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Jonathan DePeri and Asiya Korepanova: Double interview on Manfred Symphony and Gotham Arts.

[Watch above as a video or read as a text below]

[Jonathan] Hi, I'm Jonathan DePeri, founder and artistic director of Gotham Arts. It's my distinct pleasure to be able to present the world premiere of Asiya's Manfred Symphony transcription for solo piano this Sunday, January 29, 2023, in my home.

You know, Asiya and I thought in leading up to this unusual and remarkable premiere, that it would be lovely and helpful and educational for audiences to sit down for a few minutes and talk about the origin, genesis of this work and its context in her career as well as the context of a premiere like this for solo piano, and what my goals are and what my focus is in my recital series that I've been hosting for a few years now.

[Asiya] Hi Jonathan! {smiles excitedly}

[Jonathan] So let's start Asiya - maybe with, as I said, the origins of this. If I'm not mistaken, it's been your dream since childhood or at least very early to play Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony alone on the piano. I was wondering how you arrived at this inspiration in the beginning, you know what gave you that idea? What led you to meet that challenge at this particular point in your career? I know this year you have a huge amount of repertoire that you're performing in public - Liszt's 24 Etudes, the complete solo piano works of Rachmaninoff, and at this moment you're premiering your own transcription of another great Russian composer's magnificent and arguably underappreciated symphony. So, that's a huge intriguing and captivating amount of work, so just why now, and why Manfred?

[Asiya] Manfred Symphony has been one of the earliest major symphonic works that I heard as a little child. I grew up in a family of musicians - my father is a composer, my mother is a pianist. And my father was always extensively listening to a lot of different LPs at the time. And there was something about Manfred Symphony that touched me very early, and so I remember being attached to this music for probably as long as I remember myself. And I also remember at first asking my parents "Can you please put this LP on?" and you know, putting the dust away with the little brush, and all the peculiarities of dealing with LP disks, and really enjoying the process of listening to that. And then once I got a little bit older, I was probably maybe six, I was already able to, you know, get myself on a chair and get to the LP player and just play it for myself, by myself. And I ruined our Manfred Symphony LP record because I played it so much, and it became unusable.

But the love for this piece stayed with me through my entire life as I was obviously learning more Tchaikovsky on the piano and more Tchaikovsky as an author of major works. And it has been always in a sense a symbol of my childhood, this very very special work that you can't really describe what it is because there are so many aspects, and so many memories from your early childhood that link to this music, and enhance this music, and make it very personal. And there is no one else's Manfred that can be mine, because I just input my personality into the memories of this music that became interweaved in so many different ways.

And I never really thought to create a piano transcription of it when I was little and when I was growing up. First of all, that thought did not occur to me then. It was awhile since I got familiar with Liszt, Berlioz, Beethoven, and all these symphonic transcriptions. And so an idea to transcribe it arrived after I started transcribing period, and not even in the beginning of that either. So I wrote multiple transcriptions of the small works, and I did Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata, and then I did Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss - which was an absolutely insane idea, and involved figuring out certain techniques on piano to substitute the lack of hands and things like that - and after doing all that there was really a lightbulb moment, like "Ah! Shall I try?"- almost this shy thought that comes in and it's like "Oh, I have some experience now, maybe I can try this!" The idea came in 2019. So, this was the moment when I felt "I'm approaching this. I am doing this." And the actual work started in the beginning of 2020, actually when the pandemic hit and the first shutdown of everything occurred - that's when I started writing the first measures of it.

But it's been such a pleasure and such a pain at the same time because, as you said, Manfred Symphony is underappreciated and one of the reasons is that it is very difficult. It is a true concerto for the orchestra. It asks for a large amount of instrumentation. It asks for almost soloing players within this piece. There are so many difficult parts for all the woodwind and brass and everything. Just the scale of it is very big, and I just hope in my dreams...You know, I'm sure Liszt's dream was to get people familiar with the works that they otherwise would not have heard, because as he traveled he was able to play his transcriptions of so many major works, and Schubert's transcriptions, for instance, for people that have never heard them before. I'm just hoping to put a little piano spotlight on that work.

[Jonathan] And we're very lucky that you have done so, and come up with the doubtless ingenious and demanding, and my favorite term, "death-defying" piece involved and actually executing such a vision. It's really going to be extraordinary for sure.

[Asiya] My turn now. What I wanted to ask you is actually a very simple question, but also a profound one. As somebody who is a pianist yourself, and a supporter of the arts and everything: What was your initial idea of hosting concerts in your house and opening your doors to people from different walks of life and doing different programs. What was the initial spark to do that?

[Jonathan] Well for me, I think a few impulses that are perhaps very 19th-century in nature. As I think in many ways the pinnacle, the ideal of pianism, what I think it is, is in a way 19th-century, late 19th-century, early 20th century, that kind of a thing. First of all the home as a gathering place for communion in art and society, for the creation of a community. That is not an institution per se, but like a society or a willful, voluntary affiliation of individuals with a common purpose - in this case specifically to celebrate and value and explore and appreciate classical music, especially the repertoire for solo piano. I think that's something that in and of itself is not commonplace nowadays.

But within that, aside from this sort of temple and community to music, that for me in a way the home represents and which I try to achieve with my series - what kind of focus and what kind of emphasis and values musically am I aiming for? And I think the way I tend to put it to people is that I want...first of all, the emphasis is to serve artists and the creation of their art. The actual genesis was back six years ago in 2016 when a dear pianist friend wanted to perform repertoire that he was well-versed in, but that he was going to be playing on tour for the first time in awhile after being involved in many other things. That, and pianists who have new repertoire they've never performed in public before, or new types of repertoire. I had a friend who is trained both in classical and jazz piano, but who when taking on something new in the classical realm, which is not his main focus nowadays - it's a whole difference experience to play that before an audience, and when it's new repertoire you need to have kind of a dry run with a serious audience. And the intensity that you've spoken of yourself in a salon or a concert in a home is very different from being onstage, right.

[Asiya] It's more intimate.

[Jonathan] So there's that serving the artist, but then with what kind of music? You know there are many artists doing lots of worthy work. But it comes back to that kind of grand ideal of pianism which I described as 19th-century, which is epitomized by pianist composers such as Franz Liszt, right, with his many etudes you are playing next month in a big debut in New York City. There's that kind of Franz Liszt idea of pianism, the pianist composer, also the dramatist, the storyteller, the poet, the huge scale of expression that is in these sometimes Byronic romantic works, like Liszt has in his own Vallée d'Obermann, and like Manfred -

[Asiya] And Manfred is quite literally a Byronic work!

[Jonathan] Yes, exactly. This kind of ideal, this ethos, which I think happens to suit you very much by the way as well, in the way that you interpret music through your artwork, the way you personalize your interpretations. I believe that this resonates a lot specifically as an artist, and it's not true for everybody, but it's there, and so maybe that's no mystery at all why you would arrive naturally at something like Manfred for solo piano. It's actually very fitting when one looks at your other pursuits and how you actually go about them in all of the arts, even the visual arts, and how you talk about it, when I think back on your career and our interactions, right? So to me that is what is the most elusive nowadays.

And you know, I do describe in a short form that what I want to present is what you ought to be hearing at Carnegie Hall. But in fact often it's something a lot less mainstream with not necessarily as wide of an appeal, and many times those are some of the best things I find in pianism. They aren't the things that everybody equally easily understands or appreciates. They are something that might overwhelm you the first time, and I want also the people who are less versed in the piano repertoire to be able to experience that as well in a welcoming environment.

So it's that grand depth and scale of pianism but with poetic concentration, poetic intimacy, which is facilitated by the kind of home environment, I think. That really is unique, and it's not something you can get just going to the concert hall. It's not the same. As much as I love it, it's not the same experience, and I ultimately am guided by what I want to hear and what I want to feel. And recreating that night after night in my recital series, I know it when I feel it, that's how music is for me. And I can explain it after the fact and try to explain it before the fact, but I know it's been successful for me when I feel a certain way about it artistically, emotionally, and spiritually.

[Asiya] That's very cool.

[Jonathan] Along those lines, actually I brought into the discussion Franz Liszt, and he actually founded, as you alluded to, the art of solo piano transcription of symphonic repertoire with his transcription of the nine Beethoven symphonies. Remembering in Alan Walker's biography of Liszt how he pretty much was despairing - I believe in letters probably to his publisher - when he was faced with the task of setting the choral finale. And the resources of the piano, even for his genius, after all of the eight symphonies prior, the resources of the piano were becoming exhausted by the task of setting this choral symphony. I'm sure that, knowing and loving Manfred Symphony myself, and having heard orchestras struggle with it, that you faced obstacles as well, presented by the material Tchaikovsky gives - obstacles for execution on the piano, for coloristic and poetic interpretation, for telling the story in the way that you want to be able to project it. I'm wondering what those were for you and how you overcame them.

[Asiya] Well, there is always a struggle when you transcribe a symphonic work, just because you need to put material played by 80 people into your two hands, and the more complex the writing is, the more polyphonic it is, the more struggles it brings as you are faced with the inevitable need to make priorities and cut certain things out, and that is the main pain because you need to preserve the sense of the whole - the building of the harmony, or the texture, or certain specific motions that many instruments playing together create. And you need to recreate the same effect, whatever that effect is, with less means. You're like, low on your budget, so to speak. There were multiple moments in the symphony, in every movement there was something that stopped me. There was one stop of four and a half months where I was just like "No, this is not working. It's not working!" Eventually I was able to find workarounds and see other options that I wasn't able to see right away, and that said, the finished product will be played in six days.

But it is an incredible mind work and I love it, it is solving a quest almost blindfoldedly, it feels like at times. I've experienced similar struggles with Ein Heldenleben for sure, and with some moments in other works, but what makes Tchaikovsky different from other transcription projects is if you think about it, Tchaikovsky was writing so-called "Claviers". He was somebody who would write first a piano rendition type of material, and then orchestrate it. Which means he worked a lot on the piano. And I think that makes a lot of sense when you are dealing with de-orchestrating it back. A lot of things feel idiomatic - not everything, but a lot of things do not feel like Richard Strauss' work, where you feel this is not a piano type of writing at all. Tchaikovsky has that sense. So, that was very helpful. Things sound good on the piano, which also sort of reconstructs sort of a process for you, because he might have tried or was envisioning it on the piano first and liked it and proceeded from that. To the point even that long, sustained chords do not sound dead if they are sustained for a long time at a slow tempo. They have their ambiance, they have their life, and you don't feel compelled to put a tremolo or something else in order to keep the sense of process going. In that regard, it was a very lucky work of his.

[Jonathan] That's very interesting, this idea of the mapping of the pianistic concept or conception, you know, organization in a way implicitly even to the orchestra, and then you reverse-engineer it back, in a way. You're able to retrieve that information sort of the way he thought as a composer. It had a pianism, an idiomatic nature which isn't lost even with this amazing orchestration, which you talked about, and a very demanding one.

[Asiya] Would you tell me - because I know you are educated in piano performance, and at some point you added other things to your professional life - and I wanted to know what role piano playing has in your life today, what it means for you, and whether you have any particular desires or plans about it?

[Jonathan] A great scholar and dean of pianism not long ago told me that those students of his that left behind piano as their career and profession were haunted by it, and I told him in response that indeed I recognized in a way that to have an artist's temperament, to be an artist at heart, and to leave behind the arts as one's main full-time focused pursuit in life is a Faustian bargain of sorts. Which he, being of that spirit, understood the concept of it and I think it's . That means that unlike Faust, there is redemption in art still and in the inspiration from art, that I seek to make an active and present part of my life, that I very much could never sell away, could never sell out, but actually make a huge spiritual focus - as much really as any pursuit, perhaps more because of the spirituality and depth of importance art has to me philosophically.

And finding inspiration in the work of brilliant musicians like yourself is such a big part to me of what life is about, and the joy of artistic exploration and discovery is something that I believe all human beings from earliest childhood, from prior to birth actually, can benefit so tremendously from. It's a part of being human. And for me, it's absolutely indispensable. So to be able to devote some of my home part time as a temple to the celebration of music, really as a spiritual, humanistic rite and ritual - but to say it as a rite and ritual makes it sound formulaic - but it's something always ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-new. So it's not something that has a script to it, but it's guided by values, it's guided by the resonance of what feels meaningful artistically and artistic and aesthetic values - which I find it a great privilege that I am focused on those, and I am focused on it for inspiration in those terms that I can make my decisions from the standpoint of curation, from the standpoint of presentation, along exclusively (or as exclusively as possible) on artist grounds and based on artistic values, and based on the value of what I think the musician has to offer with the given repertoire.

[Asiya] That's beautiful.

[Jonathan] We were talking about kind of the specific challenges in the transcription of a work like Manfred, a symphonic work for large orchestra, and I'd just like to briefly extend that a little bit for those whom may be particularly interested in the details. Is there something unique in this transcription? You know you alluded to challenges with texture and orchestral nature of writing and something like Ein Heldenleben, and you know one could imagine challenges of polyphony and multiple melodic lines in something like Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata, in transcribing that. What were the actual things about this project that were different, kind of in a way that maybe you felt you grew from creating this work in a way that was different from the other transcriptions you've done?

[Asiya] Well definitely I arrived to making this one with a baggage, with the luggage of a number of others. It is safe to say that each next one goes easier, and by easier I do not mean "Ah! It's just easy peasy for me!" I just mean that the decisions that you need to make - creative decisions, ideas about figurations and how to go about them - they come quicker and you go about this maybe with less stops, even though as I mentioned I had a few major stops in this work.

But in this particular transcription, I didn't have to really emulate anything to substitute for certain sonority. The transcription type of work that I prefer to do in general (unless we're talking about small, so-called "encore" pieces), I like to stick to the pitches that the composer chose, and I deviate from that only if it is impossible to get a harmony or texture and things like that. And so I'm not paraphrasing anything, primarily. There are some paraphrasing just to cover broader sonorities, but not for the sake of embellishing anything. In that way it is a very pure project, and that makes it very unique. Like I remember I came up with the idea of "fist glissandi" on the black keys for Ein Heldenleben, and it's just like you are practically playing the glissando like this with the [underside] of your fist [and flat forearm], and it's painful but it works. I don't have anything like that in Tchaikovsky, and I'm thankful for that.

[Jonathan] Right like so many things I guess in art, in the craft of art, the toolkit grows as you go on the journey, and it sounds like you approached this - this being one of your most recent large-scale transcriptions - you have a toolkit that you didn't necessarily have a few transcriptions back, right? So we are hearing your craft at its most honed yet. I'm looking forward to it being honed even further.

[Asiya] I have another question regarding whether you have an ideal preference of the repertoire, types of composers that you want to present, and whether there is something that you would like to present that you haven't had before? And what is your artistic vision developing your series going forward?

[Jonathan] While there are more pianists with more access to excellent technical training than ever before, than ever in the history of humankind, which is a great thing, and access to appreciation of pianism and piano music is more readily accessible to people around the world and is more free than it ever was, which is a wonderful thing - I mean I remember when I was growing up playing piano there was no Youtube, I couldn't hear historic recordings from the 20s and stuff of these pianists, I could only hear that stuff after I had formerly left my career in music when Youtube existed and I could get access to these recordings that were not commercially released in many cases.

So we live in a world where everything is accessible, which is a beautiful thing, but puts on us the burden of choice. What music do we want to hear? How do we want to play the piano and teach the piano? And you won't hear as much of this philosophical, introspective, high romantic repertoire in concert halls - I think in Europe, but definitely in the United States - as I kind of wish one might be able to, and maybe that's because something like some very introspective works of Franz Liszt, like I'm thinking of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, for example, which are never performed in a big hall in New York City, where I've lived for almost 20 years now, I don't think ever really. That music, which is based on certain poems, the text of which is important - it brings to mind your idea that you had talked about of the Strauss

, which is an unusual work in that vein, merging very integrally poetry and music, and the very interesting dramatic format - that kind of stuff is very interesting and it does not work well in a mainstream multi-thousand seat concert hall, certainly in the US and New York City in normal circumstances, and probably not in most big capitals where there's a large musical offering.

Where it does work well is in a more salon-like, or more poetry-reading type setting, which is the origin and the concept of recital anyway, which dates from Liszt and his contemporaries, and the idea that to play the piano is like to entone a text, to give a speech in a way; it has that poetic impulse. To me, that's what I don't find on the concert scene, and I don't know that that's really anywhere the way that it deserves to be. And we need more people bringing that out, I think. And that means a certain kind of repertoire, but it certainly means all the great pianist composers, all the great virtuosic repertoire, all the grand-scale repertoire, but it's repertoire that has certain values underlying it, and at the center of which is art and poetic expression for their own sake.

And the culmination in what we have in access to pianism in the 21st-century being used to serve those ends, to serve expressive ends rather than to serve purely materialistic ends in the sense of a performance as achievement or as kind of - I mean as much as the scaling of the mountain is a physical achievement and you're scaling a mountain with Manfred for sure, literally and figuratively perhaps, but it's the expression that is achieved and conveyed to the listener in so-doing that is so important. The effect that it has artistically, the transformative power that that journey, that ordeal has artistically, and its rooting in your own artistic personality and expression that is so important. And that's what sometimes we need to cultivate the right environment to actually bring that out in a way that doesn't always happen in the concert setting nowadays in solo piano recitals.

[Asiya] This certainly sounds very Byronesque.

[Jonathan] Perhaps not coincidentally I guess! Asiya it's been a big pleasure, I've enjoyed this very much, and I think it just makes me more excited about Sunday and more excited about this gigantic year for you pianistically, and I think we're all really looking forward with suspense to Sunday and to your other performances in New York City and around the country and the world this year.

[Asiya] Thank you so much.


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