Donald Berman

Donald Berman Piano Concert: Other Transcendentalists

Friday, April 5, 2024 at 8:00pm
Crowell Concert Hall


Pianist Donald Berman ’84 returns to Wesleyan to perform a solo piano program, which pairs two works by 20th-century iconoclast composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Ives' birth, with four newly commissioned musical portraits of women who were pivotal figures in American Transcendentalism, written by Eve Beglarian, David Sanford, Marti Epstein, and Elena Ruehr. This concert will be the world premiere of Eve Beglarian’s work "as syllable from sound." 

Read Berman ’84 to premiere new work for piano at Wesleyan on April 5 in The Wesleyan Connection.

Berman previously performed “Celebrating Chopin's 200th Birthday” as part of the Crowell Concert Series on campus in November 2010.

A multidimensional pianist, pedagogue, and scholar, Donald Berman has won tremendous acclaim for his "stupendous abilities, both athletic and intellectual" (The Boston Globe) and performances hailed as "stunning, adventurous, and substantive" (The New York Times). Berman currently serves as Chair of Keyboard Studies at Longy School of Music of Bard College, and leads Tufts University's New Music Ensemble. He is also President and Treasurer of the Charles Ives Society, where he is leading an extensive expansion of the Society's digital archives.

As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, Berman was the first winner of the Elizabeth Verveer Tishler Competition in 1982, following the establishment of the prize in 1981. Berman's trajectory as a musician and scholar was set in motion by four important teachers: Mildred Victor, at Wesleyan with George Barth '72, in New Haven with John Kirkpatrick (who premiered Ives' "Concord" Sonata in 1939), and legendary pedagogue Leonard Shure.

Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass. 1840-60” characterizes giants of American intellectual history in four movements. The first is an evocation of the orator Ralph Waldo Emerson, after which the sonata reflects Nathaniel Hawthorne’s flights of fantasy, educator Bronson Alcott’s homespun domesticity, and culminates in Henry David Thoreau’s naturalism and pensive call for abolition.

Watch Donald Berman perform "The Alcotts," the third movement from Ives' "Concord" Sonata, on Ives' piano in the recreation of Ives' studio at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.

Berman commissioned four composers to emend Ives' movements. Eve Beglarian’s "as syllable from sound" (2023) uncovers the surprising links between Emily Dickinson’s writings and poetry with Ives and Emerson’s fiery oratory. David Sanford’s “Underground” (2020) connects Hawthorne’s "Celestial Railroad" to the real-life Underground Railroad of Harriett Tubman, mystically and perpetually on the run. Marti Epstein’s “The Piano at the Palace Beautiful” (2019) is an evocation of Louisa May Alcott’s character Beth March, improvising hymns and wondrous sounds as described in "Little Women." And Elena Ruehr’s “Summer on the Lakes in 1843” (2018) is a portrait of Margaret Fuller, America’s first female journalist, translator, and travel writer.

Together, the new works center women in Ives’ sesquicentennial year. The program sonically refocuses the power of the Transcendentalist era. It reframes our understanding of Ives, who Leonard Bernstein gilded as “the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln of American composers.”

The concert opens with Ives’ original piano version of “Impression of the St. Gaudens in Boston Common” (1915) from "Three Places in New England." Referred to by Ives as his “Black March,” the work evokes the final ascent of the soldiers of the 54th regiment, the first Union corps of Black soldiers.

This project is the capstone of Berman's life’s work on Ives, which includes the three-volume “The Shorter Piano Works of Ives” (Peer, 2015, 2019; AMP/G. Schirmer 2022), and three albums: "The Unknown Ives" (CRI 1999), "The Unknown Ives 2" (New World Records 2004), and "The Light That is Felt: Songs of Charles Ives" (New World Records 2008). On May 3, 2024, Berman will release his recording of the “Concord” Sonata and “Black March,” produced by Adam Abeshouse for Avie Records.

When Berman first heard the “Concord” Sonata (1915), Berman heard a lot going on in the music. He wanted to familiarize himself with the big work. But as he listened to various performances, he kept hearing an emphasis on what seemed quirky, idiosyncratic, and unsubtle. He knew there had to be more to the depth of the massive work than these rough edges.

Berman turned to the Studies for some more purely abstract Ives. Study No. 5, for instance, is completely rigorous, bereft of quotation, theoretically complex, and fiendishly difficult. Working on that piece, and the some 40 other shorter works by Ives for piano, deepened Berman's sense of the thoroughness of Ives' craft. The Studies that particularly explored episodic facets of the "Concord" Sonata helped reshape Berman's familiarity of the monumental piece, leading him to its door, so to speak.

Berman has now recorded the “Concord” Sonata, after years studying the manuscripts, musical variants, and his notes on his own performances of the piece. He continually sees how deeply serious and exacting it is. The musical motives have morphed into a kind of DNA of the piece, so much so that quotes have virtually disappeared. What previously felt like slapdash humor is now more revelatory of a sonic inventiveness. The sonata is a monumental portrait of the Transcendentalists for whom each movement is named. The materials of the piece, drawn from the reservoir of Ives’ musical landscape as evident in the Studies - hymns, patriotic music (specifically Civil War era tunes), and organ music - and experiments in harmonic layering and rhythmic games is deep. The music - the "Concord" Sonata and the canon of shorter works that suround it - truly represents, as Ives put it, a "fabric of existence weaving itself whole."

Image above: Donald Berman (photo by Webb Chappell)


Music Department Colloquium: Donald Berman—“Challenging Authority in Editing Ives”
Thursday, March 28, 2024 at 4:30pm
Adzenyah Rehearsal Hall, Room 003 (Daltry Room), 60 Wyllys Avenue, Middletown

Pianist Donald Berman ’84 will give a talk, “Challenging Authority in Editing Ives.”

The Elizabeth Verveer Tishler Keyboard Recital
Sunday, March 3, 2024 at 4pm
Crowell Concert Hall

A keyboard recital featuring the participants of the Elizabeth Verveer Tishler Competition. This is the 38th recital made possible by the continued support of the prize established by Elizabeth Verveer Tishler in 1981.