Beauty, California, Christian Baldini, Concerto, Conductor, Music, piano, Soloist

Ryan McCullough in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On April 21, 2022, I will have the pleasure of conducting the US Première of Oscar Strasnoy’s Piano Concerto Kuleshov with Ryan McCullough as our soloist, together with the phenomenal UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California. Below is a very engaging interview with Ryan talking about Strasnoy, and other interesting topics:

Christian Baldini: Ryan, it will be a pleasure to have you with us for this US première of a composer that I admire and like so much, and which requires a soloist just like you. What can you share with people about Oscar Strasnoy’s Piano Concerto Kuleshov? What is unusual, different and/or attractive about it?

Ryan McCullough: Thank you so much for having me here, Christian, and for your kind words. What I find so interesting about concerti written in this century (and the end of the last) is how much they operate like musical jukeboxes. John Adams’ Century Rolls (1996) is a perfect example of this, a kind of musical survey of piano music in the 20th century, but from the perspective of listening to recordings: of contemporary jazz, stride, bebop, Stravinsky, Satie heard through Art Tatum… the piano is a kind of distant object, a fixture of the past filtered through the intimacy of listening to old recordings in the present. Adams’ more recent piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes (2018) is another stylistic grab bag (specifically taking a foray into funk), and there are many other recent pieces I can think of that do this—Julian Anderson’s The Imaginary Museum (2017, also a stylistic grab bag), George Benjamin’s Duet (2008, even more of a throwback to the concerto pre-Beethoven), and Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong (2001, a reimagining of Olivier Messiaen’s birdsong piano music, almost comically from the perspective birds imitating human music). More broadly, the idea of the piano concerto has been ‘broken’ for a while now. Luciano Berio said in 1973 that the concerto, with its 19th-century notions of competition and super-human strength on the part of the pianist, had no meaning anymore, especially in a society where recording technology had effectively replaced the piano as the central hub of domestic music-making. This is even more so the case today—one could easily argue that the true descendant of the piano is a streaming service like Spotify!

Oscar Strasnoy’s Kuleshov definitely explores this idea. It’s almost like a playlist of six or seven songs on random shuffle, where the piano and ensemble snap in and out of different points in each song. Similarly to the Benjamin I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a concerto in the Lisztian sense, where I’m fighting with the orchestra to see who’s faster, louder, better… we’re inseparable. The ensemble floats in and out of the resonance of the piano, and the piano imitates instruments in the ensemble. If you can’t really tell who’s who, then we’re doing a good job! Virtuosity in this case is like a magician performing sleight of hand—“where’d my card go?!”

CB: Who are some other composers you admire, and why?

RMC: There are so many, this is such a hard question. There are many incredible composers doing really wonderful work today, and I feel very lucky to have many friends who are such composers. One is Christopher Stark, who has been writing really powerful, metaphysical works that address climate change head-on. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Tonia Ko, who has a tremendous talent for enlarging the very smallest, most intimate sounds we experience in casual everyday life. Elizabeth Ogonek, who I’m co-teaching a course with on instrument building at Cornell this semester, has an ear that can bend reality (e.g., “there is no spoon”), her music is full of sounds that are truly unreal. Jesse Jones is another friend whose music is just so freaking honest, you feel like you’ve had an unbelievably engaging conversation with an old friend. Dante De Silva is a very close friend who has been exploring alternative tuning systems recently, and writes music that is so personal, almost auto-biographical, but in a way that’s light-hearted and often self-effacing. I could go on… these folks are all in their 30s and 40s, it’s really inspiring, the future of new music feels secure.

In terms of old music, I’ve really fallen in love with the music of William Grant Still recently, there is so much clarity in the writing balancing his rich, resplendent use of harmony and texture. Also the British composer Adela Maddison, a woman known primarily (and erroneously) as Fauré’s lover, who wrote some absolutely magical song cycles and chamber music. Like many women composers in the late 19th century, she has disappeared into the patriarchal fabric of history.

On the other hand, I was just practicing a Mozart concerto for a run of concerts this summer, and ****, how could one person have been so inventive…

CB: You’ve also been composing lately, especially for yourself and your wife (the wonderful soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon). What do you look for in your own compositions? What defines your aesthetics, your choices, your imagery?

I haven’t really had any time to compose this semester, which has been a real shame, and something I plan to rectify this summer. Composing as a performer is (I imagine) a bit like cooking when you’re a professional chef—you spend all this time making incredible dishes for someone else, but when you get home and only have a few hours left to sleep, you barely manage to throw some instant ramen in the microwave and wash it down with a shot of bourbon. Composing is almost like satisfying a craving—you need certain sounds, and aren’t getting them anywhere else, so you go searching for them.

Most of what I’ve written recently has been vocal music. I began setting some poetry by Emily Dickinson (Indeterminate Inflorescence) in March 2020, born from a need for spiritual peace by exploring the reassurance of eternity. Most of the songs play games with infinite loops, where (like the flower structures they’re named for) beginnings and ends are effectively mirror images and can be repeated ad infinitum. Perhaps appropriately, there are still a couple of songs in that cycle that need to be finished and engraved so Lucy and I can finally perform it as a set…

The second set (Argumentum e Silentio), based on the French-German-Jewish poet Paul Celan, is considerably darker, and has renewed meaning to me now. The poetry, which I set in German, is also thinking about eternity, but from a more cynical perspective, a sense that history constantly repeats and everything that is beautiful must be balanced by something that is ugly. One line in particular—from the second song in this cycle, Espenbaum (“Aspen Tree”)—has been on repeat in my head recently: “Löwenzahn, so grün ist die Ukraine. / Meine blonde Mutter kam nicht heim.” [Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine. / My blonde mother never came home.] Celan was born in what is now Ukraine, and both of Celan’s parents perished in the Holocaust in what is now the Russian-backed breakaway state of Transnistria, between Ukraine and Moldova. Historically, Ukraine as a nation has always been more of an ideal than a reality, and so the double-edged imagery of birth and death from the same soil is uncomfortably poignant today. This cycle was hard to write, because such pungent poetry doesn’t need “help”, more a platform to express itself.

The last set (Mister In-Between)was a different kind of coping mechanism, all arrangements of jazz standards by the American lyricist Johnny Mercer, written for and performed with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. If you don’t know who Mercer is, then the titles “Jeepers Creepers” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive” will help. This ended up being an exercise in “creative nostalgia”—since these songs are so well-known, it’s easy to mindlessly fall into clichés, or completely drown them in sauce and obscure the extraordinarily creative structures. Stephanie is a force of nature, and composing these arrangements for her was unbelievably inspiring. We’ll be recording the whole set this summer.

CB: How were your beginnings with music? How did it all start for you?

RMC: It was bit by bit. My mom and grandmother both played piano, my grandfather (who was a master woodworker) had stripped the black paint off their Grinnell Brothers baby grand piano and refinished it to reveal its gorgeous mahogany veneer. I started piano when I was 5, but around the time I was 11 there was a confluence of forces—I started composing, I started playing clarinet in various ensembles, was singing in a children’s choir (then subsequently a jazz ensemble and barbershop choir). Suddenly music was everything, and everything was music, and that’s hard to undo. I guess it was a bit like that old piano—there was something underneath that just needed a little time to reveal, then it was off to the races.

CB: What would be your advice for your musicians starting out and/or struggling to find their path? How does one deal with adversity, bad days or rather, what can help find more hope to keep working hard?

RMC: I’m not gonna lie, if I was unsure about encouraging students to pursue a professional career in music before the pandemic, I am even less sure now. This is not an implication of the art itself, which will survive anything, but a testament to the reality that so much of our professional development is non-linear. You give what feels like an amazing performance in a big venue as part of a major festival… nothing comes of it, straight into the void. You phone in a concert at a school… suddenly people are asking you to play that piece again and again. This is even more pronounced with digital content production, which is now a significant part of the job. You spend hours and hours carefully crafting a video recording, edits and color grading and audio mastering… 27 people watch it. Or you make an audition video for someone in an afternoon and… 40k views. It makes no sense. You spend so much time as an admin, leveraging what you’re doing or about to do in order to get more work, it feels like the work itself is secondary.

On some fundamental level we are all conditioned to seek positive feedback—you want to know that what you’re doing is good, and we learn to rely on that external input from the time we’re little. This is useful for training and education, but you eventually must shut it down. You can only learn to develop a specific voice by listening to your inner ear and trusting your own instincts. As a teacher, I know half of what I’m advising students to do is ********, or at least not 100% perfectly suited to every person, and so I work to get them thinking about their own wishes and desires as soon as humanly possible, and to learn to be curious problem solvers.

If you know that music is your life, and there are no other paths that will satisfy you as much, then you will find a place for yourself, but only if you listen honestly to your inner ear and match those genuine desires with external expectations. If you only focus on what other people tell you is good, you might get somewhere in the short term, but in the long term you will cease to exist, and at that point you are eminently disposable. Know thyself, as the ancient maxim goes…

CB: Thank you so much for your wise words, beautiful musicality and time, and I can’t wait to make music with you!

RMC: It has been such a pleasure, the ensemble sounds great, the piece is amazing, California in the springtime is gorgeous… Looking forward to the concert!

Ryan McCullough

Born in Boston and raised behind the Redwood Curtain of northern California, pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough has developed a diverse career as soloist, vocal and instrumental collaborator, composer, recording artist, and pedagogue. Ryan’s music-making encompasses work with historical keyboards, electro-acoustic tools and instruments, and close collaborations with some of today’s foremost composers. In a performance of Chopin “his virtuosity was evident and understated, his playing projected a warmth… that conjured the humanity of Arthur Rubinstein,” (Eli Newberger, The Boston Musical Intelligencer) and in a performance of contemporary music, his playing “found a perfect balance between the gently shimmering and the more brittle, extroverted strands… and left you eager to hear the rest.” (Allan Kozinn, NY Times).

Ryan’s growing discography features many world premiere recordings, including solo piano works of Milosz Magin (Acte Prealable), Andrew McPherson (Secrets of Antikythera, Innova), John Liberatore (Line Drawings, Albany), Nicholas Vines (Hipster Zombies from Mars, Navona), art song and solo piano music of John Harbison and James Primosch with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon (Descent/Return, Albany), and art song by Sheila Silver (Beauty Intolerable, Albany, also with Ms. Fitz Gibbon). He has also appeared on PBS’s Great Performances (Now Hear This, “The Schubert Generation”) and is an alumnus of NPR’s From the Top.

As concerto soloist Ryan has appeared frequently with orchestra, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sarasota Festival Orchestra, Colburn Conservatory Orchestra, Orange County Wind Symphony, and World Festival Orchestra, with such conductors as George Benjamin, Gisele Ben-Dur, Fabien Gabel, Leonid Grin, Anthony Parnther, Larry Rachleff, Mischa Santora, and Joshua Weilerstein. Mr. McCullough has collaborated with the Mark Morris Dance Group, contemporary ensembles eighth blackbird and yarn/wire, and has performed at festivals including the Tanglewood Music Center, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, Sarasota Festival, Nohant International Chopin Festival, and Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. Highlights of the ‘21-‘22 season include an original cabaret collaboration with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, three separate tours with the Mark Morris Dance Group, a residency with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Brahms’ Die Schöne Magelone at the Harvard Musical Association with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and performances of Stockhausen’s MANTRA at Notre Dame and Syracuse Universities as part of ensemble HereNowHear.

Ryan lives in Kingston, NY, with his wife, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and in his time off can be found brewing beer, building and modifying audio equipment, or photographing the sublime Hudson Valley. For additional information and curios, visit www.RyanMMcCullough.com.

[current as of March, 2022]

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