By Jenny Neyman
Reaching across language barriers can take years of classes and practice, hundreds of dollars for learn-quick software programs or the services of interpreters, however many are needed to access the languages to be reached.
Or you could just listen to the music of Frédéric Chopin.
“He does speak to everybody. I can go to any country in the world, really, and Chopin is the composer who will speak to the most people,” said pianist Piers Lane. “He knew how to write for the piano and to get the most beautiful sound out of the piano — the way he wrote, with the right hand having a singing melody and the left hand supporting it with harmony. He just knew better than anybody else really how to make the piano sing.”
Lane, originally of Australia but based now in London, is touring Alaska representing the Sitka Summer Music Festival, and will play in a Performing Arts Society-sponsored concert with violinist Paul Rosenthal in Soldotna on Monday evening.
The second half of the concert will feature Lane’s get-to-know Chopin presentation. Lane will speak a little about the Romantic-era Polish composer and the pieces being played but, really, the best way to hear about Chopin is to hear from Chopin, through his music. And his “Nocturnes” are a great way to do that. “Nocturnes are night pieces and Chopin’s are some of the greatest ever written,” Lane said. “And I think people love nocturnes. A lot of people remember their mother playing one of them when they were little, and that sort of thing. It’s music that appeals to everybody, and it’s very heartfelt music.”
Chopin was enamored by the nocturne, a single-movement piano piece with a melodic line in the right hand and broken chords supporting the melody in the left. The form was developed by Irish composer John Field but Chopin made it his own, composing 21 nocturnes that are still considered the signature representations of the form. Chopin composed his nocturnes throughout his career, the first when he was still a teenager, the last three years before his death in 1849, when he was just 39. As expressive as they are, the progression provides a sort of road map to the development of Chopin’s musical style.
“They tell the story of Chopin’s life in a way, because he wrote them from his early years right through until he died at the awful old age of 39,” Lane said. “I always say to the audience before the last two late ones, ‘Think back to the early E flat that everybody knows,’ and the change in language is extraordinary. When you think that he was only 39 when he died it really makes you wonder where he would have gone had he lived for another 39 years, because it is a big evolution.”
Lane won’t be playing all 21 — that would take a solid two hours — but he could. He was invited to perform for the Chopin Society of London in 2010, the bicentennial of Chopin’s birth, and Lane suggested the rare feat of performing the nocturnes as a complete set.
“And it was a huge success. They couldn’t believe it because … the place was completely packed to the gills,” Lane said.
The general style of a nocturne is lyrical and melodic with a dreamy quality, hence the description as “night music.” One might wonder how many lullabies, essentially, they could listen to before the music has the expected effect, but that’s not a worry with Chopin’s nocturnes.
“You’d think 21 slow pieces would be incredibly boring but that’s not the case,” Lane said. “It’s a real journey. You go from the beginning to end and you hear the changes of style, and every piece is different. Every one has a slightly different form, and it passes incredibly quickly, actually. And there’s always beauty and interest, so it’s not boring, I can promise.”
He plans to perform nine or 10 nocturnes — some well known, others less so — representing the arc and variety of Chopin’s compositions.
“There will be a reflection of the whole journey,” Lane said. “Some of them are lighter than others. Some of them are very dark. Not all nocturnes are just beautiful dreams, sometimes they’re nightmares, as well. Chopin goes to the heart, doesn’t he? They’re all wonderful music. I adore playing Chopin, he’s probably my favorite composer as a musician.”
The first half of the concert begins with a solo piece from Rosenthal, the founding artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival who has performed several times on the central Kenai Peninsula. He will play two movements from the “Partita No. 1 in B Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach. The piece consists of four pairs of movements, with the first part of each movement setting a theme and its pair offering a variation on it, usually in a faster tempo. Overall it’s considered technically challenging to play, making it thrilling to hear. Rosenthal will perform the last two movements — the “Sarabande” is an expressive, somber-sounding interlude, and the “Bourrée” is a return to the quick, intricate pace of the piece, with a melody embedded in a nonstop waterfall of notes. Rounding out the program is the “Violin ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata No. 9,” by Ludwig van Beethoven.
“That’s one of the great works for violin and piano, sort of a massive piece — very exciting and wonderful for those instruments,” Lane said.
The program makes for an impressive presentation. In a way, Lane feels it’s only fair to give back to the state that’s presented him with so much hospitality. He’s been to Anchorage in 2012 for a fall classics concert, to Sitka in June 2013 for the Sitka Summer Music Festival, and returned for this tour, with performances in Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Soldotna and Sitka.
“It is an extraordinary community, Alaska. I think the people are so open and warm and genuine,” he said.
It might feel a bit odd, sandwiching an Alaska tour amid the rest of his schedule. He was previously in Saint Petersburg, Russia, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, followed by a swing through Texas and New Mexico, and he’ll be playing in Prague next month.
“I do enjoy the life of the concert pianist, because I get to be all over the place. “It’s just wonderful, the variety that one has in one’s life,” Lane said.
Alaska isn’t the sort of variety every worldwide touring musician wants to sign up for, however. When Lane mentioned his Alaska visit to a notable cellist, “I said I’m playing in Alaska at the moment and his reply was, ‘How eccentric.’” But Lane dispels that stigma.
“I think Alaska is a well-kept secret. I think a lot of people think it’s the North Pole — there aren’t Steinway pianos and people who listen to music here. And, of course, that’s totally wrong and it’s wonderful to be able to tell people that,” he said.
There are pianos, and music audiences, and they can be spoken to in Chopin.
Rosenthal and Lane will perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Christ Lutheran Church just up from the “Y” in Soldotna. Tickets are $20 for general admission or $10 for students, available at Northcountry Fair and River City Books in Soldotna, Already Read Books and Country Liquor in Kenai, and at the door.