A CHOPIN PORTRAIT
Saturday, September 9
Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall (Rozsa Centre)
There are few that would attempt what Calgarian pianist Charles Foreman undertakes. Never one for small tasks, Foreman has mounted larger-than-life projects in the last five years that many musicians wouldnt accomplish in a lifetime.
In 2001, Foreman blazed through his "Sounds of a Century" project that included 10 recitals of 20th century piano music, in which each night represented a decade. Then, in the fall of 2003, Foreman began his first cycle of the 32 Beethoven sonatas showcasing his formidable technique, musical depth and showmanship.
Now, as the fall season opens, Foreman is offering another monumental project that will see him perform a cycle of 153 works of Polish Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin in nine concerts. No small feat for someone who took on the classical piano "late in life."
"I started out playing jazz," says Foreman. "And I didnt start playing classical music until I was about 15 years old. All the Bach inventions and Chopin waltzes and easy Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn sonatas I had to learn when I was quite old. I learned all the hard stuff when I was teenager, like everyone else, but I sort of skipped learning all the teaching kinds of pieces. With my classes at the university, I was finding that I had to teach that basic repertoire; things like the Chopin waltzes that everyone knows, I hadnt learned, but I was having students coming in with them. I could easily teach them, but you always teach a piece better if youve learned it yourself."
Teaching purposes aside, the music of Chopin is interesting in that it really is the only way to understanding the composer himself. Part tragic romantic novel, part HBO special, the details of Chopins life are cloudy and highly embellished. His biography is a mosaic of academic indulgences from his well-known love affair with French novelist and proto-feminist George Sand, his mysterious self-imposed exile in Paris, to his consistent health problems which left him, by most accounts, a frail, sick man.
But all of this gives musicians and music lovers little to go on when attempting to find a shadow of the man in his own music. Foreman believes that with A Chopin Portrait, people will come to better understand not only Chopins music but the man himself.
"For me, it was interesting because, of course, the more of any composer you know, the more you have a deeper understanding of that composer," says Foreman. "And especially Chopin because his biography is so full of holes. Its a mess. All of his letters to George Sand were burned and a lot of the letters to his family are gone. Theres just not a lot of information. Of course he didnt live a long life, but whats obvious about him is that his inner spiritual emotional life was very different from his public life which was more formalized. So, the insight into him really comes from his music. You can read and read and read about Chopin and on many levels youre none the wiser."
In truth, even knowing certain biographical details does nothing for understanding the composer or his music. It isnt known why after nine years, Sand and Chopin split or why Chopin never set foot in Poland again after leaving in his teens.
"You can read about many composers and learn a lot about them by seeing what was happening in their lives at that time," says Foreman. "Not that it would necessarily give you any insight into the music itself, but you can see how their lives are reflected in the music. Certainly with displaced composers such as Martinau, Bartok and Hindemith with the Second World War, you can see that event really affected them and the music they wrote. But with Chopin, its not so clear."
Thats where the in-depth study of published editions becomes so fundamental to the performance of Chopins works. Unlike many composers whose works can be assimilated through definitive editions, Chopin had three for his mature works, all prepared by himself but different in each case. Working from three different sources from England, Germany and France, leads many performers on a quasi wild goose chase in attempts to discover the closest rendering of the music.
"It certainly has deepened my understanding," admits Foreman. "For one thing, when youre preparing this stuff and dealing with a quantity of music from a single composer that is just much larger than normal. In terms of just tempo, when I was preparing for the Beethoven cycle, there were times when I had eight or nine Beethoven sonatas in my fingers that I could play. And questions like whats an allegro? Whats an allegro con brio? Whats an allegro molto? Whats presto? becomes a big problem. And its the same with Chopin. What did he mean by lento? Because while you can always look in a musical dictionary and see that lento is faster than largo and slower than andante, but what does a particular composer mean? You start to be aware of things like this when youre dealing with a composers entire output."
Between major 20th century piano music, the entire Beethoven Sonata cycle and now Chopins entire piano repertoire, Foreman is better suited than anyone to answer these questions.