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Thelma Hunter - Reflections: Music of My Life

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Thelma Hunter
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I enjoyed a happy, wonderfully rich musical childhood in Staten Island, New York, with my mother (a singer and cellist), younger brother (a violinist) and father, a choir director and organist who played viola when needed. At weekly living room concerts with the four of us, my brother and I learned how to bow, acknowledge applause and keep going through mistakes and memory lapses. At age five, I entered a contest sponsored by New York City's Music Education League, winning the silver medal; the gold medal followed two years later. I remember using pedal extenders because my feet couldn't reach the pedals. There were innumerable opportunities to perform during the Depression in the 30s: concerts in the parks, literary society teas, Frick Museum recitals, in churches and at colleges. In 1939, I was the soloist in Grieg's Piano Concerto on "Norway Day" at the New York World's Fair. Later, I played that work under the baton of Grieg's friend Percy Grainger at the Ernest Williams Music Camp in the Catskills. Unforgettable! It was inevitable that the Emile family, of one-hundred-percent-Norwegian heritage, would plan a concert tour of Norway. In 1935, my brother, mother and I gave 26 concerts in the space of a month, followed by a month of visiting relatives and just having fun. From age twelve until I went to Cornell, I studied in New York with the eminent Dutch pianist Albert von Doenhoff. My lessons were hours long, often including lunch and practice time while he played tennis or tended his garden. Von Doenhoff prepared me well for study with Egon Petri, my teacher at Cornell, though his curriculum was very light on French music. While at Cornell, I made my New York debut at Town Hall under the auspices of the University and the Cornell Glee Club. Several important milestones followed in quick succession. I married Sam Hunter, who was awarded the MD, and I received the Artist Diploma-the highest honor given to performers at the Eastman School of Music-with my MA. In 1947 I accepted a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, where many of my students, who were returning from World War II on the GI Bill, were older than myself. I've been blessed with opportunities to perform in the region, with the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) and other regional orchestras, and in recital with extraordinary colleagues. It has been my privilege to participate in many premieres, including works by Skrowaczewski, Paulus, Schoenfield, Vandervelde, Thomas and Barnett. This commitment to new music came late; though I was surrounded by composers at Eastman, it has been my work with the Jerome Foundation, American Composers Forum and Minnesota Commissioning Club that has stimulated my interest. My involvement with the Boards of several venerable arts organizations has given me great satisfaction and sense of purpose. None is dearer to my heart than The Schubert Club. It's standards of excellence, established by distinguished, strong-willed women, are still maintained today on an international stage. My deep gratitude to Bruce Carlson and The Schubert Club for bringing this CD-made in the twilight of my life-into being. Program notes. Rejoice Beloved Christians J. S. Bach/arr. Busoni To bring Bach's organ music to a wider audience, Ferruccio Busoni made piano arrangements of ten chorale preludes in 1907-1909. Busoni (1866-1924) was born in Tuscany and entered the Vienna Conservatory at age nine. A friend to Mahler and Sibelius, his fame as a keyboard virtuoso overshadowed his considerable gifts as a composer. His most distinguished pupil was Egon Petri, Thelma Hunter's teacher at Cornell. Bach's quicksilver organ prelude on Nun freut each, lieben Christen (BWV 755) places figuration in the hands, the tune in the feet. At the piano, the hands must juggle the melody along with the running notes. And nothing is more magical than the conjuring of several voices from just two hands. 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Beethoven composed the 32 Variations in 1806 and published it the next year, but didn't dignify it with an opus number. It is a formidable work in a key that often propelled Beethoven's raptus-his word for fantasy-to dramatic and heroic heights. A powerful chromatic bass provides the eight-bar framework for more variations than in any Beethoven work until the Diabelli Variations, when he goes one better to 33. Grande valse brillante in E-flat major, Opus 18 Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) Berceuse, Opus 57 Scherzo in B-flat minor, Opus 31 The scandalous waltz, in which couples embraced, was all the rage following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. Composed in 1833, Opus 18 was Chopin's first waltz in print. It shows the influence of Weber's Invitation to the Dance in it's seven alternating songful and brilliant waltz types, introduced by a fanfare. The brilliant close is accelerando in diminuendo. In the singular Berceuse, from 1844, a moment in time expands, like the dreams of a child, as a fanciful series of variations for the right hand. "The work is pure tone color," writes Charles Rosen. "All overt excitement has been removed from virtuosity, leaving only the breathless tension which is the homage paid to supreme grace." The Scherzo No. 2, composed in 1837, is the most ambitious of the four works in which Chopin recreated the genre that had been the comic relief of the classical symphony. (Of Chopin's first scherzo, Schumann had asked "how gravity is to clothe itself if humor goes about in such dark veils?") These free-standing works begin where the scherzos of Beethoven leave off, but even that master did not undertake the voyage that Chopin charts here. The work begins mysteriously, first obscuring the meter, then crying out in B-flat minor. With a masterful gesture, D-flat major is made lyrically clear in an outpouring that is one of the joys of the literature. The trio, a third away in A major, introduces a wavy melody that develops and dances itself practically to death. From exultant arches, Chopin sidesteps into a hair-raising coda, finally touching those extremes-the highest and the next-to-lowest note on his piano-he had marked so strikingly before. La Cathédrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral) Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Beginning in 1909, Debussy wrote two books with twelve preludes each for a Bachian total of 24, placing suggestive titles at the end of each piece. These are more self-contained forms than the Baroque prelude-more than a lift-off, each is a landing on another world. The tenth in Book 1 evokes the Breton legend of the Cathedral of Ys, "which was engulfed in the fourth or fifth century because of the impiety of the inhabitants," writes E. Robert Schmitz. It was "allowed to rise again and to be seen (as an example to others) at sunrise." As in La Mer, Debussy paints a vivid sea picture. From profound calm, the fog gradually lifts until the cathedral stands in full sun. A second theme provides richer harmony, then the vision slides back under the waves. Throughout, one hears plainsong and bells; on the page, the notes trace arches and buttresses. Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Opus 35, No. 1 Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847) Mendelssohn was still a teenager when he composed the Fugue in E minor, which is remarkable for it's imitation of Baroque style, for it's dynamic and not-Baroque approach to texture, but most of all for the chorale-not an actual chorale, but a new tune-which is invoked to consecrate the work, a coup de theâtre which Mendelssohn would repeat in the C-minor Piano Trio and the Reformation Symphony. Ten years later, in 1837, he added a prelude in song-without-words style. Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs) Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Waldesrauschen is one of two Concert Studies from 1862. The murmurs begin gently with a winding melody. The absence of a bass places the listener somewhere in the treetops, and the downbeat isn't immediately clear. The pedal, described by Busoni as "a photograph of the sky, a ray of moonlight," is crucial here. And what composer captures the feeling of vertigo better than Liszt? Intermezzo in A major, Opus 118, No. 2 Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Rhapsody in G minor, Opus 79, No. 1 Late in life, Brahms gathered twenty character pieces, most of them simply called Intermezzo, into four sets which are treasured by pianists. Light is reflected through the many little canons and inversions of the gem-like Intermezzo in A, with it's hopeful three-note opening motive. Two telling Chopinesque changes provide the high point on the reprise. There is a charming drawing by Beckerath of Brahms playing the G-Minor Rhapsody: back straight, arms outstretched, left hand reaching over right, cigar ashes drooping toward his white beard as smoke funnels up. One of two rhapsodies written in the summer of 1879 and dedicated to Elisabet von Herzogenberg, who had once inflamed Brahms's ardor but who now, as a happily married woman, was a close confidante. The G-minor is a great and stormy sonata movement which steps boldly forth in spiraling sequences. The clouds hang low in this piece, with it's deep tessitura and ominous oscillations. March of the Dwarfs, Opus 54, No. 3 Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) When the Emile family toured Norway in 1935, March of the Dwarfs, which Thelma had studied with Albert von Doenhoff, was on the program. Later, it was to have an enduring place in the Hunter household as a tune to send the six boys off to bed. A fine pianist who performed his own music exclusively, Grieg published the Lyric Pieces in ten books throughout his career. Character pieces in the Schumann/Mendelssohn tradition, the Opus 54, from 1889-91, contains a new infusion of Norwegian spirit. The March is in simple ABA form, but the palette is orchestral and the range of sound enormous, from dainty arabesques to stomping fortissimo. Country Gardens Percy Grainger (1882-1961) Born in Australia, Percy Grainger studied in Berlin with Busoni and later befriended Grieg. An athletic virtuoso, he was also active as a folk song collector. When World War I broke out, Grainger moved to America (he played a Schubert Club recital in 1915) and served in the U.S. Army. Country Gardens, a setting of a Morris dance tune, was completed during his Army years; it became his best-known work. Although he called such settings "potboilers," his influence was felt by many later arrangers, Benjamin Britten among them. Grainger insisted on "Nordic" English rather than Italian in his profuse performance directions. Instead of crescendo, he writes "louden hugely"; a chromatic bass is marked "violently"; chords are to be "violently wrenched". At one point, he asks that a single note be played with the fist! During Thelma's sophomore year of high school, Country Gardens played an all-important role in her introduction to Sam Hunter's family. The Hunters were members of the Plymouth Brethren, an insular sect. Though they had an upright piano, they had never been to a concert. "Play us a wee tune," said Sam's mother in her Irish brogue, when Thelma visited them for the first time. It was a crucial moment: the Moonlight Sonata? Fantaisie-Impromptu? Thelma rolled up her sleeves and launched into Country Gardens. When she finished, Mrs. Hunter was won over, and could only ask, "Would you play that again?" And so Thelma has, to our delight. © 2007 David Evan Thomas.

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Thelma Hunter - Reflections: Music of My Life.

1) Rejoice Beloved Christians
2) 32 Variations in C Minor
3) Grande Valse Brillante Op. 18
4) Berceuse Op. 57
5) Scherzo in B-Flat Minor Op. 31
6) La Cathédral Engloutie
7) Prelude and Fugue Op. 35 No. 1
8) Waldesrauschen
9) Intermezzo in a Major Op. 118 No. 2
10) Rhapsody in B Minor Op. 79 No. 1
11) March of the Dwarfs Op. 54 No. 3
12) Country Gardens

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Reflections: Music of My Life | Thelma Hunter