by Mike Telin

AUERBACH-LeraThe Cleveland Institute of Music will take a different approach to its Mixon Masters Series this season. “Return of the Composer/Virtuoso” will bring performing composers to the Mixon stage in 2013-2014, beginning with Russian-born composer-pianist Lera Auerbach on Tuesday, September 17 at 8:00 pm. Auerbach will perform her 24 Preludes and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on her Cleveland debut recital.

The preludes are personally important to her. “I have always loved cycles of 24 preludes”, Auerbach said in a telephone conversation from Berlin. “I have studied and played many of them like Chopin, Scriabin and of course Bach. I always knew that one day I would be writing my own 24 preludes but I didn’t anticipate what would happen. I had such a great time writing the piece. It gave me a canvas to explore — there are so many possibilities. It was such a fantastic journey to take that when I finished writing the 24 preludes for piano I just couldn’t stop! I couldn’t believe it was over and there were no more preludes to write.”

As it turned out, Auerbach didn’t quit after those 24 but immediately began writing another two dozen for violin and piano. “But after I finished those I was still hungry for more so I decided to keep on going and I wrote 24 for cello and piano.” She says they are all very different and not at all related to each other, but in some ways there is a hidden relationship between the cycles which is not obvious but exists in the dialogue between the cycles. “I basically wrote 72 preludes in one year and they became the foundation. It was an important experience for me to go through that and it has influenced a lot of what came later.”

What came later has included a flood of commissions and worldwide premieres including — to name a few — the full-length ballets The Little Mermaid, Shine a Light, Watch Her, Don Juan, Momo, Take Your Time and Cinderella. The Tokyo String Quartet commissioned her sixth quartet for their farewell tour, and a new viola and piano work will be toured by Kim Kashkashian and Auerbach. Her full-scale opera, Gogol, was commissioned by Vienna’s Theater an der Wein, and her a cappella opera, The Blind was premiered by the Berliner Kammeroper and Vocalconsort Berlin.

Born in Chelyabinsk on the border of Siberia, Lera Auerbach wrote her first opera at the age of twelve. Following a concert tour to the U.S. In 1991, she remained in New York to study piano and composition at Juilliard. She is fascinated by the concept of the composer-performer.

One helps the other, but it is an ingrained tradition and it was really only in the second part of the 20th century when this tradition was broken. I think right now we are in a time when it is beginning to happen again. But of course balancing your time is very difficult. Both professions are related but they do demand very different life styles so it is a lovehate relationship. But I have accepted that this is how it is and I am still in the process of discovering what balance is the one that will be manageable for me.”

Balancing is a real feat for someone of Lena Auerbach’s wide-ranging interests, which also include the literary and visual arts. “I grew up in a library in a way. My parents always had a lot of books and we were a reading family. When we spent time together we would read a book aloud. So books have always been with me and I am surrounded by them. They seem to multiply wherever I am. The literary career has always been an important part of my daily existence and of course this is another balancing act problem. But I find that it actually helps me because I think I would find it very frustrating to concentrate only on music. And it allows me to express certain things that I would not be able to in other parts of my life.”

Visual art also puts its demands on Auerbach’s attention. “When I was a child whenever somebody would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say a painter. But pretty quickly my musical studies took over. I have been drawing all of my life and I have always studied. We had a large collection of art books and I would always go the museums but I never really studied. But then three years ago I had a fire in my New York studio. It was rather devastating because everything was ruined and it was one of those moments in life when you have to stop and rethink.”

When this happened, one of the thoughts I had was to revisit my childhood dreams and what I realized was that most of those dreams had been realized in a much more beautiful way then I could ever have imagined — except for one, which was to be a painter. So during that year when my studio was being repaired, between concerts and during tours I was staying in artist colonies. I was in New Mexico in an artist colony and I said to myself, I am here and surrounded by visual artists, why don’t I just ask them to teach me? Why don’t I just give it a chance, what do I have to lose? Beside I just want to have fun with it. The artists who were there were very happy to show me how to use oil paints and to explain to what a good brush is and how to buy a canvas. I really didn’t know anything.”

So I started painting there and it was pretty much like therapy for me while going through that difficult time. It really did help me and I also started to create works that related to the music I was writing. For example, at the time I was working on my opera so I created an entire series of works that are directly associated with the opera, portraits of characters or different scenes. And that allowed me to have a very fresh and unexpected perspective from a different point of view. It did help me to get through that time. So unexpectedly it developed into yet one more passion that fights for time but I know that when I am painting I know that I am doing well within myself.”

Perhaps her fascination with visual art explains Auerbach’s other repertory choice for her Mixon Hall recital, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. “Pictures is one of my favorite pieces. There is so much that I love about the piece. I think that Mussorgsky was so much ahead of his time and the work has been so influential to the entire twentieth century. Another phenomenal thing about the piece is that I don’t think there is any other work that has inspired so many composers to create transcriptions. I think in all there are more then fifty. You can finding everything from a contra-bass ensemble to electronic music and everything in between. There is an incredible energy in the piece that touches our imagination. It has the ability to engage listeners’ imagination.”

I like it on the piano more then any of the arrangements or orchestrations because I think the piano is an imaginary orchestra. And a good piano sound is one that engages the listener in imagining violins or flutes — so the piano is the ultimate orchestra. So this is my approach to my interpretation, to bring this imaginary orchestra. And I approach it from the position of the performers of the 19th century; with a degree of liberty that I think is appropriate for this piece.”

Published on September 10, 2013

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