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A SEASONED CHAMPION OF NEW MUSIC

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Argentinian-American pianist Mirian Conti
in conversation with ANDREW SCHARTMANN

 

Argentinian-American pianist Mirian Conti has built a career on the music of non-canonical composers. That's not to say she's ill-versed in the classics — far from it, in fact, as countless glowing reviews can attest. But even though Conti is equally at home in Chopin as she is in Halffter, she is first and foremost a champion of lesser-known pieces, both old and new.

Conti's passion for new music found voice most recently in a recording of fellow Argentinian Lalo Schifrin's complete works for solo piano.

Lalo Schifrin: Piano Works. Mirian Conti. Grand Piano GP776. © 2017 HNH International Ltd
Lalo Schifrin: Piano Works. Mirian Conti. Grand Piano GP776. © 2017 HNH International Ltd. Click on the image for higher resolution

Despite being a prolific composer, both in jazz and in film, Schifrin isn't exactly a household name. His music, however, is known by millions of people all across the globe. In particular, his theme for the Mission: Impossible TV series is one of the great earworms of the twentieth century, and arguably the most recognizable piece ever written in 5/4 time. In Conti's view:

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Lalo's Mission Impossible are the two themes in the whole world that everybody recognizes. I can't think of any other themes of just a few short notes that are universally known. It's amazing when you think about it.

Listen — Lalo Schifrin: Mission Impossible, Main Theme
(Grand Piano GP776 track 1) © 2017 HNH International Ltd :

Of course, there is much more to Schifrin's oeuvre than this catchy tune in 5/4, as Conti makes clear:

I want everyone to know about this man's incredible talents and the diversity of his music. The way he weaves together different styles — classical, jazz, film, Argentinian folk — is unique and second to none.

Conti's deep appreciation for Schifrin's music, and her masterful grasp of its stylistic inheritances, stems from a relationship with the composer that reaches back more than twenty-five years. In 1992, the Steinway Foundation commissioned Schifrin to write a piano concerto — his second — which was eventually premiered by Christina Ortiz at the Kennedy Center, with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. Leading up to the event, Steinway recruited Conti to perform parts of the concerto at a press conference. Upon hearing her play, Schifrin was so impressed that he invited her to premiere the work in Los Angeles under his baton.

Lalo Schifrin (left) with Mirian Conti after their 1993 Los Angeles performance
Lalo Schifrin (left) with Mirian Conti after their 1993 Los Angeles performance. Click on the image for higher resolution

Conti has remained close to his music ever since, citing Schifrin's sense of rhythm and melody, as well as his knack for idiomatic piano writing, as features that have kept her interested:

When I played the concerto, I could tell that the writing came from a pianist. He knows how to play, and that makes it comfortable for pianists. He is also able to transition between so many different styles with ease. It never sounds forced or unnatural.

Her love for his music notwithstanding, for the better part of twenty years, Conti experienced Schifrin's work largely from a listener's perspective. Schifrin had been productive as a composer, to be sure, but until recently, he had written very little for solo piano. All of that changed in 2016, when Conti decided to visit Schifrin during a trip to Los Angeles:

It had been quite some time since we'd seen each other, so I brought him some of my recordings to show him what I'd been up to. I also asked him if I could see some of his solo piano music, but he told me that he didn't have much. About a week after our visit, Lalo called me to tell me that my playing had inspired him to compose for the piano. So from January to June, he composed eleven pieces — some of them new, some of them transcriptions of orchestral pieces he had written in the past. He also revised his Jazz Sonata. It's quite remarkable for a man of eighty-five to be so productive in such a short period of time!

Listen — Lalo Schifrin: Jazz Piano Sonata Op 1, third movement
(Grand Piano GP776 track 6) © 2017 HNH International Ltd :

Sparked by Conti's lifetime of work at the piano, Schifrin's creative raptus gave life to a new project — one fuelled by mutual admiration and a shared affinity for Argentinian culture. For Conti, Schifrin's folk-inspired music exuded a rhythmic drive and melodic freedom of the sort she had grown to adore — features that joined her love of the tango with her respect for the classical canon:

All of my CDs feature music with strong rhythmic profiles and elastic melodic lines. This is one reason why Chopin's mazurkas hold a special place for me. I've always been obsessed with how to deal with rubato in his music. There's a sense of freedom in Chopin, whereby you must treat the line flexibly, but you must also keep to the beat. It's a question of how much one can get away with. And it's exactly the same thing with Lalo's music, the jazz roots of which require performers to stretch its lines — to go over the bars and not think rhythmically anymore, but never to lose the sense of underlying pulse. It has to sound both improvised and controlled at the same time.

Listen — Lalo Schifrin: Tango
(Grand Piano GP776 track 2) © 2017 HNH International Ltd :

Conti's mastery of these techniques comes through brilliantly throughout the album, and is especially apparent in the Jazz Sonata — a veritable beast that demands technical precision coupled with a fluid and malleable touch.

Lalo Schifrin: Piano Works. Mirian Conti. Grand Piano GP776. © 2017 HNH International Ltd
Lalo Schifrin: Piano Works. Mirian Conti. Grand Piano GP776. © 2017 HNH International Ltd. Click on the image for higher resolution

Of course, not all of Schifrin's music requires such dexterity. Some of it asks for a degree of simplicity that is deceivingly hard to achieve, as in Lullaby for Jack, written for Schifrin's grandson. Conti's delicate performance of this tender piece is a testament to the vast range of expression of which she is capable, and also speaks to a philosophical perspective that she holds dear to her heart:

The future far ahead is not in the mind of a child, but looking back to the past is too often in the mind of the adult.

Conti lays bare her emotional depth both here and elsewhere, perhaps most notably in her album from 2016 titled Children's World: A Recreation of Childhood for Adults — a CD about reminiscence in old age, which also features a performance of Jack's lullaby.

Children's World - A re-creation of childhood for adults. Mirian Conti, piano. © 2016 Albany Records
Children's World - A re-creation of childhood for adults. Mirian Conti, piano. © 2016 Albany Records. Click on the image for higher resolution

As with her most recent recording, Children's World opened a window into her own past, recalling that serendipitous meeting with Schifrin that joins the student she once was with the artist she has become.

Listen — Lalo Schifrin: Lullaby for Jack
(Grand Piano GP776 track 11) © 2017 HNH International Ltd :

Looking back at her former self, Conti feels compelled to share what she has learned with young pianists in Argentina and elsewhere:

Over the course of my career, I've learned that a student's strength lies in the repertoire that chooses them. Too many teachers focus exclusively on core pieces — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and so on — without encouraging students to find lesser-known music that speaks strongly to them. Managers aren't looking for another person to play Beethoven or Chopin. They're looking for something new. Students who push themselves to explore repertoire that is unknown to them will be surprised by how many doors open before them.

Conti knows firsthand how effective this strategy can be:

When I was a student at Juilliard, I realized that I had a wealth of living composers at my disposal — giants of American music who were eager for people to perform their music. Students need to be reminded that composers are very accessible, and they are also well-connected. The more you perform new music, the more the word spreads from composer to composer, and the more in demand you become as a pianist. For me, that realization was life-saving. Let me explain.

When I was twenty-six, I sent in a cassette for a competition here in the United States. After all, that's what we'd been trained to do. Not long after that, I received a rejection letter and became very depressed — sitting there thinking my career was over. That was in the morning. In the afternoon, the doorbell rang, and there was a package for me. I opened it, and inside was a sonatina by David Diamond with a letter of dedication addressed to me. My life changed right then and there. What did I need a competition for? A famous composer had written a piece just for me. And so I started doing more recordings of American composers, and the rest is history.

Listen — Lalo Schifrin: Tango a Borges
(Grand Piano GP776 track 9) © 2017 HNH International Ltd :

As this anecdote makes plain, Mirian Conti is precisely the kind of advocate classical music needs — an outstanding musician to remind us that the art of composition is alive and well in the 21st century, and that it deserves our attention just as much as the time-tested greats that we cherish so deeply.

Mirian Conti
Mirian Conti. Click on the image for higher resolution

Conti's brilliant performance of Lalo Schifrin's music for solo piano is yet another stride toward making that dream a reality.

Copyright © 4 June 2018 Andrew Schartmann,
Connecticut USA

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MIRIAN CONTI

LALO SCHIFRIN

ARGENTINA

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

PIANO MUSIC

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

LOS ANGELES

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Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller