College Town Grand Forks in Great Exhibition

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The seventh UND Piano Fest shows the city and the university at their cultural best

Susan Tang, associate professor of piano at Northeastern Illinois University, talks about composer Florence Price at the Seventh UND Piano Fest on October 22. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Recently, Grand Forks was named one of the top 5 college towns in America. And on Saturday, an event on UND’s campus helped show why.

The event was the Seventh UND Piano Fest, and as it took place in the Josephine Campbell Recital Hall of the Hughes Fine Arts Center, it brought hours of piano performances to the audience at an exceptionally high standard. And more: Susan Tang, an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, has not only given a master class in piano, but has also lectured on – and performed the music of – Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and Betty Jackson King, three particularly inspiring black women composers of the 20th century.

And more: The event also saw the world premiere of an original work, the 24-movement piece by UND faculty member and composer Christopher Gable titled “Polyptych.”

And even more: every movement of Gable’s piece was played by a UND piano student, giving those students the rare chance to perform an all-new piece of commissioned piano music that had never been previously heard by the public.

“I am very happy to participate in this festival, along with my students, and to share performances with the campus and the local community,” said Piano Fest host, UND Associate Professor of Music and Piano Nariaki Sugiura, before the start. ‘event. “Given the work we are premiering, it is no exaggeration to say that this will be a historic event,” one that students, faculty and members of the public will long remember.

Susan Tang, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, plays piano during her presentation at the Seventh UND Piano Fest on October 22. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Developing our cultural history

During his speech, Tang, who taught at UND from 2008 to 2011, introduced the audience to three notable composers – all, interestingly, from the Midwest. Tang told stories about the lives of Price, Bonds and Jackson King, noting not only how difficult it was for black female composers in the mid-1900s to break into the then predominantly white and male field of classical music, but also how the recent rediscovery of their work has opened new horizons for researchers and music lovers.

For example: In 2009, as Tang recounts, an abandoned house near St. Anne, Illinois was discovered by its new owners and contained piles of musical manuscripts and other documents, many bearing the name by Florence Price. Price died in 1953, and the house had once been her summer residence.

So the discovery — and the owners’ subsequent decision to turn the collection over to a university — saved dozens of Price’s scores and other compositions from destruction, Tang said. At the same time, the fact that the newspapers sat for years in a dilapidated house speaks to the neglect of classical music. As the New Yorker magazine put it in an article about the incident, “this dilapidated house in Sainte-Anne is a powerful symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history”.

Tang interspersed his anecdotes about the composers and analyzes of their music with samples, playing excerpts from pieces by Price, Bonds and Jackson King on the grand piano in the rehearsal room. “My hope,” she said, “is that you will hear music that you may have never heard before – great tunes that are so rooted in American history, in our country and in our music, and which are written by black women composers who happen to be from the Midwest.

It’s wonderful that the world now has access to this music, she says. And to performers and music educators in the audience, she added, “I hope you can find a piece or two here that you can use to expand your repertoire, appealing to a different audience and connecting with people perhaps. be in a different way than we have traditionally done.

UND faculty member and composer Christopher Gable talks about “Polyptych,” the 24-movement piece he composed that premiered at the Seventh UND Piano Fest on October 22. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

“Composition is difficult”

When Gable spoke, he first told the story of a composition student who had just learned about the surprising complexity of percussion music. “You mean I have to decide everything notes I want them to play? the student asked in amazement.

“Dude,” the student concluded. “Composition is difficult.”

Yes, indeed, Gable told the audience. “Composition is above all a lot of work. Coming up with the actual notes is of course a big part of it. But there are so many other things that need to be done along the way before a composition is complete.

For example, “the composer must take their messy half-formed scribbles; fragments of melodies, textures or sounds that they hear in their head; fleeting piano improvisations that always seem to sound better when we first have them, and then the rest of the time we spend trying to capture that early magic. …

“The composer will take all that raw material and try to turn it into something that other people might actually want to listen to.”

In Gable’s case, that meant spending hours, days and weeks at the piano, supplementing notated melodies from years ago – his own “messy half-formed scribbles” – with other inspirations to create his 24 pieces.

“Polyptych” is the result. A polyptych, Gable explained, is a multi-panel group of individual paintings, usually created by Renaissance painters as altarpieces in churches. At the suggestion of his colleague Nariaki Sugiura, Gable set out to write a musical variation on this form: a piece for each of the 24 major and minor keys of the chromatic scale, a familiar tradition in classical music.

“So in terms of this current piece, even writing a set of pieces in all 24 keys is in itself a traditional thing to do,” Gable said.

“But I hope the way I approached this project is novel and brings something unique to the piano repertoire.”

UND student Laura Farder performs “Minuet”, one of the 24 movements of composer Christopher Gable’s piece “Polyptych”. The complete piece was performed by Farder and other UND students at the Seventh UND Piano Fest on October 22. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Unmatched on the prairie

Sugiura himself, the host of the event, was thrilled with the outcome – not only Gable’s finished work (but more importantly that, Sugiura said), but also the way Piano Fest as a whole brought students together. , the UND and Grand Forks community-and-staff with all the richness of music.

Take the composition, Sugiura told UND Today. “For me, it is very important that students interact with a composer. This is because most of the time classical musicians play a piece by a composer who is already dead.

At Piano Fest, on the other hand, the composer is still alive and well, providing a rare opportunity for students and spectators. “Not only are the students performing these pieces for the first time, but they can also talk to the composer, hear his ideas and add their own,” Sugiura said.

Likewise, audience members who heard Gable speak asked him a number of questions during the Q&A of his speech.

“And people probably don’t realize it, but composers get inspiration from that process as well,” Sugiura said. Professor Gable is always changing his work, and after Piano Fest he may revise a piece after thinking, “Oh, that might work better.”

In other words, performers and lecturers as well as students and audience members came away enriched by Piano Fest, Sugiura said.

Not bad for a town of 60,000 in the windswept northern plains.

UND Associate Professor of Music and Piano Nariaki Sugiura addresses the audience at the seventh UND Piano Festival on October 22. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

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