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CLASSICAL MUSIC

New England Conservatory pianist makes a minimalist effort

Minimalism, says pianist Bruce Brubaker, represents "one of the most substantial changes in music in hundreds of years. It has a public, particularly among young people, but many musicians from the classical side look down on it and do not understand it."

Brubaker has played in Boston as a visiting virtuoso -- the kind with an inquiring mind. Tuesday night in Jordan Hall, he makes his debut as a resident artist, the newest member of the piano faculty at the New England Conservatory. And his program features minimalist works by Philip Glass, John Adams, and Alvin Curran, as well as a piece by a godfather of minimalism, John Cage.

It may be Boston's first piano recital exclusively devoted to this hypnotic musical style based on shifting patterns of repetition. This style was influenced by Indian music that Glass first heard in Paris from Ravi Shankar in the early 1960s when Glass was studying with the great teacher of musical classicism, Nadia Boulanger.

"Before minimalism, even the most advanced contemporary composers were still writing linear, goal-oriented music in which one thing leads to another," Brubaker says. "Glass and the others managed to take away all of that. Their music has no beginning or end, just a middle; it is a kind of suspension, and it embodies a radical approach to time. The music may be `simple,' but the way time passes in this music is not simple at all."

Brubaker is thin, intense, bespectacled; at 45 he still looks like a graduate student and talks with a fiercely illuminating intelligence that emerges through a Midwestern accent. He hails from Des Moines, where, he says, his first piano lessons were with "the lady down the block."

"It was a great place to grow up -- not many other people were trying to be pianists," he explains. "I got to New York and the Juilliard School when I was 20, and I encountered the harsh reality of hundreds of other kids who were excellent musicians and pianists. In Iowa I had opportunities I would never have had in a big city."

From the beginning Brubaker was interested in alternative repertory. He studied Beethoven and Chopin but was also interested in Schoenberg and Scriabin.

Following his studies at Juilliard with Jacob Lateiner, Brubaker began his unconventional but succesful career as performer and teacher. He bowed out of the competition circuit quite early ("It is a very limited way of making yourself known," he says), but it was in a competition that he first attracted the interest of New England Conservatory pianist Russell Sherman, who was a catalyst in bringing him here.

"I heard him play the Second Sonata of Roger Sessions in the impeccable, fastidious way that I learned is his style as a pianist -- very intelligible," Sherman recalls. "For him, every speck of dust on the page counts."

As a faculty member at Juilliard, Brubaker organized marathon surveys of 20th-century music and of music descended from Bach. He planned and annotated the 11 concerts of the 20th-century series and matched 101 student performers to 101 individual pieces.

His ability to think outside the box, to span traditional and unusual repertory, which he often performs in unconventional venues and unexpected contexts, is helping redefine the life of a pianist in a changing world. His students will have to find their own ways of doing that, too. Despite the deceptive example of figures such as Lang Lang and Yundi Li, the path of the traditional touring virtuoso is rarely an option these days for even very gifted pianists.

Brubaker is preoccupied with how to enter musical worlds of the past, how to make the transition between the present moment and history. A current project provides an interesting example: "Haydn Seek," which he is working on with composer Nico Muhly.. (Other Muhly collaborators include Glass and Bjork). Brubaker plays Haydn sonatas as written, but within a shifting electronic sonic environment created by Muhly on his laptop computer.

"Sometimes it is just a glow around the piano sound, but he also adds harmonies and even changes them -- he calls that `grafitti,' " Brubaker explains. "Our hope is to provoke people to listen more closely."

Although two of Brubaker's three CDs are devoted to minimalism, he has by no means given up on the rest of the standard literature. One of the fascinations of minimalism, for him, is a connection with earlier music -- the "friction" that arises between the human fallibility of the performer and music that appears to call for mechanical perfection. Famous passages in Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel acquire part of their expressiveness because they cannot be played with absolutely perfect evenness. The same is true of minimialist pieces, he argues.

Brubaker isn't interested in the question of whether anyone will want to listen to minimalist pieces in 100 years. "I am interested in what people want to listen to right now," he says. "Most people mostly listen to pop music, and they can find connections when they listen to minimalist works, and those in turn may lead people to explore Bach and Mozart. I like to think of my recital programs as building a bridge for the larger audience to cross." 

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