Established Princeton-area pianist Ena Bronstein Barton will reveal herself as an active visual artist when 24 pieces of her art inspired by Frederic Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28, accompany her performance of the music in a concert on Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m., at Westminster Choir College in Princeton.
“For the first time, I am letting the public see the images matched with the pieces,” says Barton of the abstractions she has worked on for five years or so. “I’ve played these pieces in concert before, but this performance is stepping into a new experience. For me, making a visual image is another way to connect to the music.”
“I don’t do art work all the time,” Barton notes in an informal interview. “I’m a musician. I have a day job.” Since the 1970s, however, Barton — who is head of the piano department at the Westminster Conservatory of Music and a member of the Westminster Choir College piano faculty — has made space in her life for creating visual art. “My art teachers were always fascinated by the images inspired by musical works,” she says. Now she dares to show them to the world at large.
Scott Hoerl, executive director of Westminster Conservatory and head of continuing education for Westminster Choir College, has been encouraging Barton to put on the program for several years. He converted her art work into slides, and serves as the technician for the visual aspects of the March 12 event. He joins us for the interview in Barton’s Westminster studio.
Hoerl and Barton have selected the Hillman Performance Hall in the Marion Buckelew Cullen Center for the performance because they think that the space is the right shape for the program. Hillman is wide and not deep. Identical images will be projected onto two screens simultaneously. They aim at, in Barton’s words, “a gentle immersion of the audience in the performance so those attending can pace themselves as events unfold.” After a screen shows the number of the prelude, its key, and its tempo marking, the music and image follow. Their goal is a performance with a leisurely approach.
Written in 1839, Chopin’s Opus 28 consists of short compositions in each of the major and minor keys. The longest contains 90 measures; the shortest, 12. Speeds vary. Moods run from cheerful to funereal — from dreamy to despondent. Some are delicate; some, powerful. They may be song-like or orchestral. Their degree of difficulty ranges from intermediate to virtuosic. One pianist says, “Each of these miniatures is a gem.” In creating the visual counterparts to the music, Barton considers the mood of the piece to be the determining factor.
Previewing the March 12 performance, Hoerl and Barton let me sample the event in advance. Drawing on Barton’s art works of various sizes, Hoerl has produced uniformly sized slides that show the image but do not specify its size or its medium. The slides reflect their musical counterparts and intensify the impact of the music. For some of the preludes, wispy, pastel images float on a blank background; for others, severely defined shapes in stark colors fill the entire space. The somber heavy grays of some images contrast with the saturated palette of others. Curved shapes appear, as do geometrical forms. Static images are juxtaposed with patterns that flow.
Barton’s intense musical investigation of the Chopin preludes began when she won a national piano competition in her native Chile that enabled her to study with legendary pianist Claudio Arrau in New York. She was 19 at the time and had been playing piano since she was six.
Arrau, born, like Barton, in Chile, studied in Germany, arrived in the United States in his late 30s, and lived in New York for the remaining 50 years of his life. His renown rested on a repertoire encompassing centuries and a virtuosity that served his search for musical meaning.
“Arrau’s impact on me has been lifelong,” Barton says. “I have been a disciple of his artistry, his approach to the musical score, and his technique, for most of my life. Arrau has a role in everything I do.”
She pays homage to Arrau, who died in 1991, by looking for Chopin’s musical intentions in the score. “I’m trying to figure out what Chopin meant,” she says. “I learned a tremendous reverence for the score. The score is a sacred element. The performer makes it come to life.”
“Arrau didn’t know that I ever made a drawing,” Barton says. “I wonder what he would think. He loved art.”
Barton’s pursuit of visual arts dates from her 13 years on the faculty at California State University-Fresno from 1969 to 1981. She began with drawing and moved on to painting. “I started art in the late 1970s,” Barton says. “It was such a joy and I didn’t have to be good at it. I was discovering a whole new world and I didn’t need to excel in it.”
“Drawing was something magical,” Barton says. “When I started drawing, I started looking at things differently.”
Barton is not sure how she started making drawings for the Chopin preludes. “I just got up one morning and wanted to make art inspired by one of the preludes,” she says.
Since arriving in New Jersey in 1982 Barton’s main mentor has been Princeton Junction sculptor Peter Smith, who prefers to be known as Pietro del Fabro. “He encouraged and guided me,” Barton says, “and gave me two major pieces of advice. First: Do not to take on too much. Distill ideas so you do not have a bunch of clutter on the page. The visual counterpart is more like a poem than a novel.”
Del Fabro’s second piece of advice was: don’t limit the media of your art work. Barton reports that he said, “Just experiment. Don’t restrict yourself to using a single medium.” The visuals at the performance include colored pencils or pen and ink on paper, acrylic paint or oil paint on canvas, paper collage and monoprint.
“There’s a point of departure where the visual and the musical start together,” Barton says. “But the visual part has a life of its own.”
When she was creating the visual pieces, Barton has compared notes with others, and learned that music may make common visual impressions on listeners, even though they may not be identical. “Sometimes a key or a composer has color.” She says. “If listeners do not sense the same color, they’re likely to sense the same color family; for some people, the color blue comes to mind; for others, purple. Music and color seem to meet someplace. It’s not precise. And color can change within a composition.”
The challenges of making the images varied with the piece, Barton says. “Some images were immediately obvious. Often I had an idea at once, but getting to something acceptable to both me and to the teacher took several drafts.”
Born in 1940 in Santiago, Chile, Barton comes from a musical family of Rumanian Jewish background. Her father was an amateur violinist and violist. A businessman, he ran a store that made and repaired radios and sold electrical supplies. She describes her mother as “a folk singer, who sang all the time at home and never considered outside employment.”
Ena and her sister both studied in Chile at the Escuela Moderna de Musica, run by the emancipated pianist Elena Waiss in Santiago, Chile. Barton’s sister, a retired social worker, now lives in Edmonton, Canada, where she studies piano.
Barton lives in Pennington with her husband, Robert, a retired Rutgers English professor.
Coming to Westminster Conservatory in 1982, Barton has seen the number of Conservatory students grow from 200 in 1982 to more than 2,000 now. She has taught entire families, indeed, multiple generations of the same family.
For more than 30 years Barton has performed with Phyllis Lehrer, professor of piano at Westminster Choir College, as a piano duo. Their latest CD, “Drama and Dialog: The Piano as Chamber Music,” was released in February. One of Barton’s Chopin images is the basis for the album’s cover art. Ever collaborating, Lehrer wrote the program notes.
Ena Bronstein Barton’s ‘24 Preludes, 24 Images,’ Hillman Performance Hall, Marion Buckelew Cullen Center, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, 101 Walnut Lane, Princeton. Saturday, March 12, 8 p.m. $25, patron tickets $40. Proceeds from the performance benefit the scholarship program at Westminster Conservatory, the community music school, Patrons are invited to a post-performance wine and cheese reception with Barton. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/arts.