The many shades of Debussy

Pianist explores the power of Préludes

Pianist Boris Berman has his hands full these days; not only is he practising for his upcoming all-Debussy concert here in Edmonton, as a professor at the Yale School of Music, he's also busy with end-of-semester activities. And, before coming to Edmonton, Berman is off to Virginia to record the complete works of Schumann with another pianist.

The all-Debussy concert, along with the Schumann recording, might suggest that Berman likes to devote attention exclusively to one composer at any given performance, and that's sometimes the case. On the other hand, Berman also enjoys taking two seemingly different composers and performing their works side-by-side, either to highlight their similarities or the differences.

"Sometimes, I really like to juxtapose very different styles, and sometimes, I like to juxtapose different styles and see what they have in common," explains Berman to me over the phone after finishing a lesson with a student.

"Every great composer has more than one side, and different combinations illuminate different sides," he continues. "You put Beethoven next to Bach, it's one thing. You put Beethoven next to Schoenberg, it's another thing. You put Beethoven next to Bartók, it will be still a different thing. These are all very interesting juxtapositions."

Still, in Edmonton, Berman will take the former of the two approaches—his concert focuses just on Debussy's Préludes.
"Sometimes it is very rewarding both for the performer, and I believe for the listener, to spend the whole concert in the world of one composer," he observes. "When you spend a whole concert with one composer, you learn to appreciate all these fine shades."

But Berman also knows how it is to live in a system where everyone might not appreciate fine shades of colour within an individual or an artistic community. As a musician born, raised and educated in Moscow, Berman recalls how the Soviet government handled musicians' education and performances.

"One thing that the Soviet system excelled in was it built the music education [as] very consequential, very continual through from the early to the most advanced stages," he explains. "And this has something to do with the nature of the authoritarian system, when the education is monitored by one authority, and everybody has to follow the same curriculum."

"When I was growing up, I found that the repertory policies very often forbade performing contemporary composers … who dared to experiment. I found it very stifling." V

Tues, May 18 (7:30 pm)
Boris Berman
Muttart Hall, Alberta College, $20 – $30

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