With Donna Coleman

May 11 / 61

Dr Donna Coleman is a world-renowned concert pianist and recording artist who has mentored hundreds of Australian musicians since she first came to Australia from the US as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 1992. She is Coordinator of Postgraduate Studies for the Southbank campus of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and from 1995-2009 was Head of Keyboard in the School of Music, Victorian College of the Arts. Her recordings and performances of the music of Charles Ives and other American music have earned accolades from international music journals, including the Diapason d’Or for her Etcetera Records disc featuring the Concord Sonata, still considered to be one of the most difficult pieces of the piano repertory ever composed. 

The 19th of May this year marked the 57th anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers, Charles Edward Ives, who was born on 20 October 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut (about an hour’s train ride from New York City). More than two-thirds of my life has revolved around this remarkable composer’s oeuvre, and my musical career has been profoundly shaped by my association with, in particular, the two sprawling and brilliant Sonatas he wrote for the piano. In retrospect I realise that it was my destiny to become associated with this man’s music, for it wasn’t long into the first semester of my undergraduate studies when a student colleague, familiar with my passion for ragtime and my background with fundamentalist hymn tunes, baited me, saying, "you oughta get to know the music of this guy named Charles Ives! He was an Insurance Salesman who wrote music in his spare time, using hymn tunes and ragtime, and he wrote two Sonatas that are so hard, nobody can play both of them".

For a person who thrives on challenge like I do, the gauntlet had been thrown! 

That was a long time ago. Since then, I have learned, performed hundreds of times (including direct-to-air ABC Classic FM performances from the Eugene Goossens Hall and the Sydney Opera House), and recorded for the prestigious Etcetera label both of those unplayable Sonatas, played the solo piano part in the 1995 Australian premiere of Ives’s Fourth Symphony with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gunther Schuller, and created, produced, directed student performances for, and performed in a two-week Festival of Schumann and Ives for the VCA in 1997. 

More recently, I formed a piano trio to perform and record Ives’s Trio in another ABC direct broadcast (2009). My relationship with this music has also directed my research back into the nineteenth century and beyond (including the Transatlantic slave trade) to understand how a genius like Charles Ives, for whom the juxtaposition of ragtime, hymn tunes, and patriotic songs in a piano sonata or symphony was perfectly natural, could have happened. Two CDs for ABC Classics, Rags to Riches: A Syncopated Century and Havana to Harlem, document 150 years of ragtime and its roots around the world and draw its associations with the art and popular music traditions of the Caribbean. A new recording on the OutBach® label, Don’t Touch Me (one of the album’s track names), is devoted exclusively to the evocative Danzas Cubanas by Ignacio Cervantes who lived in Havana, Paris, Mexico, and New York between 1847-1905. The music can be described as Cuba's answer to Frédéric Chopin, in sultry, habañera-infused miniatures that play like the precursors of Scott Joplin's rags. The 37 tracks unfold like episodes in a steamy romance novel, steeped in Afro-Cuban rhythmic verse, Chopin’s pathos, Bach’s contrapuntal detail and voice-leading, sumptuous French harmony, and sensuality redolent of rum, cigar smoke, sea air, sweat, and tears. 

Next month, I will record another volume in the ongoing story of ragtime’s roots as it relates to the phenomenon of Charles Ives. The Lost Lady will feature music by J.S. Bach (yes, he invented ragtime), Chopin (he invented jazz), Joplin (the king of ragtime), along with rags and rag-inspired works by Cuban émigré Professor Aurelio de la Vega and by my University of Michigan colleagues William Albright, Edmund Cionek, and Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom, who wrote the title track, The Lost Lady Rag. I am also working with former I Musici concertmaster Federico Agostini to record Ives’s violin sonatas in tandem with those of Ferruccio Busoni, and with didgeridu artists William Barton and Tom E Lewis on future recording projects that weave music by J.S. Bach with that of the Indigenous cultures of Australia.

Donna Coleman’s recordings are available on amazon.com, and the Cervantes disc is also at Thomas’ Music Melbourne. She will perform a Lunchtime Concert in the National Gallery of Victoria at 1:00 p.m. on 24 August for the Viennese Secession exhibit, featuring music by Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Charles Ives. For further information, donnac@unimelb.edu.au.


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