Once, during a phone conversation with Seven Days, pianist David Kaplan delivered an impassioned argument on behalf of live performance. Recordings of classical music, he said, have become so polished that they strip performances of genuine feeling and spontaneity.
It's welcome news, then, that New York City-based Kaplan will give a live concert at the University of Vermont Recital Hall as part of the Lane Series this Friday, May 6. He'll play a selection from New Dances of the Davidsbündler, a set of 16 miniatures, each by a different contemporary composer, which pay homage to Robert Schumann's 1837 work Davidsbündlertänze. One of the miniatures is by violinist-singer-composer Caroline Shaw, who will perform a song cycle and duo works by Schumann during the first half of the program.
The pianist himself commissioned the work, securing contributions from donors and institutions to pay for it. His performance of New Dances, which intersperses Schumann's dances with the contemporary ones, will be a treat for fans of the genre. That's in no small part because Kaplan's playing is equal to the extraordinary emotional range of the original work. New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini, who has called Kaplan an "excellent and adventurous young pianist," included the premiere of New Dances in his list of the 10 best events in the classical world in 2015.
Kaplan, who has appeared in Vermont with the former Burlington Ensemble and Scrag Mountain Music, explained that he had a few goals in commissioning the piece.
"I'm always interested in how to work socially with composers, how to make the process of collaboration with them part of my life," he said. Equally, he is interested in "finding a context for contemporary pieces by having them rooted in works from the past."
Davidsbündlertänze also drew him on a musical level. "Dances of the League of David," as it translates, was Schumann's tribute to his vision of a league of anti establishment composers. Composed when he was 27, the work consists of 18 pieces Schumann attributes on his title page to two fictional characters in the League, Florestan and Eusebius. The composer developed these personae to express his variable states of mind at the time: Florestan's pieces are faster, animated and occasionally humorous; Eusebius' are more expressive and melancholy.
The German composer had a "complex mental landscape," said Kaplan — he would likely be diagnosed with bipolar disorder today — and Davidsbündlertänze "could be thought of as written by many people. I thought it fertile ground for composers to offer their own takes in the spirit of the original."
The composers, who include Augusta Read Thomas, Mohammed Fairouz, Gabriel Kahane and Martin Bresnick, approached the challenge in widely different ways. Kaplan gave them only two rules, which some chose to break: Select and respond to one Schumann dance, on a first-come, first-served basis; and limit the piece to between one and three minutes (most of Schumann's last two minutes or less).
Some composers created "thoroughly original pieces" that responded conceptually to one of the two personae, Kaplan said. Others "embedded their music into the original score, bar by bar or section by section." Still others, like Shaw — a colleague of Kaplan's from their days at Yale School of Music — focused on a single motif.
"It's been gratifying to see what the composers did," the pianist said.
It has also pleased Kaplan, the enemy of the overengineered, to vary combinations of the pieces. No two performances are alike, he noted. While the full work lasts an hour and 10 minutes, his Vermont performance will include only 10 of the new dances.
Kaplan added that, stylistically, the contemporary pieces and the Schumann strongly diverge. (Four of the new ones are available on SoundCloud.) But "the emotional content [of both] relates in such a way that the stylistic differences evaporate," he said. "Most people get lost in it, and I think that's good."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Pianist David Kaplan Pairs Schumann With Contemporary Collaborators"