Pianist Catherine Kautsky performs Rzewski's Oscar Wilde-inspired De Profundis at UCSD on January Thirteenth. After Rzewski became fascinated with a passionate letter Wilde wrote while imprisoned for "gross indecency," he composed De Profundis in 1992 for pianist Anthony De Mare. Kautsky, who met Rzewski when he visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison at a time when Kautsky was on the faculty, had heard about the piece and knew she wanted to learn it. But she put De Profundis on hold as her blossoming career brought performances at prestigious venues and with renowned orchestras around the world, as well as recording projects and her work as an educator.
Then a year ago, she returned to De Profundis. She performed it for the first time at her faculty recital at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she chairs the Keyboard Department. At UCSD, her concert program will also include Beethoven's Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101). Along with her concert, Catherine will conduct a piano masterclass and visit the undergrad Music 5 course about the art and science of music making. Kautsky currently chairs the Keyboard Department at Lawrence.
From a pianist's point of view, what are the most interesting and challenging aspects of De Profundis?
The piece has some portions that are very challenging pianistically, but it's also a continual challenge to concentrate on doing so many disparate things at the same time. Rzewski has the pianist not only speaking, but sobbing, sighing, whistling, singing, tapping, and beeping a bicycle horn--among other things!
What do you feel are the connections between the moods/contents of Wilde's letter, and this music?
I think the music captures beautifully both the tragedy of Wilde's letter and the flamboyance of his former life and personality. For me, one of the most striking things about the composition is its sheer variety, daring, and physicality--it tells us a lot about the man before he was imprisoned, as well as during his time in jail.
How did you connect with Rzewski and De Profundis?
I'd heard and taught a good deal of Rzewski's music and he came and visited as a guest artist when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I respect his musicianship enormously, and when a friend of mind mentioned he was doing this piece, I got very interested. I've done a recording of pieces for speaking pianist, so it's a kind of performing I'm familiar with and like a lot. I'm also very taken with the idea of a composer who's so openly political--I've always been interested in the intersections between music and politics.
Had you and Rzewski worked together before?
No, but he was very interested in learning about my great grandfather, Karl Kautsky, a famous German social-democrat who worked with Marx and Engels, so we had a nice long e-mail exchange last summer that covered a wide range of subjects.
Did you do your own research on Wilde?
Yes, I've done a good deal of research on Wilde by now. When I first came to the piece, I knew very little--I had simply enjoyed productions of a few of his plays, and I knew the Strauss opera, Salomé, based on his play of the same name.
Do you actually read from Wilde's letter during your performance?
Yes, I read excerpts from the letter. They're word for word, though sometimes taken out of order.
When and where did you first perform De Profundis?
I started to learn De Profundis about a year ago and performed it on a faculty recital at my university, Lawrence University. Unfortunately, my recital was on the day of the Super Bowl, and since the Green Bay Packers were in it, and Appleton is right next to Green Bay, not too many people were at the concert!
When did you first begin playing piano, and what kind of music?
I began lessons at the age of seven, though I certainly fooled around on the piano and wanted to learn before that. We didn't have a piano at home until then, though. The first piece I remember falling in love with was entitled Papageno's Magic Melody. It was a transcription from The Magic Flute, and I've loved playing Mozart ever since.
Were your parents musical?
They're both from Vienna and had grown up hearing and liking classical music, but neither of them plays an instrument, reads music, or is particularly knowledgeable about music.
Who were your mentors?
I had many wonderful teachers. I did my doctorate under Gilbert Kalish, and he has remained a wonderful friend and mentor to this day. His openness to different kinds of playing and many different kinds of music make him a fabulous role model.
Who were your musical heroes or role models?
I grew up listening to pianists like Schnabel and Serkin--people steeped in the Austrian/German repertoire. This has been true of most of my teachers as well.
What were the turning points in your career?
My acceptance at Juilliard and my acceptance at Tanglewood both made an enormous difference to me. Likewise my first full-time tenure track job at Lawrence. And finally a sabbatical year spent in Paris, where I first got very involved in French music.
What projects are you working on?
I'm currently working on a recording/book project on the Debussy Preludes and their reflection of Parisian culture at the turn of the 20th century. I'm also planning a large-scale symposium at Lawrence on exiles from the Holocaust and the music, dance, film which is related to that moment in history.
How did you end up at Lawrence University the first time?
I applied and got the job!
Why did you move to the UW-Madison faculty?
My husband teaches philosophy there, and we'd had a commuting marriage for many, many years, raising our kids in Appleton, where I taught, while my husband taught two hours away in Madison. When UW offered me a job, I was eager to take it, since we could finally live together, and I would also have the chance to teach graduate students and work in a large, active department at a major university.
And why did you return to Lawrence University?
I found that I badly missed the opportunities Lawrence provided for very close relationships with both students and colleagues and the priority given to creating a strong, cohesive community. I also enjoy teaching at a place where there is a great deal of flexibility in my job description, where undergraduate teaching is a very high priority, and where I can very easily collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines.
How does your work as a performer connect with your work as a teacher?
As a performer I'm constantly trying to hear more accurately and imaginatively, create a better sound, play with less effort--and as a teacher I'm trying to help my students do the same things. Anything I figure out gets passed right along.
What can you say about the current generation of music students? What do they bring to their college music education? How are they different from your peers in college? What are their ambitions? How are their career possibilities different from what yours were when you graduated college?
I'm pretty happy with my current students. I actually find that because of all the technology out there they tend to be listening to more music than my students were 15 years ago, and that's great. On the other hand, I worry that they're so used to instant answers on the web that libraries are a bit unfamiliar to them--I'm always trying to send them over to delve in. Career possibilities for pianists have always been extraordinarily difficult--I'm not sure that's changed much, nor have the ambitions of my students. Since I teach only undergraduates now, I'd say that most of them are just trying hard to become the very best pianists they can, and not worrying too much quite yet about where they'll land. For the most part, I think that's quite healthy. A life in music is extremely unpredictable--you never know what talent or connection might land you somewhere, so about the best thing you can do when you're young is just get as good as possible at what you love!
Have you ever performed in San Diego before?
No, I have not. [Pianist and UCSD music faculty member] Aleck Karis and I knew each other about 30 years ago, when we were both young pianists in New York. More recently, we, very coincidentally, rented the same apartment in Paris (not at the same time!) when we both took our families for one year sabbaticals there, and we got in touch again at that point. Last year Aleck came to Lawrence and gave a wonderful recital and masterclass, so this is sort of the second half of that exchange.
What do you still want to accomplish that you haven't done yet?
Oh, there are infinite numbers of pieces I hope to still learn and perform (especially Schubert!), some solo some collaborative. I suppose that's the very highest priority, but I love writing, teaching, and lecturing as well--I'm not yet thinking of stopping any of those activities!