Pianist-composer Stephen Prutsman constantly evolves the meaning of Bach.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
To achieve fluency in music is a feat in and of itself, but pianist Stephen Prutsman moves freely from classical to jazz, and even to theater, in conversation.
He proceeds to recite the opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III – “Now is the winter of our discontent” – six times, with a different emphasis in each iteration, as a proof that centuries-old artwork is still open to interpretation.
“There are an infinite number of ways to shape a particular phrase,” Prutsman says, looking at the task before actors and musicians alike. “Part of our practice in recreating Bach is, we try out all of these infinite number of ways to shape a phrase, how you use time and loudness. It’s never mechanical.”
And in his non-mechanical exploration of Baroque music, Prutsman finds his experience as a pianist isn’t that different than when he improvises in a jazz piece. An artist’s take on a tune – whether a Middle Eastern folk song or a Bach concerto – is ever evolving, Prutsman says.
The internationally acclaimed composer/arranger/musician will explore his own musical evolution during the Carmel Bach Festival with a program that defies convention. He’ll open and close with Bach piano concertos in F Minor and D Minor, while directing the orchestra from the piano. He’ll also play jazz standards by Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Joe Zawinul with a string quartet.
“People have said, ‘If Bach were living today, he’d be the greatest jazz bass player,’” says Camille Kolles, executive director of the Bach Festival. “If you think about his music, a lot of it has to do with a theme and variations. This is very much what jazz players do.”
It’s this sort of informed musical sensibility that drives creative connections across the festival programming, and also within Prutsman’s own melting-pot repertoire. He’ll execute Turkish and traditional Uzbeki songs, as well as an excerpt of his two-hour opus solo program, Bach and Forth, which sprawls across eras and continents but stays anchored by fugues from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”
Music critics might warn listeners to steer clear of time-traveling pieces like this to avoid the easy trap of sampling gimmicky cameo phrases, but the San Francisco-based Prutsman has consistently won praise for making intriguing, sensitive connections.
Yet there’s more than a haunting gentleness to the largo of the concerto in F minor that drew Prutsman to include it in the program. He says he first fell in love with that movement as a kid watching the film Slaughterhouse Five with his father, particularly when the soundtrack surges as Billy Pilgrim snuggles up to a voluptuous model on a distant planet.
“When I do this kind of program,” Prutsman says, “it all starts off with an emotional connection to the music.”
Prutsman, 50, started out playing piano by ear, reproducing ’30s showtunes his dad played on radio. He learned ragtime as a teenager to play at a honky-tonk pizzeria, before joining a string of rock bands, then committing to a more classically oriented career in his 20s. It wasn’t until he returned to writing his own music and making arrangements for the Kronos Quartet that he began exploring Middle Eastern, African and South American music.
Prutsman’s ideas about transcending boundaries border on the scientific, and the metaphysical.
“On your nose is an atom that once belonged to a dinosaur,” he says. “There is some kind of cosmic truth in that, and beauty.”
He goes so far as to compare the role of a musician to that of a religious leader who interprets works by long-dead creators.
“Those who speak on a religious text have the weight of the responsibility not to mess it up, not to be dishonest, to attempt to be sincere,” he says.
And his interest in finding sincere connections between musical styles that may at first appear unrelated makes him a perfect fit for the Bach Festival, which is ambitiously designed to break down barriers. “It’s all about stimulating the imagination, sparking the mind,” Kolles says.
“Some would say that there’s ‘real music,’ and that’s mostly European, from 1650 to about 1920,” Prutsman says. “And there’s jazz snobs out there, too.”
His objective is to find common spaces in the middle, though he’s not out to convert listeners.
“I don’t look at it as missionary work,” he says.
Rather, he hopes (as does Kolles) that at least listeners detect relationships and similarities across cultures.
“If somebody’s able to see relationships, hear relationships, come to some kind of greater thought regarding relationships – not just musical, but between people – if this program triggers that kind of thinking, then I’m honored and happy,” Prutsman says.
But he’s not one for performance theory, preferring instead the simple axiom.
“It’s different for every listener.” Concert-goers should listen only for what compels their ear, he says.
Lofty theory aside, Prutsman says he’s happy if he succeeds in providing a simple evening of entertainment. When he’s in the audience, it’s about absorbing a sensory experience.
“Me,” he says, “I just listen.”
“Bach, Jazz and the Spaces in-Between” by Stephen Prutsman takes place 8pm Thursdays, July 21 and 28, at Sunset Center, San Carlos and Eighth, Carmel. $51-$71. www.bachfestival.org