Sunday, April 3, 2011

A recital in memory of Carl Viggiani

Last night I played a long-awaited recital in memory of Carl Viggiani. All Chopin and Bruce. I’m posting the program notes here, preceded by a list of the pieces. I’ll have more to say about the event in future posts. It was a watershed, but I’m not sure what it means. The audience was enormously enthusiastic, and I was pleased in many ways. However, I woke up this morning thinking about little else than all the wrong notes I played, how I had a tendency to over-play the fine August Förster piano, that I don’t really have the focus I need to play a piece like the B minor sonata, etc., etc. This was not the kind of feedback I was getting, of course—some of the compliments were truly remarkable, and I am profoundly grateful that my playing is meaningful to so many of my friends and colleagues. I’ll sort all of this out in my mind, and get back to you. For the moment, here are the paragraphs I wrote for the program.

I had a real sense of the presence of Carl in the Wesleyan Chapel, and of course Phyllis. More about that in the future as well…

A recital in memory of


Neely Bruce, pianist

Saturday 2 April 2011 at 7:00 p.m.

Wesleyan Memorial Chapel

An introductory improvisation, in the style of Chopin

Trois nouvelles études, avec préludes (Chopin)

Prélude in F minor, Op. 28, No. 18

Etude in F minor [playing three against four]

Prélude in Ab major, “A mon ami Pierre Wolff”

Etude in Ab major [playing two against three]

Prélude in C# minor, Op. 45

Etude in Db major [legato and staccato in the same hand]

Nocturne in Db major, Op. 27, No. 2 (Chopin)

Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 (Chopin)

Fugue in A minor (Chopin)

A Fugue for Carl Viggiani (premiere; by Neely Bruce)

Nocturne No. 1 (Bruce)

Nocturne No. 9 (Bruce)

Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 (Chopin)

Carl and Jane Viggiani were two of the first people I met when I came to Wesleyan. We always enjoyed each other’s company, and my wife Phyllis and I would see them in various social circumstances over the years. Carl and I would cross paths on campus occasionally and grouse about university politics.

All this was to change after Carl’s retirement. In the mid-1990s I began to relearn the piano repertory of my youth, concentrating on the music of Chopin. By 1999 (the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death) I was playing all-Chopin concerts. If I remember correctly, it was in the summer of 1998 that I got a phone call, out of the blue, from Carl Viggiani. “Neely,” he said, “you don’t know this about me, but Chopin is my favorite composer.” He went on to say that he was an amateur pianist, and he had played the music of Chopin almost all his life.

This phone call was the prelude to a unique and wonderful friendship. Carl and I would meet from time to time and talk about Chopin. I would play pieces for him, just to try them out. He was most encouraging, and really enjoyed my playing. He totally approved of my project to relearn the Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Liszt, etc., I had played as a young man. He encouraged me to start performing Mozart again. “Neely,” he said, “there is someone missing from this project of yours.” This was his way of saying “Why aren’t you playing any Mozart?” (I think Mozart was his second-favorite composer.)

Carl was particularly fond of my performance of the B minor Sonata. I think this is the finest romantic piano sonata, and one of the great pieces of all time. The third movement is certainly a candidate for the single most beautiful piece written for the instrument. Carl shared my enthusiasm for this work, and was equally convinced of its greatness. “Neely,” he said, “when I die I don’t want a memorial service—I want you to play the B minor Sonata in my memory.”

I agreed to do it, of course. He reiterated this several times, and also told his family and some friends. As it turned out, there was a memorial for Carl. Many spoke and read eloquently. Three pianists played. The complete performance of the sonata was put on hold. I announced it for the fall of 2010, as part of the series Chopin @ 200 that my pianist colleagues and I planned in October and November. Because of Phyllis’s final illness it was necessary to reschedule yet again. Tonight I honor my promise to the dead.

There is an elegiac quality to much of Chopin’s music. It seems that he knew from an early age that he would not live very long, and this knowledge informed his composing. I played the D flat Nocturne at my sister’s funeral, and other Chopin pieces at funerals and memorials for other family members and friends. The pieces I play tonight are designed to tell a story that ends with the sonata. In keeping with that narrative, and the meditative nature of this event, please maintain a reasonable silence and refrain from applause until the end. Thanks, and enjoy the music!