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California Pianist Celebrates American Music
Pianist Rebecca Bogart Releases American Retrospective CD
By Marion Fay
(more articles from this author)
2004-11-15
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"What makes American classical music sound American?” San Francisco Bay Area pianist Rebecca Bogart posed this intriguing question after being invited by the Gualala Arts Concert Series in California to give a solo piano concert in July 2000 that would feature native-born composers. Embarking on a sustained study of the genre, Ms Bogart, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, found some definite answers. “Energetic, multi-cultural, optimistic, and full of natural dignity, American music” she concluded, “especially its harmonic and rhythmic vitality, expresses what is best about life in our free society.” A winner of top honors at the Pacific International, the Carmel Music Society, and Italy’s Ibla International piano competitions, among others, Ms Bogart admits that she once neglected American music, preferring to play works by mainstream composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, and Berg.

In fact, in 1987, Ms. Bogart gave the San Francisco premiere of Alban Berg’s “Twelve Variations on an Original Theme.” Now, however, she has become a prominent advocate of American music both as a superb artist and as a poised, knowledgeable spokesperson at her concerts. In a recent solo recital at San Francisco’s Old First Church, Bogart presented the eminent composers Copland and Gershwin, but also several significant yet forgotten musical figures, Richard Hoffman (1831-1909) and Zez Confrey (1895-1971). In its review of the concert, San Francisco Classical Voice paid tribute to Bogart’s “elegant” and “powerful” playing as well as to her “ thoughtful and engaging synopsis of the evolution of American musical sound.” But many people, she realized, have long thought of American music as either rock ‘n roll or as a dissonant, listener-unfriendly classical style.“

“These beliefs, along with a type of inferiority complex that assumes the superiority of European music, have allowed us,” Bogart points out, “to ignore the vast repertoire of beautiful, melodic, yet serious American music.” Her study of native-born composers began at the University of California, Berkeley, Music Library where Bogart checked out so many piano scores that she was compelled to bring a suitcase to carry them home. Certain that culturally valuable pieces lay hidden amid this plethora of musical scores, many of which appeared to have never been opened, she began to sight-read through her findings to make an assessment of each piece’s strengths and weaknesses. After a month, she concluded that if the first four measures were not memorable, the rest of the piece was not likely to be either.

Bogart’s idea for an historical survey of American instrumental music—and her understanding of the distinctive qualities that characterize an American style—emerged during the sight-reading the process. One of her most exciting finds was “Valse Brillante” by a woman pianist and composer, Manna Zucca, the stage name for Gizella Zuckerman (1885-1981). Recorded on Bogart’s solo CD, American Retrospective - , this cheerful dance “celebrates the unbridled and optimistic future that so many people envisioned in the early 20th century.” This feeling, Bogart explains, is expressed melodically as well as in a fast and flashy cadenza that starts slowly and then, in alternating octaves, “reaches to the heights in sound and tempo.”

Audiences, including young listeners, welcome the opportunity to hear American music, Bogart discovered, “because it speaks to them directly and with authenticity about our own culture.” This experience is particularly significant post-9/11, when patriotism and national pride, as she observes, “have been given an almost entirely political meaning.” But American music, Bogart believes, “gives us a deeper sense of what it means to live here, in this geographical place, and to have our own history. When we listen to our music, we hear pioneers whose innovations represent an American sense of freedom.”

Not bound by a long, stable tradition, American composers mix styles and genres in ways that express cultural openness and diversity. John Paine (1839-1906), whose music Bogart has recorded, studied in Germany and served as a Professor in the Music Department at Harvard University, but he also wrote “Fuga Giocosa,” commenting on the sport of baseball. “Over the fence is out, boys,” it proclaims, making people listen and laugh when they hear a baseball tune combined with a fugue in the style of Bach. African-American composers, such as Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), have put the syncopated rhythms of African music on the piano, a distinctly Western instrument.

Their joyful creations, including Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag,” which is also recorded on Bogart’s CD, underlie a revolution in American music, the birth of jazz and, later, of rock ‘n roll. The American Retrospective CD captures the very essence of such innovative composers as well as revealing Bogart’s virtuosic piano performances. The musical gems she collected for the disc cover the period from the 1880s to 1940 and represent 13 composers, among them George Gershwin, Amy Beach, and Morton Gould, along with Joplin, Dett, Paine, and Manna Zucca. Gould’s “Boogie Woogie Etude” concludes this charming, and sometimes even zany, debut album.

“The ‘Boogie Woogie Etude’ is absolutely the most fantastic finale to a CD that I’ve ever heard,” a 12-year old fan of American Retrospective enthused. Bogart has “technique to burn,” and her “message speaks to the heart,” the California Music Teacher quarterly announced in its review of the CD: “ I love these pieces,” her music proclaims, “ and I want to share them with you.” Listeners agree. “The performance is sparkling and superb, California piano teacher Susanne Stolcke, reported; “one hears Rebecca Bogart’s joy and deep soul behind each piece.”

Prompted by the enthusiasm and delight that has greeted her musical presentations, Bogart formed the Pacific Piano Trio with violinist Michael Yokas, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, and cellist Gretchen Egen, who holds a Master’s Degree from the San Francisco Conservatory. Dedicated to the performance of the American classical music repertoire, the Trio’s early programs focused on musical pioneers such as Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, while also including selections from Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha” and Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” in transcription praised for its “passion and brilliance” by the Gualala Independent Coast Observer. The Pacific Piano Trio decided to undertake a further exploration of the repertoire, ultimately sight-reading some 300 trios by American composers before selecting specific pieces by Arthur Foote (1853-1937) and Robert Muczynski (1929- ), for example, to study and present in concert. In Foote’s Trio No. 2, Op. 65, dated 1907-1908, Bogart and her colleagues discovered gorgeous melodies expressed in dialogues between players reminiscent of the style of Brahms. They also found highly original accompaniments intimating a sense of space and new frontiers. In Muczynski’s Third Piano Trio, Op. 46, completed in 1987, they found “jazzy” textures and harmonies in a thoroughly American style.

The Redwood Coast Educational Foundation awarded the Trio a grant in 2001 to develop a music-in-the-schools program. At Bogart’s suggestion, the presentation was named “American Music is the Music of Many Cultures Combined.” This engaging program incorporated a variety of pieces written by American composers whose work had been significantly influenced by musical traditions from many cultures. The Pacific Piano Trio, one of the few ensembles recognized for its commemoration of an entire range of classical American musical styles and history, performs in a wide variety of venues and its members serve as coaches for chamber music workshops.

In the Spring of 2004, the Trio presented the works of Arthur Foote and Robert Muczynski in a well-received concert at San Francisco’s Old First Church. Music historians believe that this performance of the Foote’s Trio No. 2 was probably the first time the work had been presented in the Bay Area since 1911, when the composer himself was at the piano. The “jazzy” and direct style of Muczynski’s Third Piano Trio “seems to picture the wild, majestic landscape of the great West,” as one audience member described it. “I was moved to tears by the second part,” another listener said. “The piece felt so brave and hopeful.” And the Foote Trio, “elegant and gorgeous,” someone else noted, “shows the composer’s freedom to combine the ‘old’ with the ‘new’ musical spirit of America.” These audience responses echo Rebecca Bogart’s own thoughts about the American classical repertoire. “This music” as she puts it, “is in no way inferior to any other style. Confident, and equal in beauty to the compositions of the European masters, it gives voice to the emotional warmth and directness so characteristic of American people.”


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