Classical Notes: Variations on the Goldberg Variations, from Dan Tepfer
By Joseph Dalton
Maybe it’s because pianist Dan Tepfer was raised in France by American parents that his musical career also encompasses two languages, classical and jazz. On Saturday evening at the Hudson Opera House, Tepfer will perform his signature work “Goldberg Variations / Variations,” which brings together those distinct but interconnected realms. Over the course of about 80 minutes, he plays Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations in its entirety. But after each of the 30 variations, he ventures into a free improvisation all his own.
“My home is definitely in jazz,” explains Tepfer. “But I’ve been drawn to Bach since I was a kid. I love any form of good music and taking inspiration from the classical and the pop side.”
Jumping back and forth between styles, or infusing some jazz with classical themes, it’s all been done before with varying levels of success. There may be something unique, though, in Tepfer’s side-by-side juxtaposition. Yet keeping the two straight in his head, so to speak, is another matter.
“One thing’s for sure, that when you’re improvising it activates a different part of your mind than when you’re playing a written text,” observes Tepfer, who is also a composer. “There’s something interesting in taking that leap every time get onstage.”
Always going for a fresh perspective is a challenge to any performer, but especially an improviser. Tepfer has taken guidance on this from an elder colleague, the jazz saxophonist and composer Lee Konitz.
“Lee is somebody who his whole life has stressed being in the moment,” says Tepfer. “That means when you improvise to connect as much as possible with every element – the way you feel, the way the audience feels, your instrument, the hall. No moment is the same as any other moment and that’s where I come from with the Goldbergs. I try to dig deep every time.”
Though Tepfer performs a variety of other kinds of concerts – after the solo gig in Hudson, he’ll be touring with Konitz – he’s gotten a lot of mileage out the Goldbergs project in recent years. Nothing’s wrong with that. On their own, Bach’s Goldberg Variations have long served as calling cards for other pianists, including of course the legendary Glenn Gould, and more recently Jeremy Denk, who’s performed the masterpiece twice in only the last few years at Union College in Schenectady. Yet it’s that wide embrace of the Goldbergs that’s made Tepfer’s project all the more daring.
“One thing I’ve learned is if you do something that on the face of it is a bad idea – messing with the one of the greatest works of art – you’d better do it really well,” says Tepfer. “But if you do it really well, people will be agreeably surprised that it worked. Otherwise it’s artistic suicide.”
Notices have been more than good, that’s for sure. Tepfer’s recording of the “Variations/Variations” was released in 2011 and he says there were only two reviews that were extremely negative. Surprisingly, one of those came not from a stuffy classical critic who took offense, but from a jazz writer. Tepfer’s response is that the more you know Bach, who was an extraordinarily prolific composer and also a lively improviser, the more you’ll understand.
“Being up in arms about something usually comes from a place of ignorance,” says Tepfer. “German people have been the most opened minded about doing new things with Bach.”
“I think of Bach as a mountain that already exists,” he continues. “We don’t take anything away from a mountain by climbing it or taking a picture of it, or even taking a picture and turning it upside down. What can damage Bach is missing the spirit of this music, which is alive and dancing.”
Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.
“Goldberg Variations / Variations”
by J. S. Bach and Dan Tepfer
When: 7 p.m. Saturday (2/14)
Where: Hudson Opera House, 327 Warren Street, Hudson
Tickets: $35. Call 822-1438. Or visit: http://www.hudsonoperahouse.org/