of 2. The Ear talks with baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, about the challenges of accompanying in their joint FREE performance this Wednesday night of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook.”

March 24, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer have been performing song and song cycles together for almost two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Some performances, like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” have even been published and recorded in book-and-CD format (bel0w) that also features moody theme-related, black-and-white photographs by the Madison-based photographer and violist Katrin Talbot and a foreword by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison.

Winterreise UW Press

Fischer, who teaches Collaborative Piano at the UW-Madison, has also accompanied countless instrumentalists.

This Wednesday night, March 26, Rowe and Fischer will give a FREE performance of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook” at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

To The Ear, it seemed like the perfect occasion to explore the complexities of accompanying and of musical collaboration. The two musicians (below left and center with UW alumna Julia Foster, right, who teaches voice at Rollins College and will join in the singing of the Wolf songs) generously agreed to respond to the same questions. Those questions and their answers will be featured today and tomorrow on this blog.

Paul Rowe, Martha Fischer and Julia Foster 1

Why is “accompanying” now referred to as “collaboration”? What distinction is one trying to make? What would you like the audience to listen for and hear in an exemplary collaboration?

PAUL ROWE: To me, this is all in the interest of equal billing for equal participation.

In the past the singer was often the “star,” who hired a pianist to play for them. This started to change in some cases as far back as the 1840s when Felix Mendelssohn and then Johannes Brahms played with selected singers in salons and concert halls. They would do what we now call recitals and might feature music by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann or Brahms or Mendelssohn.

The first of the great modern collaborators was Gerald Moore (below in 1967, seated, with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the left, and also at the bottom in a 1957 YouTube video that celebrates spring with two songs by Franz Schubert). Moore joined many of the great post World War II recitalists including Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Fritz Wunderlich, Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in many performances.

Other great pianists who also collaborated since that time have included Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Swallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Benjamin Britten and Mstislav Rostropovich. The next generation included Graham Johnson, Harmut Höll, Jorg Demus and many others. All of these great pianists deserve equal billing with the singers or other musicians.

MARTHA FISCHER: When thinking about the specialty of “pianists-who-prefer-playing-with-others,” Collaborative Piano is a more inclusive term.  It refers to all of the many possibilities of collaboration – duos, trios, larger chamber works, piano-four-hands, two pianos, accompanying choirs, playing as orchestral pianists or with wind ensembles, etc.

This is the explanation from a purely practical standpoint.  But in addition to that, there is the fact that over time “accompanying” had come to have a pejorative connotation — that “those who can’t really play SOLO piano become accompanists.”  In more recent years, I believe that we (including pianists, by the way) have come to understand that it is an art in and of itself that deserves the same respect as any other kind of music-making.

I usually have a whole class in my undergraduate accompanying course where I talk to the students about the importance of approaching their collaborative repertoire with the same kind of integrity that they do their solo repertoire.

If we, as pianists, think of it as “just accompanying” — as a lesser experience — then we are perpetuating the stereotype that accompanists are good sight-readers who should stay in the background and be nothing more than pretty wallpaper to the soloist’s great artistry.

If we as pianists bring all we have to offer to the table and are as prepared (or more so) than our partners, then we play in a way that demands respect.  And that’s where it should all begin.

dietrich fischer- dieskau and gerald moore in 1967

Historically or on the contemporary scene, are there great collaborations that you admire and view as role models?

PR: I would have to rate the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Gerald Moore (below) and Peter Pears/Benjamin Britten duos as among the most influential for me. Also, Pierre Bernac/Francis Poulenc and Gerard Souzay/Dalton Baldwin rank very high.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore 1

MF: Some of the greatest collaborations between singers and pianists?  They include Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (below), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the great Gerald Moore (Fischer-Dieskau collaborated with many pianists, among them being Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Sviatoslav Richter and others; and Gerald Moore collaborated with virtually every great singer in the mid-20th century, but Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore’s collaborations are still very special). And then there’s Francis Poulenc and Pierre Bernac!

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten

Today, I often look to the British pianist, Graham Johnson (below top), who created “The Songmakers’ Almanac,” a group of singers who would do projects of art songs and specially designed programs. (He has done HUGE recording projects for the Hyperion label including the complete Schubert songs, the complete Brahms, Schumann, etc.).

Graham Johnson is also a gifted writer about music and I absolutely love his extensive notes on every song he has recorded. His writing gives us a glimpse into the detailed scholarship, creativity, and imagination that he possesses as an artist (In fact, I have especially enjoyed reading his notes on Wolf’s “Italian Songbook”!) In America, pianist Steven Bleier (below bottom), who teaches at the Julliard School and who played at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, has put together The New York Festival of Song that does similar song-related concerts on special topics or composers.

Graham Johnson at piano

There are many other great accompanists today, all of whom I see as role models: Malcolm Martineau, Roger Vignoles, Helmut Deutsch, Justus Zehen, Julius Drake, Craig Rutenberg, Warren Jones and Martin Katz, just to name a few.

steven bleier

TOMORROW: What qualities make for a great accompanist or collaborator? What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of working together? Are some styles of music easier to accompany? And what makes Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” special?

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