I recently had the pleasure of conducting a phone interview with Kenneth Cooper. The interview was informative and entertaining. Kenneth Cooper will be performing The Sound of the 1790’s with Grigory Kalinovsky on the Violin and Josephine Mongiardo as Marie Antoinette on Saturday August 2nd, @ 8 pm. Get to know the Kenneth a little more through this interview and join us at the performance! Tickets available for purchase by calling 518.263.2063
Can you give us an introduction of who you are and what you do?
I am Harpsichord, I’m a pianist, conductor. My doctoral degree is in musicology from Columbia, the study of music history and related things. Over the years I’ve done almost everything that we were told a professional is supposed to do. I play most particularly 18th century specialty… I’ve traveled all over the world, Russia, South America, so forth and all over the country. I’ve played with lots of wonderful people and with orchestras, by myself as a recitalist and conductor in various places….
I’m particularly interested in making whatever music I do come alive for the listener and to find in the composers work those qualities which are going to be exciting for us to listen to. The musical historians go back to the originals and find they should be using this instrument or that tempo or this quality or that mannerism and so forth; those things, if you don’t make them part of bringing the music to life rather than just restoring what you think was done at a certain time, somehow that kind of dies on the stage. My feeling is music ought to be alive and it ought to be constantly interesting. And of a huge range of emotion and structure and everything else from silly to profound. People sometimes categorize classical music in a certain way. Bach in a certain way; Mozart in a certain way. All of these geniuses had an enormous devotion to entertaining, stimulating and provoking public but also being satisfied the pubic nothing short of a huge range of activity.
Do you hear the music in your head before you play it? How does your creative process work?
I hear everything in my head ahead of time, and I think most professional musicians do. Certainly the great genius didn’t need to sound it out. Bach’s son said that Bach always figured everything out in his head ahead of time and then tried it out on the instrument. Mozart took a lot of trouble time thinking things out, including whole operas out in his head and then the process of writing it was in many ways a mechanical process, you needed to write it down before you played it. That was all figured out ahead of time in their heads and that’s the way I do it as well. I think once you can read scores, read music, you have some real knowledge of what it sounds like. Just the way…my wife reads a recipe book and she makes fun of me for this, because I can read a recipe book and I know what this tastes like, and that tastes like, but when she reads a she knows what the combination of tastes are. She can make that interpretation in her head. She doesn’t have to try it out. Although, of course, That’s the proof of the pudding. Any expert in any field knows the workings of the field very well.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
My idea was, it took off from this extraordinary situation in this particular location; they have a fabulous little piano museum with some beautiful historic instruments. And it was my thought to find a way to use those instruments to bring the music to life. I’m not so much interested in whether this is a nice instrument or that is, and so forth. My interest in the instruments is to see what they can do for a variety of different kinds of music. And so, The period of the instruments is roughly beginning in the 1790’s and moving into the 19th century and I thought to put on a program of a wide variety of music from the 1790’s. ..The Sound of the 1790’s would give ample variety to the repertoire as well as to the instruments. Now the 1790s, as everybody knows, was a very a interesting and turbulent period not only musically but in a lot of other ways. French revolution, the American revolution, and a variety of other world changing events occurred during this time and some composers were quite reflective to these changes. Mozart was, of course he died in 1791, but he knew what was coming and could he perhaps could be considered to be one of the musical instigators of some of the modern tendencies of those days.
The piece by Dussek we are doing reflects directly of the French Revolution, which is a sketch about the last days of Marie Antoinette. Dussek a famous pianist at the time, Czech pianist, was friendly with Marie Antoinette. He had to leave Paris at very short notice at one point and he wrote this sketch about essentially what her last days were like. We have amplified this by a beautiful little musical sketch by integrating some excerpts from Marie Antoinette’s final letters that she wrote which my wife will read and reread in a very dramatic and wonderful way. It integrates and you develop a much deeper feeling of what this music represents in terms of his feelings for Marie Antoinette, at some interesting angles. It doesn’t end in her death for example; it ends in, essentially, the rebels taking over. From a lot of historical points of view, this is a good thing. I think as you listen to the piece you have some real doubts in your mind about as to what the effect of this is; it’s a very interesting musical sketch. The piece, which is called, the Federal Overture was written in 1794 in Philadelphia and definitely paints a rather comedic sense of what the chaos was like in the 1790s in the United States. The idea behind the piece is to put in a little something for everybody to patch the wounds up. It’s definitely nothing profound here, but it’s an entertaining piece.
What piano do you plan on using for the Dussek piece?
…..I was in Hunter last summer and I tried out a group of different pianos, your technician there is fabulous, Steve Greenstein. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man and a true expert who knows these instruments inside out. He was very helpful to me and I am hoping he will be again shortly. I was hoping to get there yesterday but that did not happen so I have not have a chance to explore these pieces on these instruments, in short at the moment, I haven’t made those choices yet but I’m hoping by the time I get there, which will be unfortunately at the last minute, I will be able try out and choose the right instruments
Now for a personal question..
And how did you meet your lovely wife?
She is a great singer and a great voice teacher and a great chef and a great lots of other things…We were at Columbia, she was Barnard College and I was at Columbia grad school. I was put in charge of Collegium, it was sort of the graduate students schools vocal and instrumental group. It was an attempt to get the graduate students out of the library…It was pretty dreary stuff traditionally and I decided I’m not going those. I was going to put on a Handel opera, which had never been done at Columbia and it almost had never been done in NY at all, these things are delightful. They don’t need huge numbers of people. We can do them with 6 or 8 singers and 8 or 10 instruments and I decided to do that. This was 1967. I put up a note… I’m looking for a soprano, a tenor, a bass whatever else. She showed up and auditioned for me and I said she was wonderful. 3 years later we were married and we had a wonderful 3 month honeymoon all over Europe. One month in England, one month in Italy and a month driving through Scandinavia. You will enjoy meeting her, She’s a live wire.
Can you explain your fondest music memories?
I’m 73 years old, so this tale would take a while but I think I’ve had a rich and very adventurous life so far. I’ve worked with a lot of phenomenal people over my career and those have been some of my happiest memories….I did a record with Josephine Mongiardo-Cooper and a couple others called Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgotten, which are original versions of all the songs you think you know. I should play you the original version of Jingle Bells which we put on this record you wouldn’t believe. We did a record called Silks and Rags, which was all ragtime dance music from the 19th Century. Someday we’ll bring that group up to the Catskills. It’s been a wild ride over the years, lots of music, lots of people, fascinating stuff. I’ve played in so many different kinds of places. Beautiful band halls, churches, schools, big concert halls all kinds of things.
Favorite piece to play?
My particular way of doing things, I get up on stage and play anything at all, if I am convinced at all that this is not great stuff if it is not worth sharing, I don’t do it. Unless you’re paying me an enormous amount of money, no matter what I’m playing it’s my favorite piece.
Anything you would like to add?
…The Mozart fantasy that I am going to play with my wonderful colleague, Kalinovsky a great violinist, is a subject of a reconstruction. And that’s another thing that I have done over the years; which is to reconstruct things which don’t exist, or don’t quite exist. I’ll take a second and explain this; Mozart never finished his pieces, after he died his wife hired somebody to finish a lot of his pieces so she could sell them. …I looked carefully at the sources…and noticed there were a few measures of a violin part in this piece that had been essentially left out and I thought well Mozart never finished it this way but he started it this way. Let’s see how it would have turned out if he had finished it as a violin and piano piece.
I reconstructed the whole thing and it turned out to be, in my opinion a beautiful chamber piece, it’s a beautiful piano piece. I think it’s even more effective as a chamber piece. So we are going to show you what that’s like by playing that reconstruction and that’s been published by the International Music Company who has put out quite a number of my edition to things.
The lecture that will be a few days before, on the 31st at 7 pm., that is going to deal with instability in Mozart…it has to do with what musically quality, especially dissonance, makes for suspense and makes for musical instability that has to be in the course of the pieces, to be resolved somehow. The lecture is devoted to and how that works and how stupid they sound if you are not aware of it.
Thank you for talking with me, I am hoping to engage interest among those who are not familiar with Classical music and I believe this interview will help intrigue an expanding audience
People tend to either ignore or fear it or dislike like this or that, it’s somehow, none of that is true. I would go so far to say that it’s almost a storm of prejudice. We have learned over the years that people who are not like us because of what they look like, what they talk like or where they come from or anything else…all people are worth our attention. And just because people are dead doesn’t make that less so. And we are talking about some of the most fabulous people who have ever lived on the planet who have devoted their lives to giving us wonderful things to think, laugh and cry about. There’s an immense wonderful world here which I of course would love to help people be a part of.
That was beautifully said
Well it won’t happen again, I am half asleep. I am a night person.
Interview done by Vicki Thompson
Visit Catskillmtn.org for more information on Kenneth Coopers performance and lectures.