Elan Sicroff is one of the leading interpreters of Thomas de Hartmann’s music and his extensive recording project with the Nimbus label brings de Hartmann’s chamber and solo piano music to a wider audience. Here he talks about the project as well as his own influences and inspirations and the experience of recording and performing de Hartmann’s music.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There were two people who influenced my decision to become a professional musician:
I met J.G. Bennett in December 1972. He directed an academy in Gloucestershire modelled after the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, founded by George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher and polymath. At the time I was ambivalent about my path as a musician, and he said to me “If you have talent, it is a gift. It doesn’t belong to you, and you have an obligation to share it.”
Bennett was particularly interested in Beethoven’s music, and we worked together on the late sonatas Op. 110 and 111. During this time I also came across the music of Thomas de Hartmann, beginning my lifelong involvement with his music.
A second important influence is the guitarist Robert Fripp. In 1985 he produced my CD Journey to Inaccessible Places – the music of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. Since 2006 he has helped me with a 21-year effort to bring de Hartmann’s classical music back to public awareness. In 2010 he introduced me to Gert-Jan Blom, Artistic Producer for the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. We embarked on a five year recording project in 2011, resulting in six hours of music for solo piano, voice and chamber ensemble, now being released by Nimbus Alliance Records.
I would like to mention one other, overwhelmingly important influence on my pianistic and musical development. This was Jeaneane Dowis. When I first met her in 1964 when she was 32 years old: elegant, beautiful, and brilliant. In her early 20s she had become assistant to Rosina Lhevinne, on the strength of her ground-breaking discoveries in piano technique. Rosina had taught Van Cliburn, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958, and students flocked from around the world to study with her. She sent those with technical problems to Jeaneane, and soon she was teaching 70 hours a week. I was 14 years old at the time, and she agreed to teach me if I was accepted by the Juilliard Preparatory School. The four years I spent with her were consistently exhilarating. She had astonishing insights, not only in technique but also in musicianship and interpretation. I went back to her again in the 1980s for further study, and her teaching had moved to another level: her remarkable discoveries about ease of movement, related to skeletal anatomy and visualization, deserve to be more widely known.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
After nearly 40 years teaching piano, I was thrust into the world of professional musicians in 2011, due to the needs of the Thomas de Hartmann Project. The recordings in the Netherlands that began in 2011 presented many firsts for me.
The repertoire was very demanding. Many of the pieces contained technical difficulties, and once those were surmounted the task of turning them into music could be challenging. This was especially true for the later works, like the Commentaries on Ulysses Op. 71 and Musique pour la fête de la patronne Op. 77.
Accompanying vocal music was something I had never done before. Working with musicians of the calibre of Claron McFadden – a celebrated soprano in the Netherlands; and Nina Lejderman, a talented young opera singer, was quite a stretch.
Recording is an uncomfortable process and presents its own challenges. I have had to overcome my self-consciousness, which was magnified whenever the engineer said “You’re On!” After five years in the studio I have learned to trust the process. I now find myself looking forward to it: the birth pains are unavoidable, but the result is worth it.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
In 2016 the Thomas de Hartmann Project gave two memorable performances at Splendor in Amsterdam. The venue is quite special, founded in 2010 by a group of musicians, composers, and artists who needed a place to experiment and perform as they saw fit. When the de Hartmann recording project in Hilversum came to an end, many participants offered their services, pro bono, for the recitals. Music for saxophones, a trio for flute, violin and piano; sonatas for violin and cello, works for solo piano as well as de Hartmann’s songs were among the works featured. The response was very positive, confirming our belief that the listening audience was becoming ready to embrace de Hartmann’s music, after many years of neglect.
As for recordings: I have made 3 CDs of the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music. I like all of them, but my favourite is Laudamus…, released in 2010.
That said, the Thomas de Hartmann Project CDs, now being released by Nimbus, occupy a special place for me. They represent the first commercial recordings of Thomas de Hartmann’s work, ever. I am so happy that this music is now available for the public to enjoy, and also to play. The contributions of Gert-Jan Blom, producer extraordinaire, and Guido Tichelman, one of the leading recording engineers in Europe, cannot be overstated. Gert-Jan brought his wide-ranging knowledge and enthusiasm to the project, and the sound quality that Guido captured is of the highest order.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I find myself attracted to composers who are able express deeper meaning in their music. In May 1970 I sang in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, presented by the Oberlin Conservatory, as an act of protest against the Vietnam War. I was strongly affected by how Mozart expressed the meaning of the words through his music. It was a seminal moment, which lead me to look for more works by Mozart and other composers that had this power.
Beethoven’s struggles with deafness are well known – he even contemplated suicide in his thirties as a result, but decided to continue and compose for the benefit of mankind. His compositions became a chronicle of his inner life. The same can be said for Schubert – contracting syphilis was a death sentence, and his music often reflects his inner struggles, sometimes leading to defiance, at others to acceptance.
Thomas de Hartmann attempted to express psychological ideas that he encountered through his work with Kandinsky and Gurdjieff, in addition to wide-ranging literary influences. Along with the colour, vibrancy and beauty of his music, his attempts to insert meaning in his music continue to fascinate me.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I find that physical work of various kinds is essential to my feeling of well-being. These days I walk and have a vegetable garden. I also practice yoga and the Alexander Technique, which help to tune the whole body, before sitting down to the instrument.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Since 2011, there has been a flow that has made choices for repertoire fairly easy. The aim to present a body of representative works by de Hartmann for the public, resulted in our recording a substantial portion of his output for piano solo, voice, and chamber ensemble…though to be accurate, we’ve only scratched the surface of his vocal output.
A group of musicians has now come together to form the Thomas de Hartmann Consort. The aim for our programming has been to integrate de Hartmann’s work into the rest of the classical canon. The programming possibilities are almost endless:
— Music by de Hartmann’s composition teachers, Anton Arensky and Sergei Tanaieff.
— The music by Debussy and Ravel, to compare and contrast de Hartmann’s own work with Impressionism.
— Music that relates to de Hartmann’s quest for meaning: Beethoven and Schubert.
— De Hartmann’ Bach transcriptions for Pablo Casals provide the opportunity to perform them next to the originals.
— Music by contemporaneous Russian composers, from Rachmaninoff to Scriabin, Prokofiev, etc.
— Music by Bartok and Kodaly, delving into early attempts to bring World Music to the West.
As for recording, the Piano Concerto Op. 61 is next on the agenda, scheduled for this autumn. There are also a few solo piano pieces that need to be recorded, including a 25 page sonata written when de Hartmann was 17, and some very late works from the 1950s.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Most of my performances have taken place in small halls that seat several hundred people. I particularly like Carnegie (Weill) Recital Hall for its intimacy and acoustic. I’ve played at many universities and conservatories, including the University of Anchorage, Alaska, UCLA and UC Berkeley in California, and the Longy Conservatory in Boston. I always enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of these audiences. Young musicians represent the future, and if de Hartmann’s music is going to be established, it will be those people who will give it voice.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
Quality education is the highest priority. Very young children should hear top-notch recordings and performances to develop an ear for music. This means that parents need to get involved. It also helps when elementary and high schools have good music programs: Zoltán Kodály brought solfège to the Hungarian school system, and Japanese schools also have a quality music program. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki revolutionized violin teaching when he developed the “mother-tongue approach,” in which young children learn to play an instrument in the same way they learn to speak. He has been a major force in bringing youngsters to classical music.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Following are two answers to this question, from opposite perspectives: first as performer, secondly as audience participant:
In 1975 Mme. de Hartmann had organized a recital of her husband’s music at McGill University in Montreal. I had been asked to play the Two Nocturnes Op. 84, written in de Hartmann’s late classical style.
This was my first meeting with her. Madame may have been diminutive in size, but she was truly a force of nature. She had been a member of the Russian aristocracy, close to the Tsarina before the Russian Revolution, and had strong ideas that sometimes ran contrary to the relaxed attitudes of young people in the later years of the hippy era. She didn’t approve of women wearing jeans, of young men with beards, or grand pianos on movable platforms being used in performances of her husband’s music. She told me to ignore the audience and play only for her, to look up at the ceiling before playing ‘the Music of the Stars,’ and that a musician must rest on the afternoon of a performance to conserve energy for the event. I was still impressionable at the age of 25, and took it all in.
When my performance was a success, it began a relationship that lasted for 4 years until her death in 1979. It opened the door for further recitals under her tutelage, as well as instruction in de Hartmann’s music.
One of the most memorable performances I ever saw took place in London in the mid 1970s, when I heard the cellist Paul Tortelier give a solo recital. I had not heard his name before, and had no idea what to expect. He came onto the stage, an elderly man, thin, with a shock of white hair. He seemed to float over the cello when he played. The first piece, a Boccherini sonata had 3 movements, but he was so pleased with himself after the first two that he stood up, took a bow and moved onto a Bach cello suite! Then he stopped, began speaking in French, and changed to English: “If you want to cough while I play, please leave the room!” The audience was noticeably taken aback.
In the second half he played the Franck Sonata and (if I remember correctly) also the Debussy cello sonata. By the end he had won the audience over, and began playing encores – without leaving the stage, he continued for another 45 minutes, even including the entire Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata. By this time the audience was in a frenzy, with some people standing to watch him in amazement. Finally he stood up, closed the lid of the piano, and walked off the stage, not turning back….
In the programme notes I noticed that he had studied with Gerard Hekking. De Hartmann had dedicated his cello sonata to him, so I went backstage to ask Tortelier if he knew of the piece. “Yes,” he said, “it has a beautiful second movement, but the rest is not for the masses.”
I walked out of the hall feeling that I had witnessed an event that was a throwback to the Romantic Age, reminiscent of stories I’d read about Liszt and Paganini in performance.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I view my work in music as a process, with different stages, and it is necessary for some form of success to enter into each of them. First there is the functional work of learning the notes, understanding the structure, and overcoming technical challenges. Then another level comes: the music must begin to speak. In some ways it is the opposite of the functional work – activity ends and receptivity begins: one must listen, be still, be open, questioning. This stage is sometimes quite agonizing: the piece still is not music, and one cannot “make it happen.” When one completes this stage and is prepared, the final stage comes with performance. Here the audience becomes a participant, adding its listening to the music. There are then three aspects: the performer, the audience and the music. Occasionally there is an “event,” where something new and memorable occurs. Success!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
In 1972 I went to see Nadia Boulanger in Paris, to inquire about becoming her student. One of the most memorable things she said to me was “If you can live without Music, do!”
This statement has resonated with me over the years. It covers a lot. Anyone considering a career in music should have an all-consuming love for it. If one is fortunate enough to realize that there is nothing one would rather do than make music, then there really isn’t a choice…!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Seven years remain until the end of the 21-year Thomas de Hartmann Project. For a long time I’ve an image of what completion would look like: I will be standing in front of Carnegie Hall, looking at the billboard announcing the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Thomas de Hartmann’s Symphonie-Poème. This would indicate that de Hartmann has finally “arrived.”
I’d be happy to substitute specific works in this visualization – it might be another symphony or concerto by Thomas de Hartmann. Another orchestral work by Beethoven might also be acceptable….!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I would say that true happiness results from a life well lived, in which one manages to achieve one’s goals. As a working musician, I find that self-satisfaction comes from overcoming obstacles in learning the repertoire that I value, and performing it well. Each time this occurs, it gives a taste of happiness.
On 2 April, Nimbus release three volumes of the Music of Thomas de Hartmann. More information here.
Elan Sicroff is known as an interpreter of the music written by Thomas de Hartmann, both the classical works as well as the music from the East composed in collaboration with Gurdjieff . In the 1960s he studied with Jeaneane Dowis, protégée and assistant to Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. From 1973-75 he attended the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne, in Gloucestershire, England, as a student and later Director of Music. The Academy was directed by J. G. Bennett, a leading exponent of Gurdjieff’s teachings. It was here that Elan was introduced to the music of Thomas de Hartmann. Between 1975 and 1979 he studied with Mme. Olga de Hartmann, widow of the composer, focusing on the music which de Hartmann composed in the classical idiom. He performed many recitals under her auspices, and in 1982 toured the United States.
(video credit: Victor McSurely )