‘Kids who play musical instruments and do art work after school do not join gangs,” says Brian Hill, executive director of the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie. To meet the museum’s mission to offer children’s programming, Hill has been trying to engineer a relationship between the museum, which regularly sponsors adult concerts, and the Trenton Community Music School for years, which provides professional level music instruction at an affordable rate to all who seek it in the greater Trenton area.
A performance by pianist Geoffrey Dorfman was already on the museum’s concert schedule for Sunday, June 11, when Ellen Saxon, administrative director of TCMS and mother of U.S.1 arts editor Jamie Saxon, inquired about using museum space for a student recital. “It was serendipity that Ellen walked in. I looked at my schedule and was ecstatic,” Hill says in a telephone interview, adding that he hopes that holding the recitals at the museum will create additional public exposure for TCMS, which is currently looking for a new home. He decided to design a summer music weekend around both. Recitals by Trenton Community Music School students, who range in age from 7 to 17, take place Friday, June 9, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, June 10, at 11 a.m.
There is a $15 registration fee for the June 11 Dorman concert but children may attend gratis if they are accompanied by a paying adult. Calling Dorfman’s performance “the big show,” Hill says, “It’s a chance for kids to see what happens when you practice.”
Dorfman’s concert, “A Letter from Paris,” is a formidable program. Its bigger half consists of Frederic Chopin’s four Ballades. “I always wanted to play all the ballades together as a unit,” Dorfman says in an interview from his Trenton home. “You learn them one by one, and gradually accumulate them. I always played three of them, and decided that not playing the fourth didn’t make sense.” The holdout was the fourth Ballade. Dorfman calls it “a mountain of the repertoire, and one of my teacher’s specialties.” His teacher was the Israeli-American Natan Brand, who died in 1990.
Dorfman started working on the fourth Ballade about two years ago, when Brand’s death was receding into the past. “He was the teacher who turned me around. I shrank from playing pieces Natan played. I was so familiar with how he played that I was afraid of doing an imitation.”
The Ellarslie program also includes Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” Ravel dedicated each of the six movements in the 1917 piece to the memory of a friend who died in World War I. The composition looks back to Francois Couperin, the 17th century French composer.
Dorfman was born in 1950 in Manhattan. His father wrote Superman Comic books. When I marvel at being able to pay the rent by turning out the comics, Dorfman says, “He barely made a living. He died in 1972 or 1973 and only made five figures the last few years of his life.” Dorfman’s mother taught history in New York City high schools.
The family was not inordinately artistic, Dorfman says. His older sister, Judith Fast, illustrates books. His younger brother is a professor of law at Pace University. “My parents sang in a community chorus. They always encouraged me in music and art, and I always knew that I was going to be an artist or a musician. I was admitted to the Manhattan School of Music in composition, but went to Cooper Union because it was free. My parents told me when I was in high school, that I couldn’t go to college if it cost money.”
Dorfman began his piano study at age seven, stopped at 21, and then took it up again when he was 38. “Mainly, I was painting. I didn’t completely stop music, but I wasn’t doing any concertizing. Then, I found that I couldn’t live without music.” Rather than studying at a conservatory, he sought out instruction on a private basis.
“I started looking for a Soviet teacher, a Russian, someone who really had technique. I phoned the Hebrew Arts School — it has now become the Lucy Moses School — and said, ‘I’m looking for a teacher who plays better than I do. (A lot of people who teach can’t really play.) There were two possibilities; one was on the Upper West Side. I chose Natan, who lived in Greenwich Village, because I could walk there from my apartment.”
After Brand’s death Dorfman was directed to Paul Maillet by Dorothy Taubman, who had been the mentor of both Brand and Maillet. Taubman has developed a systematic approach to movement at the piano that both minimizes the danger of injury and frees the pianist to handle technically difficult passages with minimal effort and maximum musical control.
“I thought that Paul was a good bet,” Dorfman says, “because I wanted to become more reliable. If you don’t concertize regularly, it’s hard to maintain standards.
“Paul kept a notebook on every piece, measure by measure. He recorded the fingering, how to move, and what he wanted to accomplish musically. He kept track of how much emotion he wanted, where he was coming from musically, and where he wanted to go.”
Maillet was on the faculty of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute at the time. He has since become a Roman Catholic priest, but continues as an active pianist. “I was coming out of a New York environment,” says Dorfman, “and Paul was the first person I got to know who took religion seriously. He was really devout.
“Paul could play three or four concerts in a row without dropping a note,” Dorfman says. “Natan would drop notes. He was a free spirit, who never knew how he was going to play. Every performance would sound different. He would change things ad hoc. He would decide at the last minute not only how he was going to play a piece, but whether he was going to play it at all. He was like Horowitz.
“Paul engineered the pieces. It was a different mentality. He was analytical. Emotion was measured out, but not any the less real for that.”
Having assimilated the contradictory approaches of Brand and Maillet, Dorfman includes music as an integral part of his life, although it is not his main professional outlet. Now an associate professor, Dorfman has been a faculty member at the College of Staten Island, a branch of the City University of New York, since 1978. His wife, Tracey Jones, a painter, is a professor of art at the college. Her monotype won the mayor’s award in the current Ellarslie Open, a juried exhibit of over 100 art works, now on display at the museum.
Among Dorfman’s course offerings is “Modern Culture.” “I teach literature and poetry, and show paintings,” he says. “It’s a grab bag, a smorgasbord. Modern culture is a huge subject that includes everything from a poem by Rile to the Cross Island Express Way. Everything that interrupts nature is culture. You have to create a clearing to have culture. Even when you consider culture as biologists do, you have to think of a petri dish as a clearing where you grow things. To build a city, you have to create a clearing, where man can take over from nature.”
Dorfman also teaches studio art at Staten Island, and is active as a painter. In mid-May he won the Henry Ward Ranger purchase prize of New York’s National Academy of Art and Design for his painting “Tree of Life.” The award provides for placing the painting in the permanent collection of an American museum, as well as a $6,000 cash prize. Dorfman describes the abstract work as “a very intense yellow picture. I seemed to be seeing a central trunk in it with offshoots coming out. The trunk is almost invisible, but it organized the picture for me. I work intuitively on paintings, and never had a plan. There are two or three paintings underneath the finished one.
‘Music works differently from art, since it unfolds in time,” Dorfman says. “Painting simply is. You can get more out of it if you look for a long time, but time is not necessary. Literature, like music, unveils itself over time, and has a natural narrative quality. Painting, even in the Renaissance, when it was part of a story, focuses on a time when the story ceases for moment, and you have a tableau. ‘The Crucifixion’ or ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’ are oases in time.
“In music there’s no tableau. In sonata form, the theme returns. It’s a sort of spiral. The hero has come home transformed. The return may be more glamorous or more exotic than the original. The material has been put through its paces and exposed to counter-themes. Revealing the narrative and giving a sense of its flow is the role of the performer.”
Even when music diverges from sonata form, Dorfman seeks out a story. “Going on a journey and then arriving applies to a lot of music. If I don’t find the arrival, I’m very conscious that it’s not there. Beethoven tells us, musically, ‘This is the end of the piece.’
“There are different ways of ending. In the last Shostakovich Quartet, there’s a single sustained note that swells. When you think it can’t get any louder, it cuts off. It doesn’t subside; it just stops, like death. Debussy’s ‘L’Ile Joyeuse’ ends with an orgasm, a very loud chordal trill. You build up to that. You always want a culmination, and a sense that the composer didn’t stop because he ran out of ideas.”
As Dorfman plays at Ellarslie, his sense of narrative will come into play. Those children listening will not only hear what can happen when somebody practices, but receive the experience of high drama that Dorfman sends their way.
Summer Music Weekend at Trenton City Museum, Ellarslie Mansion, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Recitals by students of the Trenton Community Music School, Friday, June 9, 7 p.m., and Saturday, June 10, 11 a.m. “A Letter from Paris,” Sunday, June 11, 3 p.m., Geoffrey Dorfman presents the Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and Chopin’s “Four Ballads.” The recitals are free. $15 to register for the Dorfman concert, 609-989-3632.