By Benjamin Lucas
It’s not every day you see a performance from one of the world’s leading musicians for free. This season, Union College is bringing in a variety of different talents from all over the world to perform right at Old Chapel, at no cost to students (and a very small fee for those coming in from Schenectady). This week, I sat down with Artistic Director of the Union College Concert Series Derek Delaney to talk about what to expect from the upcoming program.
Tell us about the upcoming program.
We have two concerts remaining this season — one with concert pianist Emanuel Ax, one of the top pianists in the world, on April 17, and our season closes with a concert by the Brentano String Quartet on August 27. Ax has performed on the series before. He’s one of the top pianists in the world. And the Brentano quartet has been coming each season, and they’ve just been named Quartet in Residence at Yale University, so we’re very happy to have them with us.
So you have people coming from all over?
Our musicians come from all over the world. We just announced next season’s concerts. We have 15 concerts next season and we have artists from Poland, England, five or six musicians based in London, we have quartets based in the states and we have a young Israeli violinist.
That’s a lot of different skill sets. Do you see a lot of variation amongst the different performances?
Absolutely. There’s great traditions from all over the world and people are very voiced in that. Polish pianist Rafal Blachacz is coming back, and he’s performed two seasons with us. He won the Chopin Competition in Poland at the age of 19. He was recently awarded the Gilmore Artist Award, which is the equivalent of the MacArthur Genius Grant in music. Interestingly enough, the judges for that panel were at the concert with us two years ago. So they were listening to and assessing him, and then he was given the award in February. So he’s playing a program of almost all Chopin, so it’s quite different hearing him play the works of Chopin as opposed to hearing Emanuel Ax. So there’s a lot of great traditions these musicians pull from.
Is there any area in the world you’d like to see more talent come in from?
Basically with classical music there’s a tradition of Europe. That’s where almost all of it is coming from. And all of our music in America, from Gershwin to Radiohead, is all based in music that we’re representing in our concert series of Europe. We just brought in a German quartet, that was our last concert. Perhaps South America. There’s a tradition of Latin jazz influences from that continent, so maybe that’s where we’re looking next.
Do you tend to get a lot of different genres?
We’ll be doing a mix of different offerings — a number of string quartets, a number of solo pianists, a string and/or vocal recital and some early music, which is music from the 15th century. We do an annual holiday concert with the Boston Camerata, and they do a lot of music from the 15th and 16th centuries, which is kind of cool. It’s hard to name a favorite, but for next season we have a very famous singer, Ian Bostridge, who is a British tenor and last performed on the series 10 years ago. He’s doing a song cycle of Schubert. He will be publishing a book on this particular song cycle of Schubert’s, and we’re having a discussion panel with him after the concert. So you’ll get to hear the music, and then you’ll get to hear the musician speak about what he just sang. He’s quite scholarly.
So you’re talking about a lot of composers’ influences on musicians. What composers do you find personally influential?
Again, it’s so hard to pick. What I try to do in planning the series is offer a traditional, classical repertoire — Beethoven, Brahms. This season especially I’ve tried to interject some new music into the program that was written in the last 10 years. Our concert with Ax last week, he does three works of Brahms and intersperses two brand new works. So it’s gonna be a cool mix of old and new. I try to give it a mix of some pieces that are familiar and also unfamiliar.
Always good to expose people to new stuff.
It’s very important. These are voices of our times, and they are creating this art based on their experiences of what’s happening now. So it’s very important to keep present and not always look backward.
It sounds like exposing people to these classical artists is a big part of the Union College Concert Series.
We try to bring the very top musicians into town for the campus to enjoy. All students can come for free. When you see someone of any profession at the top of their field doing what they’re doing, it’s inspiring. We tend to present musicians with a very established career — Emanuel Ax is doing the same performance in Carnegie Hall. We are also trying to focus on younger people who may be tomorrow’s stars. It’s just as important to give them exposure, and for students on campus to see people of the same age excelling at the highest level. We will sometimes have post-concert dinners where students intermingle with musicians and talk about their lives. The last one we did with Echo, there was this young double bass player who was 19 years old. And the students were just blown away.
Yeah, you see these little six-year-olds going up there and playing these flawless sets …
Yeah, absolutely. It’s important again to note that it’s not just music. Seeing a leading engineer working in a lab, it’s the same experience. These are the top people. Our first concert this season was with Jeremy Denk, a pianist who has been coming the last five seasons. Just prior to his arrival, he was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. We hope that we enrich what’s going on on campus and people will come out and see us, in addition to people around the community. I think we help Union play an important role in the surrounding community.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the program, or your experiences in it?
I had been running the series remotely as a volunteer for two years, and now I’m on campus. And now I’m just hanging out in Wold and having a cup of coffee, and going to music department events and trying to engage the campus a little more. I’m available for anyone who wants to learn about the series or perhaps the music being performed, because it’s always important to have an understanding of what’s going on and I’m here for that. I feel very fortunate to be here.
More information about the program can be found at: unioncollegeconcerts.org