This year pianist Phyllis Lehrer reaches her 40th anniversary at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. While some people might celebrate with a social splash, Lehrer celebrates by breaking new ground professionally.
For the first time in her performing career she solos in Mozart’s Concerto in C minor, K. 491. For the first time in her performing career, she plays a cadenza that she has composed herself.
Ruth Ochs conducts the Westminster Community Orchestra for the celebratory concert Sunday, December 2, at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. The program includes, in addition to the Mozart work, Olga Gorelli’s “Celebration” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Gorelli, a prolific composer and leader in musical life in central New Jersey, died in 2006.
Mozart’s K. 491 work was Lehrer’s choice, she reveals in a telephone interview from her Kendall Park home. “A teacher I had studied with years ago told me that I must play the piece,” she says. “It was always in my mind. I learned it at the end of the summer, after Ruth asked me to perform.”
“The concerto has a direct link to Beethoven,” Lehrer says. “It has grandeur, drama, lyricism, and is operatic.” I ask Lehrer why she chose a piece in minor, rather than major, for a happy occasion. “It doesn’t matter that it’s in minor,” she says. “Art has all kinds of gradations. Mozart has underlying bittersweet moments when he writes in major. When he writes in minor, there are optimistic spots. Art is not all black and white or loud and soft.”
The original cadenza is an aspect of Lehrer’s renewed interest in composition. Asked what lies ahead for her, she says, “One of the fun things is writing my own cadenzas.” She ties the appeal of composition to her childhood attraction to improvisation.
When difficulties arose in writing the K. 491 cadenza, Lehrer turned to Westminster Choir College professor of music theory and composition Stefan Young. “When something went wrong he fixed it with simple suggestions — change a single note here, or repeat something there. I want to take a composition course with him,” she says.
I wonder if the headiness of writing your own cadenza tempts a cadenza composer/performer to make the passage excessively long. Lehrer had no such problem. “I was so self-critical that I had to force myself to keep going,” she says.
The problem of conflicts between conductor and soloist is an arena where Lehrer’s history is blank. I ask her how she, as a soloist, handles disagreements with conductors. She replies, “I’m lucky enough not to have had to find out about that.” That remarkable record exists despite frequent appearances as a soloist in piano concertos.
Lehrer attributes the smoothness of her interaction with Ochs to a common musical background. “I had taken a course with Leonard Ratner at Stanford,” Lehrer says. “He’s a Mozart specialist. And Ruth had read his book.” The venerable, highly regarded book is Ratner’s 1985 “Classic Music: Expression, Form and Style.”
Lehrer has worked with Ochs in the past. On one occasion the conductor had the Community Orchestra help out Lehrer, who was invited to play Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” in El Salvador. “Ruth was kind enough to read through Tchaikovsky No. 1 with me,” Lehrer says. “I had a chance to play it in public for the first time in San Salvador about five years ago. The read-through with Ruth was not a public performance — just a rehearsal.”
In an outbreak of full disclosure, Lehrer reveals that her husband Paul, an amateur violinist and clinical psychologist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, has played with the Community Orchestra for almost 20 years.
Lehrer has performed double piano concertos by Mozart and Francis Poulenc with Ochs and the Community Orchestra. Her piano partner at those performances was Ena Bronstein Barton, who is now chair of the piano department at Westminster Conservatory, the community music school, and a member of the piano faculty at Westminster Choir College, the degree-granting institution. The Barton-Lehrer duo celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and marks the event with a performance in Westminster’s Bristol Chapel on March 24. The program includes Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes” and his “Handel Variations.”
“We were introduced when Ena came to the conservatory from California,” Lehrer says. “We slipped into becoming a duo. It seemed natural. Ena had had a duo team in California. For me, playing with Ena was the first time that I played duo piano.”
The Barton-Lehrer spectrum of appearances includes concerts as a duo; faculty recitals and co-teaching at Westminster; master classes and concerts at national piano conferences and at festivals; talks about chamber music; and lecture-recitals. The duo has made a CD, “Barton and Lehrer Duo: ‘Music for Two Pianos,’” which includes works by Mozart, Rachmaninoff, and the contemporary composers Dianne Goolkasian-Rahbee of Massachusetts and Laurie Altman, who is also an assistant professor at Westminster Choir College.
Among the events in Lehrer’s celebratory 40th year is a concert for the Steinway Society at Jacobs Music in Lawrenceville, Sunday, January 20, at 3 p.m. That program consists of Fantasies for piano, one of which was written for Lehrer. The standard Fantasies include those by Chopin, Schumann, and Mozart.
Piano teacher/composer Dianne Goolkasian-Rahbee composed the Fantasy for Lehrer at Lehrer’s instigation. “She wanted to give her students more exposure to contemporary techniques and wrote pieces for them,” Lehrer says. “I asked her to write a grown-up piece and premiered it at Merkin Hall.” Merkin is the small recital hall associated with New York’s Carnegie Hall.
The roots of Lehrer’s career as a teacher/composer go back to her childhood. Lehrer, who grew up in Monticello, New York, recalls pretending to be a teacher before she started kindergarten. “I remember lining up chairs in my basement,” she says.
“I also pretended to have an Italian name as a pianist, Felicia Alperti. My maiden name was Alpert.” When I ask her to spell the name she stalls on “Felicia.” “It may have been before I could spell very well,” she says.
Lehrer’s piano study began when she was five. Her mother, a piano teacher, was her first instructor. A paternal aunt is a pianist. Her mother-in-law and father-in-law are pianists. At age eight she traveled weekly the 90 miles to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music. She started playing chamber music in high school.
Teaching since age 16, Lehrer has enjoyed instructing groups as well as individuals. An alumna of the University of Rochester and the Eastman School of Music, she holds a master’ degree in piano from Juilliard. She is now professor of piano and director of graduate piano pedagogy at Westminster Choir College.
Co-author of a variety of books, Lehrer often works with a collaborator. Among her publications are “The Inner Game of Music Piano Workshop” (with Barry Green), “Classics for the Developing Pianist” (with Ingrid Clarfield), and “Personal Trainer” (with Paul Sheftel). “The Inner Game” has to do with a mind-body approach to tension-free performance. “Classics” is a selection of piano literature for various levels of pianistic accomplishment. “Trainer” aims at developing technical skills.
When I ask her about her tendency to collaborate she says, “That’s what I love about being part of an institution, and playing in a duo or in chamber music. It’s part of who I am.”
She describes her strategies when editing music for publication collaboratively. “We each edit separately. Then we come together in person or on the phone to talk through our differences, and come to an agreement.”
Ingrid [Clarfield] and I worked [on the repertoire books] with different colored pens. We persuaded the editor to use alternative fingerings and different levels of dynamics in order to give pianists a choice of interpretive outcomes.”
“Paul [Sheftel] and I took an opposite approach. We have relatively few markings, but provide CDs and other technological resources. Paul and I have very different hand sizes. But we decided that technical approaches are more a matter of movement than of hand size.”
Does Lehrer have a favorite publication? “Not really,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to choose among my children, either.”
Her children in real life are son Jeffrey, a diplomat stationed in Guatemala, and Suzanne, who teaches piano privately and at the Westminster Conservatory.
Asked how she feels about having reached 40 years at Westminster Choir College, Lehrer says, “I’m shocked. Time sneaks by so quickly.”
By the way, here’s something to think about: Lehrer plays a Mozart concerto to celebrate her anniversary. Mozart died at age 36, four years short of Lehrer’s stay at the College.
Celebrate, Phyllis Lehrer and the Westminster Community Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, December 2, 3 p.m. $10 to $15. 609-258-9220 or www.princeton.edu/utickets.