Pianist Rosanne Vita Nahass, a Belle Mead resident who returns to piano performance after what she calls a detour into being a physician, uses the same diagnostic skills in approaching her piano programs that you would wish for in your own specialist in internal medicine. She sees the big picture and looks for clues about how to solve immediate problems. She does not settle until the situation is resolved. She is attentive to the unexpected.
Nahass gives a recital Sunday, November 6, at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University. She will play Johann Sebastian Bach’s English Suite in E minor and Paul Hindemith’s 1922 Suite for Piano, a collection of dance-inspired pieces written during Germany’s turmoil after World War I. Alfredo Franco, curator of education at the Zimmerli, gives an introduction and shows images that focus on the cultural milieu in which Hindemith worked.
In a telephone interview from her Belle Mead home, Nahass explains how the programming for this concert came about. First, she points out that Alfredo Franco teaches courses on German cultural history. His current course deals with art, architecture, literature, and music in Germany after the end of World War I in 1918. Because he wants to "make the period come alive for the students," as he puts it, he invites guest lecturers. Franco asked Nahass to perform Paul Hindemith’s 1922 "Suite for Piano" for the class. He considers the piece singularly typical of the period with its blend of innovation, traditional forms, and jazz.
When she received Franco’s invitation, Nahass remembers that she thought, "I’m up for a challenge." Indeed, she had one. Her first problem was to locate a score for the rarely performed piece. Persistent, she tracked one down at Patelson’s, a New York music store, which sold her their last copy. Franco loaned her his CDs of the piece. She would listen to them only after she had explored the work on her own.
In order to enhance her understanding of the suite, she steeped herself in Hindemith’s history and read his 1937 treatise, "The Craft of Musical Composition." She learned that at one time Hindemith wanted to withdraw the piece. Written when he was 26, he considered it a youthful indiscretion because it incorporated popular music.
Franco, knowing that bringing the Hindemith piece to performance level would be a formidable task, suggested that she perform the work not only for his class, but at the Zimmerli museum in a performance open to the public. Since the Hindemith composition is too short, by itself, for a standard-length concert, he suggested Nahass add whatever she wished to complete the program.
Putting the search for increasing the size of the program on the back burner, Nahass focused on mastering the ideas of the Hindemith suite and their execution at the keyboard. The work is difficult both musically and technically.
The central component of the suite stood out for Nahass. "It could stand on its own," she says. Named "Nachtstueck," ("Night Piece") it is the only one of five sections not named after a way of moving: "March" and "Shimmy" precede "Nachtstueck"; "Boston" (a slow Viennese waltz), and "Ragtime" follow. Although "Nachtstueck" consists of an undivided string of notes, without bar lines, they group themselves into units of three beats. "There’s no time signature, but it feels like 3/2," Nahass says. "I think Hindemith included ‘Nachtstueck’ because it’s like a sarabande (the slow Spanish dance that is a traditional component of baroque dance suites).
"When I was learning the ‘Nachtstueck,’ I thought, There’s so much polyphony here; each line has its own destination. This is like Bach. That was when I decided to include Bach in the program. I had played the English Suite in E minor before, and I thought, What would be better than to revive the Bach E minor and pair it with the Hindemith?" With that insight, Nahass had assembled the program.
Born in Paterson in 1958, Nahass grew up in Hawthorne. She graduated from Rutgers College in 1980 as a music major and a piano student of Samuel Dilworth-Leslie, stayed on for medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Brunswick, and did her residency in New Brunswick. "I’m a New Jersey girl," she says.
Nahass’ father is a retired real estate developer who specialized in shopping centers. Her stay-at-home mother is a pianist, and started teaching her daughter when Rosanne was three. At six she switched to an outside teacher. All three of Nahass’ siblings live in New Jersey. None of them are musicians. None of them are doctors.
Nahass is married to Ronald Nahass, a physician who specializes in infectious diseases. The couple met and married while they were in medical school. They have three children. Son Ronald, 19, played piano, went to trumpet, and loves to listen, says his mother. Tommy, 17, became oriented towards jazz when he was a toddler, she says. "We made him do classical music and now he studies jazz with Laurie Altman, and composes. He is writing the music for his 2006 graduating class at Montgomery High School." Daughter Meghan, 15, has stayed with classical piano.
Looking for a piano teacher for her daughter, Nahass met pianist Ena Bronstein Barton, and turned a corner. Fully occupied since medical school, first as a physician of a Piscataway medical group, then a Merck staff physician, and most recently as a private physician specializing in internal medicine, her schedule left no time for piano. Barton inspired Nahass to return to music. Nahass has studied with her since 1996, and she closed her medical practice in 2003.
A student of Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, Barton stresses fidelity to the score, Nahass says. "From her I learned never to go for bravura, but to go for the music. You learn music for what it has to say, not to make a display."
Incorrectly, I assume that Nahass confronted an ongoing struggle between music and medicine. "It wasn’t a battle," she says. "When I was doing medicine, I was completely focused on that. When I did music, I focused on that.
"My present devotion to piano kind of evolved," Nahass says. "After I graduated from Rutgers I didn’t touch the piano until the 1990s. I didn’t own one until 1988 and I was too busy to use it. I had just finished my residency in 1987, was having babies, and had absolutely no time to play, but I always listened. That long leave of absence allowed the music to percolate inside of me."
Nahass’ first priority is her family, she says. "I cook dinner, chauffeur, all that kind of stuff. I keep the music going in my mind all the time. I always have a book with me or a score to look at when I’m waiting at the soccer field. It’s surprising how much you can do in a half hour if you’re completely in the present moment, not worrying about something else."
Even though she is no longer practicing medicine Nahass says there are still days when she can’t get to the piano. "I don’t worry about it. When I get to the piano I start from where I am and do what I can.
"I find my approach changing," she says, "and it’s exhilarating. I never feel lonely when I practice because I’m so involved. I’m actively engaged, discovering things. Sometimes my breath is taken away." Nahass is scheduled to play Robert Schumann’s "Carnaval" and Franz Liszt’s B minor Sonata at a Zimmerli concert in February. "When I’m playing Schumann’s ‘Carnaval,’ I feel that I’m reading Schumann’s diary. He’s revealing himself with these musical themes and how he combines them. There’s so much subtlety. Parts are so poignant. His inner fears are there."
The collaboration between art historian Franco and pianist Nahass brings the November 6 event to a level that neither could achieve alone. A graduate of Johns Hopkins in German literature, Franco specialized in German cultural history of the early 20th century as a graduate student. He is particularly interested in making the material of his course vivid by having students experience its content, rather than merely learn about it. "The Hindemith work’s expressive dissonances reflect the chaos of its time and place," he says. "It was composed in the wake of World War I, when Germany was a defeated and occupied nation buffeted by inflation and political unrest. Artists turned away from fervor and settled into a new sobriety. It was like awakening from an orgy."
Nahass, involved with playing the 1922 Suite, notes that Hindemith specifies performing the "Nachtstueck" section "with little expression" and points out the irony of the direction. "The piece is so expressive, it’s hard to do." Set in motion by Franco, she has thoroughly explored the Hindemith piece and has allowed it to rebound in her mind against the Bach Suite. She has thought a lot, too about the ways in which Bach and Hindemith, each in their time, have had parallel lives as practicing composers exploiting the harmonic language of their times.
"I want to continue learning and growing and understanding these great works of art," she says. "My goal is to enjoy what I’m doing and have other people enjoy it too."
Piano Concert, Sunday, November 6, 3 p.m., Zimmerli Art Museum, George and Hamilton streets, New Brunswick. Belle Mead resident and pianist Rosanne Nahass performs Bach’s English Suite in E minor and Hindemith’s 1922 Suite for Piano. Free with $3 museum admission. 732-932-7237.
It’s a Small World
Composer Paul Hindemith died 20 years before U.S.1 started publishing. However, two events within the week connect him to the Princeton area. Belle Mead resident Rosanne Vita Nahass pairs a Hindemith piece with one by Bach (see story this page) in a concert at the Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick on Sunday, November 6. And on Sunday, October 30, a work by Princeton composer Frank Lewin, who studied with Hindemith at Yale, was performed in Wroclaw, Poland, where Lewin was born. It was the first time that his music was programmed in the city of his birth.
The Lewin work, which is uniquely connected to Princeton, is "Requiem for Robert F. Kennedy." It was inspired by the crowds who waited along the railroad in Princeton as Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train passed by in June, 1968, and had its premiere in the University Chapel. The Wroclaw concert came about as a result of a visit to the city by two of Lewin’s daughters, and came as a surprise to him. RFK is popular in Poland.
Lewin, whose opera "Burning Bright" was performed at Opera Festival of New Jersey, has written primarily for film and television; Hindemith never stipulated that his students follow in his footsteps. Celebrating his 80th birthday this year, Lewin is now archiving his numerous works with the assistance of a Princeton graduate student.
In a telephone conversation Lewin notes, a propos of the Nahass concert, that there is a strong connection between Hindemith and Bach. Hindemith "worshipped" Bach, Lewin says, and modeled his "Ludus Tonalis" a collection of Preludes and Fugues, on Bach’s "Well Tempered Clavichord."