A chat with Robert Pinsky


Embracing my new role as AFC’s blog guy, I was able to steal a few minutes of Robert Pinsky’s time, between our first rehearsal and his cab ride out, to do a quick interview. He’ll be joining us this Friday in Jordan Hall, reciting Richard Dehmel’s “Transfigured Night” and narrating Jean Francaix’s Gargantua, in a new translation by Laura Marris.

MU: First off, any thoughts on reading other people’s poetry, versus reading your own. I’m guessing that most of what you end up reading is your own work.

RP: Well, you know, I did a very significant project, in my opinion, the Favorite Poem Project. And if you go to you’ll hear a construction worker reading Walt Whitman, you’ll hear a glass blower read a Frank O’Hara poem, a Cambodian-American immigrant in San Jose read a Langston Hughes Poem, “Minstrel Man." It’s not about poets or actors reading poetry, it’s not about performance in the sense of an audience, and it’s not about the instrument of the poet being the poet’s voice. The poet writes with that instrument, but the poet writes for the reader’s voice, so it’s for each reader imagining what’s there. The poem is something that happens… like a piece of music.

MU: It’s a shared experience then, in that way.

RP: Yes, and there’s always a collaboration between the composer, or poet, and the person, perhaps thousands of miles away, perhaps not born yet, whoever that person is who reads the poem and gives voice to the poem.

MU: What do you think, then, of the text we’ve inflicted upon you, Gargantua?

RP: Well I’m interested in comedy and in humanism, and Rabelais was a great humanist and a great scholar. It’s not just about toilet talk; it’s not just about sex or absurdity. When he deflates the jargon-ridden pedants of the Sorbonne, he’s saying something very serious about art and knowledge, and it’s a very cleansing laughter. So, for me, it’s not a stretch at all to admire the Rabelais, and to enjoy reading the Rabelais in Laura Marris’s wonderful translation.

MU: It is wonderful! And as a French speaker myself, having gotten to know both versions, the puzzles she was able to solve were impressive. What can you say about Laura?

RP: She was a student in BU’s very small, very selective MFA program in creative writing. She was my student for two or three years and she helped me with my MOOC, The Order of Poetry. She’s a brilliant young poet, a great teacher. And she knows French very well, she’s written about French culture and poetry.

MU: What are your thoughts about working with musicians? You can be honest.

RP: I’m a frustrated musician. I wanted to be a musician. In my high school graduating class, I was not voted most literate boy, definitely not most successful boy. I was voted most musical boy. My identity was playing the saxophone, and it helped me a lot through difficult years. I would be a professional musician today except for the single obstacle of a deficiency of talent.

MU: Do you have a heroes specific to the saxophone? Musical heroes?

RP: I admire Dexter Gordon very much. I would say if I had to pick one I’d pick Dexter. I was fascinated by the fact that there were Jewish saxophone players: Lee Konitz, Stan Getz on the tenor, Zoot Sims.

MU: We had an awesome experience last year doing Stan Getz’s old album Focus, with Harry Allen.

RP: That's great! You know, I do this too; I have two CDs with Laurence Hobgood, who used to be the music director for Kurt Elling. Our new one is called “House Hour,” it’s from my poems, and I always say I’m a non-singing vocalist. We’ll be at the Regatta Bar next month.

MU: I literally wrote these questions during my lunch break…

RP: You’re doing fine!

MU: but… road trippin’ soundtrack?

RP: Well, driving back from the Cape with two cats complaining a little bit in the back seat, we put on – again reeds – we put on the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, and I had a sense that even the cats calmed down a bit hearing that beautiful music. So, you never know. Another time on that same trip it was Jimmy Scott.

Criers welcome Roger Tapping on viola!

tapping A Far Cry has collaborated with a handful of fabulous flute and piano soloists, but until this point, never have we worked with a string soloist from outside the band. It is such an incredible honor for me to have my mentor and teacher, Roger Tapping, joining us as viola soloist for Britten’s Lachrymae on this cycle.

Roger is one of those musicians, one of those artists, that everyone admires. Not only is he an incomparable violist, but he is also a graceful diplomat, and a true gentleman. We were reluctant to have him join us for our very first reading of the Britten on Friday afternoon, because the first rehearsal is traditionally a time when the orchestra has the opportunity to fix and expose basic issues of ensemble, dynamics, character, and transitions. We were worried about embarrassing ourselves in front of a fellow musician who we look up to so much! But, his gentle leadership from the viola carried us through the rehearsal. He demonstrated his sound world, the palate of colors he wanted to use, the tempi he preferred, discussed dynamics with us, and the whole rehearsal felt like such incredible chamber music making. I can’t wait to continue to rehearse this piece with Roger and the Criers over the next week, and especially can’t wait for the performances!

Join us for one of the performances with Roger Tapping, either Thursday April 17th at Eastern Nazarene College (North Quincy, MA), or Saturday April 19th at Pickman Hall/Longy School of Music (Cambridge, MA). He’s going to knock your socks off!

Mr. Seymour Lipkin in Beantown April 20.

Mr. LipkinI spent 7 consecutive summers at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival in Blue Hill, Maine, and Mr. Lipkin was there as the Artistic Director for every single one (and still is). He has coached me in numerous different chamber ensembles, including a memorable Brahms Piano Quintet in the year 2000. As a teacher, he is utterly unrelenting. If he hears something which he thinks is not communicating to him, he will right away let one know that the phrase is not coming out. "Again!" as he used to say, and we'd be trying our hardest to make the music breathe a little more. ("mere mortals" applied to my status every time..)

Because he knew how to do it... Grab those moments of ecstasy, and making you believe that one should strive to live in such beauty, as he chose how to touch the hammers of the piano to sculpt the last lines of the slow movement to the Schubert B-flat Piano Trio. As a frequent member of the audience at Kneisel Hall, every time a faculty concert would happen, was already an occasion, but especially when Mr. Lipkin would be performing, there was never a question that it was going to be electric. For 7 summers and twice most weekends, I heard everything he played on that stage and soaked it in as much as possible... The meat and potatoes of the chamber music repertoire, the Mozarts, the Beethovens, and the Brahms, he just knew it more convincingly than anyone I had ever met before or since that first year. And of course, behind a great man, there's always a greater woman. Ellen Werner, who is the Executive Director of Kneisel Hall, have been our surrogate summer mom for many summers, and she makes sure he is well, and we are well. We love you Seymour & Ellen.

So it is a sincere honor to be performing with one of my truest mentors and beacons of musical spirits, as he has agreed so generously to help A Far Cry mark its first year. This upcoming Sunday, April 20th at 4pm, at St. Paul's Church in Brookline (which is the 2nd installment of our April set), he will be performing the ebullient C Major Piano Concerto, no. 13, K. 415 by W. A. Mozart. I mean he is one of those rare old-school guys who's performances are completely spell-binding, and I assure you, the Criers are going to be SO excited to play, it is going to be off the hook!! Seriously, Boston... Do not miss this one!!! (Or the night before!!)