Donald Isler is the founder of KASP Records whose releases include performances of music by Beethoven, Schubert, and little known but important works of Ludwig Spohr and Artur Schnabel. David Dubal's Master Series event at the 2008 International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College, entitled "The Legacy of Artur Schnabel," included Donald who was the first to record Schnabel's "Dance Suite."
Donald Isler's recording of music of Abram Chasins will be included on David Dubal's radio program, "Reflections from the Keyboard." Check out WQXR - 96.3 FM on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 10:00 PM Eastern.
New York Pianist visited Donald on the upper west side to talk about KASP records, the classics, and teaching.
NYP: You have produced an impressive discography of classic repertory on KASP. I'd like to hear about your beginnings and the people who have helped you in your career.
DI: I grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx. I went to the High School of Music and Arts and then to Manhattan School of Music. I got my bachelor's and master's degrees there. My first teacher was a remarkable lady who's still alive and lives in Washington, D.C. Her name is Sina Berlinski. She and her husband, Herman, were Cortot students. I started with her when I was eight and when I was eleven Herman got a job in Washington, D.C., so they moved. I'm still in touch with her. She's way into her nineties. In fact I had a note from her the other day. She has the most gorgeous handwriting. You should see it. When I get a letter from her, it reminds me of the handwriting that was all over my notebook.
My last year and a half in high school was with Bruce Hungerford who was one of the great artists of the 20th Century, but he never got the recognition he should have. At the Manhattan School of Music I studied first with Robert Goldsand and then the rest of my bachelor's and master's studies were with Constance Keene.
NYP: So many pianists studied with Constance Keene. What drew all of you to her?
DI: She was first of all an inspiring pianist. I knew of her and her reputation before I knew her. I had already heard her recordings of Rachmaninoff. She was such an incredible artist, I was sort of in awe of her. I certainly learned a lot from her.
After I had my master's degree, I went back to Bruce Hungerford again, who was also a family friend. I was with him for another year and a half until he was killed in an accident with most of his family.
After that I studied on and off for a year with Lillian Kallir, Claude Frank's late wife. Then I studied with Zenon Fishbein who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and whom I've actually known since I was a kid, but somehow I never ended up studying with him before that. My father, when I was a kid, went back to playing the piano and took lessons with him. I relearned something a year or two ago, Chopin's "Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise," and he was very creative about certain things. I was looking at the score and thought, "Wow, those are some fabulous fingerings he gave me."
The last person I studied with was a wonderful lady named Eleanor Hancock who died a few years ago. Her husband was also a pianist and a recording engineer named David Hancock. She was a student of Dorothy Taubman, who is especially known for teaching technique.
This story of having all these teachers reminds me of an occasion from twenty years ago. I visited a friend who is a pianist from Russia. He grew up with a totally different influence from here. We decided to get together and play records of people we admired. So I had Keene records, I had Hungerford records, I had Horzowski records. Later, I went to a student of mine and I didn't want to leave all these LPs in the car, so I took them in and showed them to my student. And I said, "See? This lady was my teacher, this man was my teacher." And maybe I had a Mozart recording and I said, "And he was my teacher, too." I thought she'd be really impressed. What was her reaction? "How come you needed so many teachers?"
NYP: What does the name of your recording label, KASP, stand for?
DI: When I did my first recording, which included music of Schnabel and Beethoven, I had to have a name for the label. I was trying to think of something different and creative. The first name that came to me was Tikva which means hope in Hebrew, but that had already been used by a religious organization. I came up with KASP by making an acronym formed from the initials of a bunch of friends of mine who get together to celebrate their birthdays. The "P" is for Patrych, that's Joe my recording engineer. I have two friends whose last names start with "K", one's name starts with an "A", one with an "S". I have an "I," but I was too modest to include that. That's where KASP comes from.
NYP: One of the pianists in your label's catalog is Adrian Aeschbacher. That is a new name for me.
DI: Aeschbacher was a very talented pianist who came to Berlin in 1932 when he was 20 to study with Schnabel. At that time he lived for a while in my grandparents' home. My father was a 10-year-old then and took lessons with him and Aeschbacher was a great influence on my father's life long love of music, which he still has. Aeschbacher is not really known here because he never played here. I remember visiting him in Zurich when I was a teenager. I never heard the Davidsbündlertänze played better than that Aeschbacher recording.
NYP: You obviously love the traditional repertory and feature it prominently in your releases.
DI: I feel these pieces should still be played in concerts. People should get to hear them still. I always assumed I would record the last several Beethoven sonatas. I did the last three. That's the idiom I knew like a native language.
Somebody did write a review asking what's the point of doing this stuff again. It's hard to answer. It's been done so many times by so many people. Yet there are pieces I have a strong feeling about, and I have something to say, and I was determined to do them, and fortunately I was able to record those pieces.
On the other hand, the husband of my teacher Sina Berlinski was a composer, Herman Berlinski, and of course composers have a hard time getting attention for their music. She would complain that my tastes were too conservative. In fact, she asked me a few years ago when she was already in her nineties and I was telling her I was doing a program of music mostly from the 19th century, "May I ask you when you are going to enter the 20th century?" Now we were in the 21st!
So, I do get her point more, certainly in terms of going to concerts. I'm more interested if there is some original programming that I haven't heard a lot of times before.
I do like to do things that are different. For example, my recording of Artur Schnabel's "Dance Suite" was the first that was ever done. I'm also working with the family that is publishing all of his music. I've worked on proofreading the score of the "Dance Suite," and I'm writing a preface for that edition. It's sort of exciting because it's the only publication of a score that I've played that I'm involved in. And the Louis Spohr Sonata. As far as I know, nobody else has done a commercial recording of that yet.
I also write on Classical Music Guide. It has two forums devoted to music. One is called Classical Chatterbox which is discussions about anything to do with classical music. Another contains reviews of concerts. In an additional forum called The Pub people can discuss everything other than classical music, which is largely politics.
NYP: You also teach piano.
DI: Yes, I teach privately in Westchester.
NYP: You spoke of your own musical upbringing. Is it harder these days for children to acquire one? Are kids still learning the piano?
DI: Interesting question. Kids have too may activities. Many of them are over-scheduled. Many of them do sports. Sports are great, but schedules conflict. The piano is the hardest. You really have to make a concerted effort on a regular, daily basis and it's hard with all of these other activities. Many of them are very good students so there is a lot of pressure from school work, and computers, and all sorts of other things. It's hard for kids to find the time to spend.
I like to interview everybody before they become my student. Usually the kid takes it more seriously than the parents. It's very funny. People worry about the influence of teachers. Parents are much more influential. If the parent doesn't take it seriously, most kids won't do that well. There are some people who are very good who take it very seriously, but I think there are increasing challenges to get as many people to do that as one would like. Probably that situation used to be better than it is now because of all of these distractions. Still, I have wonderful, talented students.
NYP: Do you have studio functions like repertory classes, studio recitals?
DI: Sort of. Some of my students used to be from a man named Joel Rosen who was a Juilliard graduate. He started a piano school without walls. In other words, he would hire teachers to go out and have the lessons, and then once a month the kids would do a theory class at his home. He had at one time a large number of teachers working and later less so. I had some of my students through him and some through others and also taught at many, many music schools. After he passed away, his wife still lives in the house, so I do the monthly class for my students in his studio, which is wonderful because it's like a mini-auditorium. The class I do includes music appreciation. I do some of what he did and I add my own personal things.
I feel partly the problem is that classical music is not part of the upbringing of an educated person. There are lots of people who are highly educated in all different professions who know who Mozart and Beethoven are, but they were not brought up listening to them. My family was particularly interested in music. I was brought up listening to music, but many people aren't. So I want my students to hear great music played by great people. I bring in my boom box and we have a class every month of the school year from October through June. Kids like birthdays, so I do a class devoted to a composer or great pianist or a group who has birthdays that month. For example, in October I'll play them CDs of Cherkassky, Horowitz, and music of Liszt. In November, I'll play performances of Bruce Hungerford and Earl Wild. December has to be Beethoven. Plus we do some theory, and music literacy. Then at the end of the class, the kids who have something prepared perform in an informal setting. I don't have an end of year recital, but I do this eight times a year.
I come from a musical family. My parents played music, my grandparents played music. I grew up listening to it, and loved it, and I think you're missing something if you don't have it.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Eric Malson works extensively with singers and instrumentalists, recently touring the west coast and Spain with soprano Kathleen Berger. He has served on the musical staff of various opera companies, including the Bühnen der Stadt Köln, Teatro Nacional São Carlos (Lisbon), Seattle Opera, the Dallas Opera, and the Cleveland Opera. He has served on the opera faculties of the Juilliard School of Music and the Mannes College of Music, as well as the accompanying and chamber music faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
New York Pianist caught up with Eric in midtown Manhattan for his wry take on the accompanying scene.
NYP: What's the difference between a vocal coach and a voice teacher?
EM: (Hearty laughing.) You start out with the most loaded possible question! I think you have to start with your definition of what a voice teacher is, and I and people that think like I do, think a voice teacher's role is much more limited than most voice teachers seem to think. Oh my god, this could get me in trouble with so many people, but that's never stopped me before.
NYP: I'm not necessarily going to print all this stuff.
EM: I'm here with the understanding that you can print anything I say, pretty much.
A voice teacher really has only three functions which are to get the breath going, get the voice even from top to bottom, which involves dealing with passagio of course. Mmm, that's only two. That's really about it. Just get the voice functioning. I think most voice teachers have no qualifications whatsoever to talk about the actual music, but they insist on doing it anyway. (Laughing.) The way I see it the coach deals with everything else: the music, rhythm, notes. A lot of singers came to music late without necessarily a background in music reading and analysis.
NYP: What's passagio? You talked about getting the voice even.
EM: Especially female voices have basically three natural breaks, well two big ones. The upper passagio is around E, F for sopranos in the top octave. In the lower octave the passagio is also around E, F. It's like shifting gears, and you have to figure out how to shift in the smoothest possible way.
NYP: Has the scene for vocal coaching changed?
EM: Yes. It's hard to know exactly what to attribute it to. I like to just attribute it to the kind of mindset that made Rudy Giuliani possible. That sort of bottom-line, sell out all of Manhattan to the highest bidder, the real estate developers, and in the process all the interesting little arts organizations have been priced right out of the city. There are fewer singers around. There used to be lots of little funny opera companies that can no longer exist. There was a noticeable drop off after 9/11, too.
NYP: Did you ever take voice lessons yourself?
EM: No. I paid attention when I was playing for them.
NYP: What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to start out as a vocal coach?
EM: First, be sure you really want to do it because the life is too hard if you don't really have to do this. There are much easier ways to make a living.
NYP: What's hard about it?
EM: Finding people to work with. Being good enough at what you do in order to have people want to continue to work with you. You've got to know a lot of music. You've got to know all of the operas. A singer just knows their role usually. If they're going to come to you to work their role ahead of time, you need to know pretty much the whole thing.
NYP: Do you love opera?
EM: Another loaded question! I think there are a lot of operas that I just would rather have my fingernails pulled out singly than have to sit through. There's a lot of really bad music incorporated into the operatic repertoire. Fortunately, people know not to bring things I really hate. Like Lucia. I can't stand Lucia, although I understand why it's as popular as it is.
NYP: You commented to me once that it's difficult to give advice to people starting out because the things that you value are valued less and less by the opera world at large. Like what?
EM: What I think of as good singing, mostly. So often during my coachings I'm conscious that what we're working on really makes no difference to most people, that this person will or will not be hired based on how they look as much as anything.
NYP: Did you already have an interest in coaching opera when you were an undergrad at Indiana University?
EM: That's kind of where it started. I had pretty much zero interest in opera before going to Indiana. As Eileen Farroll pointed out in her book Can't Help Singingthe Indiana University School of Music is, for all intents and purposes, a professional opera company. They do eight fully staged operas a year. That's twice as many as most regional opera companies.
And I started accompanying voice lessons there. That was purely mercenary at first. I liked to accompany so I realized, "Oh, I can make money going to people's lessons and accompanying in classes." I realized singers need you every week, so that was a good steady income stream. I played in various studios. Margaret Harshaw was a dramatic soprano that was teaching there at the time, and when I met her and played for a few lessons something in me immediately perked up and said, "Pay attention. This woman knows what she's talking about." That was really incredible. I'm so lucky to have met her and worked with her.
NYP: Do you get to play any art song?
EM: I just recorded Brahms's only real cycle, Die Schöne Magelone, with Paul Mow. Ludwig Tieck wrote what was essentially a fairy tale and the end of each chapter included a poem. These are settings of the poems at the ends of the chapters. A couple falls in love, and they get separated by horrendous calamities, and of course true love wins out. It's sort of like Candide, but straight-faced.
NYP: Have you done any opera work in Europe?
EM: I worked in a couple of different German opera houses on month long gigs, specific shows I was hired to do. Then when I lived in Lisbon I worked for the Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos.
NYP: In what capacity do you work on a show? Do you accompany rehearsals, or are you coaching singers and preparing them? What's your role?
EM: On both of those occasions I was a repetiteur, which is basically an accompanist. I had no coaching duties. I would just accompany stage rehearsals, a few sessions with singer, conductor, and me; and I was also an orchestra pit player. My first show was Ariadne auf Naxos which has three keyboard parts in the orchestra.
NYP: Who hires you, a music director or do you have to work through a contractor?
EM: In Germany a lot of it is done by the same agents that opera singers use. I once played for an agent who sent me out to Heidelberg to audition for the music staff of the Heidelberg Opera. I was only a couple of years out of school and they hired me on the spot because I was the only pianist they saw that could play a score and follow a conductor at the same time.
NYP: Is there a comparable inroad, namely agents, to staff opera company work here?
EM: No. For that sort of thing it's totally word of mouth. Where you've worked can lead to other jobs.
NYP: When you're not working or listening for work, what do you listen to for pleasure?
EM: Mary Chapin Carpenter and various other bizarre things like Spanish pop music and Lithuanian tango.
NYP: Do you do any instrumental accompanying?
EM: At one time I managed to split my time between singers and instrumentalists which is, ideally, what makes me happiest. I was fortunate at I.U. to have played in the studios of Josef Gingold and Janos Starker, and in grad school I was the class accompanist for Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio. I had a gig at the Ravinia Festival, north of Chicago. I did that for five years. I've also played with members of the Hagen and Vogler Quartets.
Then I was hired to work with a chamber orchestra in Portugal, playing recitals with the orchestra members; basically drawing a salary to play chamber music, something that sounds too good to be true. And in a way it was.
One interesting job I had was serving as the official piano concerto accompanist for the AMSA competition in Cincinnati. Actually, I would love doing that kind of work again.
NYP: After living in Portugal, you must be fluent in Portuguese. Must one be fluent in languages to be a vocal coach?
EM: You don't have to be fluent, but to be the most effective coach you've got to have a thorough knowledge of Italian, French, and German.
NYP: Any other general advice for aspiring musicians?
EM: Get to know as much music as you can possibly stomach. And if you can, always maintain good relations with other pianists, your colleagues--referrals from them are always the best source of work!
NYP: Did your musical education prepare you for the professional life you were to lead?
EM: I don't think any particular set of classes can prepare you for a career as a musician. It's sort of all in your mental process. You take what's most useful to you and hopefully that will end up helping you. In my case it really did, but I don't think it was necessarily because of the education. It was just that the things I acquired, I figured out how to use. There are plenty of people that got almost exactly the same kind of education I did and they stopped doing music in a few years.
NYP: When you were studying piano at Indiana University with Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio, how did he feel then about you doing all that accompanying?
EM: He didn't like it. I was supposed to practice my solo repertoire for him and nothing else. "Mr. Chamber Music" telling me not to accompany people and not to play chamber music! That was a little ironic.
Even without asking, I somehow knew that he wouldn't approve so I never told him I was doing this stuff. He saw my name on a program once and said, "What's this I see, you're playing the Poulenc Sextet?" I thought to myself, "You couldn't possibly honestly think I'm going to graduate from I.U. with a solo piano career. I know you don't think that." He couldn't possibly have thought that. So, I needed to figure out how to do something that would make me a living in music somehow. And I did.
Email Eric: hollenius[REPLACE_WITH_AT_SIGN]toast.net
Photography: Jan La Salle