The Musical World of Joanne Polk Print E-mail
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Written by Lynn René Bayley   
Thursday, 04 October 2012

The Musical World of Joanne Polk

Joanne Polk is a busy pianist these days, largely known for her performances and recordings of music by women composers: a series of the music of Amy Beach, the first CD of which ( By the Still Waters ) won the 1998 Indie award for best solo recording; the Lieder of Clara Wieck Schumann, which was her debut CD for Arabesque; the piano music of Judith Lang Zaimont; and now, her energies are turned toward the music of Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister, Fanny. This is indeed a labor of love for this Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music graduate who has also given master classes at many summer festivals and universities across the country, and just this summer helped launch Manhattan in the Mountains, a two-week summer music festival in the Catskill Mountains devoted to chamber music, solo performing, and community engagement.

One of the immense pleasures I received from discovering Polk’s CD was the obvious emotion she puts into her performances. This is no mechanical keyboardist playing in a brisk, clean, and uninvolved manner, but someone with a warm, deep-in-the-keys tone and an extremely wide variety of shadings and attacks who evidently wants her auditors to enjoy this music as much as she does. I’m not one who normally enjoys the blurbs artists quote in their bios, but I couldn’t agree more with critic Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle who described Polk’s performance of the Beach Piano Concerto as “an enormously vital, imaginative reading,” because that is an apt description of her playing in general.

Q: Let’s start with what seems to be a passionate mission for you. How did you decide to spend a large portion of your career reviving the music of women composers?

A: My interest in music written by women began in 1986, when I first heard a piece titled Parable by Judith Lang Zaimont. Although I have attended many concerts in my life, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been moved to tears in a concert hall, and hearing Parable at Merkin Hall was one of those times. I immediately got in touch with Judy to find out more about her music, and thus began a friendship that has lasted to this day, and influences the way I think about the world of classical music and the role of women in it. Judy once told me, “If you can’t walk through, walk around,” a motto by which I live my life. When obstacles are presented, and there have been many, I try to find another way to achieve my goal. Judy also opened my eyes to the struggles of women writing music throughout the ages, and I began to research and perform this music. When I was getting my doctorate at Manhattan School of Music, I asked the dean at the time, Richard Adams, if I could teach a course on women composers, and he agreed. So I learned a lot about music written by women, even those pieces hidden from public view, since many women were not permitted to publish their music, but often continued writing anyway, surreptitiously.

Q: I see that you’ve done most of your recording so far of the music of Amy Beach, including all of her songs. If you had to choose just one or two works that you would say were best representative of Beach, which would they be?

A: Amy Beach is known as a lyrical composer whose specialty was composing very long phrases. A challenge in her music is to keep the phrase going, with pace, energy, grace, and focus. The piece that best demonstrates this characteristic is her Ballad, op. 6, based on her song titled My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose . The piece is a gem of lyrical beauty.

Beach is also known for her personal story, and the piece that best reflects her story is her Prelude and Fugue. In a nutshell, Amy Marcy Cheney was well on her road to being a concert pianist when, at the age of 18, she married the surgeon Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, 25 years her senior. Dr. Beach insisted that Amy stop performing in public, an activity unbecoming to a society lady, change her name to Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, and dedicate herself to composing, which could be done at home, and out of the public eye. Dr. Beach also permitted Amy to perform one concert per year, and insisted she donate the fee she received to charity. In 1910, Dr. Beach died and Amy went to Europe to try to revive her performing career. At this time she wrote her Prelude and Fugue, based on the musical letters of her name, A-B-E-A-C-H. (The B is played as a B♭; the H is played as a B-♮.) The note A is used quite dramatically, banged in the bass consistently, used as a pedal tone, and I hear this piece as Amy reclaiming her first name, shedding the “Mrs. H. H. A” and declaring “I am AMY, call me AMY!” It’s a brilliant piece, very dramatic and effective.

Q: Your repertoire has recently included Clara Schumann and, of course, Fanny Mendelssohn. Do you have any plans to investigate the music of women composers before or after the Romantic school, for instance Barbara Strozzi or Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre? I heard an album of Jacquet de la Guerre’s music once, but it was played so prosaically that I couldn’t really judge the quality of her music.

A: The composers you mention are from the Baroque era, and wrote for harpsichord, which I do not play. I’m always interested in, and researching women composers. I tend to prefer the Romantic era, but I am also very interested in living women composers. I recorded music by Judith Lang Zaimont, whose music I adore. Judy wrote a piece titled A Calendar Set , with a movement for every month of the year. I have recorded this piece, and I teach it quite often. When students come to Manhattan School of Music from other countries, I encourage them to research living composers, with a slight eye toward women writing in their countries. And by the way, Fanny wrote Das Jahr , also a piece with one movement for every month of the year.

Q: Let’s talk about the Fanny Mendelssohn CD. I was very impressed by your juxtaposing of pieces by Felix and Fanny in the same form and often the same keys. Moreso, I was very highly impressed by the extremely high quality of Fanny’s piano sonata. How would you say this piece ranks in her output? Are there other sonatas, or other pieces, by her of similar quality?

A: Oh, yes! Fanny’s music is amazing! She has a passionate Sonata in C Minor, and wrote 10 Songs for Pianoforte, similar to Felix’s Songs Without Words. She was quite a prolific composer of keyboard works, and wrote about 100 pieces for piano. Her best-known work is Das Jahr (The Year). She wrote a lot of etudes that are quite challenging, a set called Lyrische Klavierstücke (Lyric Piano Pieces), as well as Virtuose Klavierstücke (Virtuosic Piano Pieces), and Charakterstücke (Character Pieces), among many others. Her music is quite virtuosic and musically challenging. I am forever indebted to Victoria Sirota for introducing me to Fanny’s life, music, and intriguing story. Not only does Vicki know all there is to know about Fanny’s music, but her doctoral dissertation, The Life and Works of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, is the veritable bible for anyone interested in Fanny.

Q: I was particularly intrigued by the cross-influence that Fanny had on Felix, for instance creating the “songs without words,” which were a trademark form of music for her brother. Would it be too much to imagine that perhaps Fanny had some influence on the very young Felix, for instance the period when he wrote the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture?

A: No, it’s not at all too much to imagine that Fanny had some influence on Felix. This is in fact quite well documented. Fanny and Felix were very close as siblings, and, when they were both young, Felix would actually play his compositions for his older sister Fanny before he even wrote them down. When Fanny didn’t like something, she would cough. Felix and Fanny lived in an amazing world where their father would invite the great musicians and thinkers of the time to their house for Sunday gatherings, and Felix and Fanny would perform. Their world came crashing down when Fanny decided to marry Wilhelm Hensel. Hensel fell in love with Fanny when she was 16, but Fanny’s mother insisted she wait until she was in her 20s to get married. Hensel was 11 years older than Fanny, and the marriage virtually ended the close relationship between Fanny and Felix. Neither one attended the other’s wedding. And as is mentioned in the CD liner notes, Felix died shortly after learning of Fanny’s death. All of this is chronicled in a book written by Fanny’s only son, Felix Ludwig Sebastian Hensel, named after all of Fanny’s favorite composers (Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bach). The book is titled The Mendelssohn Family.

Q: Do you have any plans to play concerts featuring Fanny Mendelssohn’s music, as you have already of Beach’s music?

A: Yes. I have already performed many concerts featuring Fanny’s music. As well, I am planning a tour, beginning spring 2013, to women’s studies departments across the U.S. and will feature piano music by Fanny.

Q: I realize that you are a performing artist, and that is how you spread the word about women composers’ music, but have you ever considered writing a book on the topic?

A: I did! I edited the third volume of The Musical Woman: An International Perspective, published by Greenwood Press in 1991, with Judith Lang Zaimont, who was the editor-in-chief of the entire series. Although I enjoyed the experience, at this point I have no interest in writing a book on women in music. My language is more music than words.

Q: In your work as an educator in summer music festivals, do you ever lecture about women composers?

A: Absolutely! At summer music festivals I often give master classes on music presented to me, and rarely do I hear a piece written by a woman in these settings, but I often give lecture recitals about music written by women, and audience members are invariably shocked at the beauty and mastery of some of the pieces. When I perform Beach, Clara Schumann, or Fanny, I have the unique privilege of introducing to the public music that was written in the Romantic era, and is musically accessible to the modern-day concertgoer. One can leave the concert humming the tunes!

Q: Are there any other projects that you’d like to tell us about?

A: The recording producer on this latest CD was Steven Epstein, and the experience of recording with Steve was the greatest of my life. So I intend to record more with Steve, and in fact, I do have my next project, my next woman composer, lined up. But I’m going to keep the project a secret until it’s ready to be released. OK?

MENDELSSOHN Piano Sonata in g, op. 105. Prelude and Fugue in e. Fanny MENDELSSOHN Piano Sonata in g. Prelude and Fugue in e. Largo. Allegro di molto. Prelude and Toccata Joanne Polk (pn) BRIDGE 9367 (60:05)

Here we have a truly astonishing juxtaposition of works in the same form and key by a major 19th-century composer and his oft-neglected sister. What I find most interesting here is not, as Jeffrey Langford points out in his superb liner notes, the structural or temperamental similarities of the two siblings’ works, but the mere fact that these specific pieces by Fanny Mendelssohn are much better than the one or two pieces I can recall hearing of her in the past. Or, just maybe, it is because Joanne Polk is a really terrific pianist (she is), and is therefore able to bring more out of the music.

Of course, in the first instance—juxtaposing piano sonatas in G M inor by both composers—the advantage is all Fanny’s. Felix’s sonata was written when he was only 12, while Fanny’s was written near the end of her brief life. We all know that young Felix was a child prodigy nearly on the level of Mozart, and we also know that the older musical forms of Haydn and Mozart were his models, not the contemporary music of Beethoven, but although the sonata is quite good (and certainly deserves a bit more exposure than it gets), it is far from the emotionally charged, musically more advanced sonata of his adult sister. Fanny also was the first to compose “songs without words,” which became one of her brother’s trademarks. Moreover, one can hear in Fanny’s sonata so much of the mature Felix that it’s almost scary; but this is something Felix himself noticed in 1837, writing to his sister about one of her preludes in B and a fugue of his in the same key: “It is not only the same figuration, motion and design which astonished me, but especially certain details … in the mood [of these works].”

And there is more. Langford points out that it was Fanny’s unexpected death at age 42 (1847) that pushed her younger brother over the edge. He was so distraught by her death that he went into a deep depression, had a nervous breakdown, and then a series of strokes just a few months later that ended his own life at age 38. Apparently, Fanny and Felix were emotionally connected in a way that only twins usually are. The family (read: parents) never really expected Fanny to be a good composer, and certainly not to perform in public, but to her brother she was his musical equal. Make no mistake about that.

In addition to the emotional range of Fanny’s sonata, there is the fact that all four movements are played continuously, thus preceding the design used by Liszt in his own famous B-Minor Sonata many moons later. Moreover, the switch from Scherzo (II) to Adagio (III) is so subtle that you never hear it happening, except that the Adagio is tremendously emotional and rivets your attention. The final Presto, though in G Major, is still strongly emotional in character, complementing the mood of the preceding movements. The writing for the piano here is almost orchestral in concept—again, like Liszt. There’s no two ways about it: This is a major piano work of the early 19th century that deserves to be played much more often.

Felix’s prelude is tuneful and lyrical, very much like a Chopin etude or one of his own songs without words, while his fugue borrows as much from Beethoven in its use of chromatics as it does from Bach in its structure. Fanny’s prelude and fugue, though written at almost the exact same time as her brother’s (1827), is rather more Baroque in design, though her prelude—like Felix’s—is a free meditation on a single theme. As Langford points out in the notes, Fanny’s fugue “employs all the usual Baroque contrapuntal techniques of stretto, inversion, episodes, and more—all in direct homage to the great Baroque master.” Yet, he also notes, both Felix’s and Fanny’s preludes and fugues have the exact same rhythmic pattern: long-long, short-short, long.

From this point on, the recorded recital leaves Felix behind and concentrates on Fanny’s music, all of it only recently published, so these are premiere recordings. The Largo is a nice piece, tranquil and relaxed, while the Allegro di molto and Prelude and Toccata are, again, very much in the style of Bach. One might, perhaps, be disappointed that more really original music by Fanny does not close out this disc, but it’s a great tribute to her meticulous musical mind that she was able to write as much in the style of Bach as if she had been Anna Magdalena.

There is no escaping it: This CD forces us to re-evaluate Fanny Mendelssohn and give her respect for both her absorption of compositional techniques and her own personal powers of invention (in the sonata). If you’ve never thought very much of Fanny Mendelssohn before, this is the disc that will change your mind, and Polk’s rich, full tone and impassioned style are part of the journey. What a wonderful disc! Lynn René Bayley

Last Updated ( Sunday, 23 September 2012 )
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