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Erico Elisi is doing a residency this week at Yellow Barn in Putney.

The Arts

Articulating genius

In Yellow Barn residency, pianist Enrico Elisi searches for clues to the composer’s intentions in the music of Bach

PUTNEY—For a recording project to take place in Italy, Italian pianist Enrico Elisi is preparing the Partitas of Bach while in residency at Yellow Barn in Putney.

Created in 2008 by Artistic Director Seth Knopp, Yellow Barn’s Artist Residencies program is the first retreat in the U.S. created specifically for professional performing musicians.

As a culmination of his residency, Elisi will present on this Saturday, May 5, at Next Stage in Putney an evening of Bach, exploring the last of the composer’s keyboard dance suites.

The concert is presented free of charge as a part of Legacy Putney, a 10-day collaborative celebration of Putney history, arts, and culture.

Both a performer and teacher, Enrico Elisi was born in Bologna, Italy, and now lives in Canada where he is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. Elisi performs and teaches widely throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He has received top prizes in the Premio Venezia competition in Italy, and the Oporto International Competition in Portugal.

Notably, he premiered Japanese-American composer Paul Chihara’s work Two Images at Weill Hall, and subsequently recorded the work for Albany Records.

With his busy schedule teaching and performing, Elisi is thrilled to have the opportunity at Yellow Barn for undistracted study.

Elisi writes at the Yellow Barn website, “The life of a performing musician who is simultaneously juggling the many responsibilities of a full-time professorship is hectic. Occasionally, I feel the need for a short escape to find protected time for my practicing and personal studies. When that retreat takes place at Yellow Barn — an idyllic place with studio space in quiet, spacious settings — one feels grateful.”

Nonetheless, as invariably happens with him, Elisi is finding himself quite busy during his “retreat” at Yellow Barn.

“This residency will give me the chance to continue my studies of selected repertoire by J.S. Bach, in preparation for three upcoming solo recitals in China, the U.S., and Italy,” Elisi writes. “In addition, this moment of unique concentration on my work will be of great value for my upcoming CD project on the same subject.”

Also during his stay at Yellow Barn, Elisi will be giving a workshop on Baroque-era dances at The Greenwood School in Putney.

“A workshop is so often better at reaching your audience than a straight lecture because then you are able to interact with people,” he says. “I may even bring an authentic period instrument to make the sessions more vivid.”

Similarly, after his Bach recital at Next Stage Elisi will have the opportunity to interact with his audience with some Q&A on his life and work.

“I never mind answering questions — that is, if it is after my performance,” Elisi says.

But if the Q&A were before, it would be a different matter.

“In fact, the whole day leading up to a performance, I need to keep my mind clear,” he says. “I believe I use a different part of my brain for writing and thinking than I do for playing. I have never personally have been able to reconcile the two.”

During his residency, Elisi will focus on the study of choices of ornamentation and articulations, as well as the variety of applied possibilities, that the original text of Bach’s selected works suggests based on historical evidence.

“In addition, I wish to use the uninterrupted time at my disposal to transcribe and study ornaments and articulations used by selected keyboard players who have left us recorded and vibrant interpretations of Bach,” he writes.

Elisi contends that there are two ways to perform Bach’s music: either follow the manuscript verbatim or interpret it. Although these can be radically different approaches, there is no tried and true formula how to perform Bach.

He writes, “If there is one truth about the Baroque period, it is that performers were allowed a certain latitude with the text. The symbols — the notes, the pauses, the slurs, the staccatos, the ornaments — were meant as starting points.”

According to Elisi, Bach’s use of ornamentation in his writings varies.

“For instance, in the cantatas written for younger performers, Bach annotated his music in great detail,” Elisi explains. “However, for other pieces he left it open for more experienced players to interpret his music.

“Bach often won’t, for instance, note if this piece should be played slowly, loudly, or softly. He expected the performers to know the tradition, and if they didn’t, they should ask him.

“In the baroque era, the relations between composers and performers were very close. Music was created in small places, and if you didn’t understand something, it was easy to access the composer. Of course, that could not happen today. Now such information must be passed in writing or in oral traditions.”

All of which can make it difficult to ascertain the correct way to play Bach’s music.

“There need to be some parameters in understand how to use ornamentation,” Elisi says. “You don’t want to perform music as if it were a piece in a museum. A musician’s job is to make music live again. At the same time, you need to respect the traditions in performing a particular work. It’s a difficult balancing act, and we try to do the best we can.”

What Elisi hopes to achieve in the project he is working on at Yellow Barn is to “think of a few more possibilities to draw upon ornaments and articulations more freely (possibly, even on the spur of the moment from the available choices) and thus create some fresher interpretations.”

Elisi compares this process to the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

“You want the frescos to look fresh and beautiful but still remain faithful to the original colors. That is what Michaelangelo intended,” he says. “The problem is that can never really know what a composer like Bach really intended, nor should we try too slavishly.

“We cannot change ourselves into people living in Bach’s time. Today, we listen to music with our 21st century ears. In all periods of time, people did the same thing. In the 19th century, to re-fashion music to their ears, musicians often performed other era’s music in a fashion to align it with the music being written then, often by over-orchestrating the works.

“In this century we may be more into respecting the composers intentions, but only as far as we can tell what they are. It’s a difficult project. My goal is to rediscover the spirit of a work that is perhaps obscured by moribund traditions. This does not mean that a performer should have a green light to do what he or she wishes at will. I hope to find a balance — a synthesis — between these radical points. We want to keep a work fresh without altering its essence. To do that you must first understand those traditions to move beyond them. In other words, you learn from traditions and then try to forget them.”

As can be seen from the enthusiasm with which he expresses his ideas, Elisi is as much dedicated to teaching as performing. This love of learning began with his own teachers.

“All my teachers and mentors meant (and will always mean) a great deal to me personally,” he writes at his own website, “I learned music from all of them and, in the process, I learned about myself too.”

Likewise, he is dedicated to sharing his knowledge and passion for music with his students.

“As a teacher I try to create an atmosphere that is noncompetitive,” Elisii says. “I strive to teach to the individuality of each student. I don’t believe that for music a one-size approach works for all. I spend hours reviewing the repertoire that would be suitable. I want my students to be challenged but not so much so that they end up discouraged.”

Yet while Elisi works to help each musician find his or her unique voice, he also emphasizes the importance of each playing a part in the community of musicians.

”I do promote individuality in my teaching,” he says, “but at the same time I always stress the wonder of artists joining together to create music.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #457 (Wednesday, May 2, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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