by Mike Telin
Winner of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence and Professor at the Curtis Institute of Music, pianist Michelle Cann returns to Cleveland on Thursday, August 11 for a 7:30 pm performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall. Presented as part of PianoDays @CLE, her program features works by Chopin, Brahms, Clara Schumann, Florence Price, and Margaret Bonds. Purchase tickets here.
Cann made her orchestral debut at age fourteen and has since performed as a soloist with numerous orchestras including The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
A champion of the music of Florence Price, she performed the New York City premiere of the composer’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with The Dream Unfinished Orchestra in July 2016 and the Philadelphia premiere with The Philadelphia Orchestra in February 2021.
During a recent telephone conversation, Cann, who is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, said, “It’s always nice to be back in a city that meant so much to me in the development of my career. I began our conversation by asking about her unique approach to programming.
Michelle Cann: It’s important to me to not only be a performer but also a teacher — that is who I am as a person, I am a performer and a teacher. I think this approach is something that audiences want — they want to connect to the artists and they also want to feel connected to your program.
Some will say that you need to pick popular pieces — don’t do an all-modern program because people don’t want that.
It doesn’t hurt to present pieces that people recognize, but even if you do include pieces that people don’t know — it is important to think about how to present them. How can you speak in an audience in a way that pulls them into the story of the piece and of the composer? And as soon as someone connects to you, the piece, and the composer, the way they experience the performance is completely changed.
They are already in a state of excitement and curiosity. They are also able to absorb everything in a way that is memorable.
Mike Telin: Is the same true for standard repertoire: pieces that most people are familiar with?
MC: You can always bring a new perspective to an old piece. We don’t keep going to concerts of Beethoven symphonies because we want to hear the same performance over and over. We keep going because it’s wonderful music. And I’m trying to enhance that experience for them by bringing a new perspective to an old piece or teaching them something about a piece they’ve never heard before.
MT: You’re beginning with two Ballades, No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 by Chopin No. 2 in D major, Op. 10 by Brahms.
MC: I did that on purpose because Chopin approached his ballades in a completely different way than Brahms did.
Chopin’s are more like a novel — there’s a lot of development in the story. Whereas the Brahms is more like a poem. Yet they both gave their pieces the title Ballade, which is a story — and there are different ways to tell a story.
Chopin and Brahms are the only male composers and perhaps the most recognizable names on the program.
MT: The rest of the works on the program are by women composers. How do they connect to Chopin and Brahms?
MC: I’m sure people in Cleveland know that I am a huge advocate for Florence Price — but the thing I love about her music is that she was a composer who borrowed from all the musical influences within her lifetime and somehow put them all on the same page.
She loved romantic repertoire and you can hear many references to Chopin and Brahms throughout her Sonata in e.
You also hear her connection to her roots, and when you see how she takes elements of American music, Black American music, and Romantic music and weaves them into the same place on the same piece, it’s is not something we would expect. Price’s music is fascinating and it works very well after Chopin and Brahms.
MT: How do Clara Schumann’s Four Pièces Fugitives fit into the program?
MC: The Brahms and her fugitives were written around the same time. But the important thing was the friendship between Brahms and Clara Schumann.
Their closeness was so important to her development as a composer. Brahms and Robert both looked to Clara for advice. If you look at a lot of their scores you will see that she is the editor. And Brahms dedicated pieces to her.
And as much as Florence Price had issues that stemmed from being a woman, so did Clara. Florence Price was not only dealing with being a woman composer but also a Black woman. And while Clara didn’t deal with the racial issue, she did have to deal with the fact that at that time, women were not supposed to be composers.
MT: Tell me about Price’s Fantasie Nègre.
MC: There’s a cool story about that piece but I’ll save it until the performance.
I’m ending the program with Margaret Bonds’ Troubled Water not only because of its great energy, but because Florence Price and Margaret Bonds were best friends.
I say best friends but it all started because Price was the teacher and a mentor of Bonds — they met when Price moved to Chicago. But Bonds went on to premiere and perform many of Price’s works, and they had a close relationship until Price’s death.
MT: I can feel your excitement for this program — I can’t wait to hear it.
MC: I live to teach and perform. And I don’t mind public speaking — actually, I’m less nervous because when I talk to the audience I am breaking that fourth wall that performers see from the stage.
That wall creates a “me against the audience” situation; they are judging me — I’m up here on my own — and I hope I don’t mess up.
I always tell my students that the wall does not have to exist and it’s much better when it doesn’t.
MT: How do you teach someone to break that wall?
MC: For some it is quite difficult. I like to think that I am presenting students with an alternative way of thinking. But for someone to do it they must be willing to get out of their comfort zone. And that’s something that not everyone is going to immediately be comfortable with.
I’ve taught a course at Curtis in which for the final the students have to not only perform a piece, they also have to speak about it to the class before they play it.
It was interesting to see the number of them who were uncomfortable breaking the barrier and that was something I was surprised by. But it is public speaking and I do understand that not everyone has the same level of comfort doing that.
MT: Classical music as an industry has always been a bit slow at embracing change.
MC: When you look at the pop world, the jazz world, or what have you, all of them are embracing change. I find that people in the classical world are sometimes stuck with a “this is the way that we’ve always done it,” mindset. But audiences are changing, and the way we all consume music is also changing. And if you want to participate in the field as a performer and want to build audiences, you have to be willing to come out of your comfort zone in some way.
I see my concerts as teaching opportunities and maybe speaking isn’t what everyone should do. I know people who incorporate media into their performances and I know people who use cross-genre collaborations like a poet. So maybe you’re not the speaker, maybe you ask a storyteller to join you and why not bring different artistic worlds together.
That’s kind of what I do with students. And I think it is important for teachers to present alternative ways of thinking and presenting.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com August 6, 2022.
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