Composer and Pianist (b. 1947)

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“Schubertiade” drawing by Moritz von Schwind, 1868

Interview With Lenny Cavallaro: June 6, 2011

Pianist and composer Lenny Cavallaro is never at a loss for words, and my recent interview provided more than a few surprises! As his manager, I believe that his recompositions are revolutionary and I hope other performers will catch on. The following excerpts provide some insights into a most unusual musician.

SONIA ORAM: Do you think of yourself more as a composer or as a pianist these days?

LENNY CAVALLARO: If I may be perfectly candid, I am not at all comfortable with the notion of “pianist.” I prefer to borrow from the brilliant Glenn Gould and assert, “I am a composer whose instrument happens to be the piano.” This statement lends me the freedom to explore the music of various composers, even as I hope that some day others will feel free to explore my works.

SO: But what do you mean, “the freedom to explore” their music? Don’t all musicians “explore” when they study and perform?

LC: You make a good point, of course, and perhaps I should explain another concept that I have borrowed. It was my former teacher, Claude Frank, who first introduced me to the idea of “recomposing” the music. I do not know how many pianists ever think to “recompose” works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or any of the other immortals, yet in many ways that is precisely what all of us do each time we perform. Some of us, of course, do more recomposition than others; a few of us occasionally get into trouble!

SO: Now explain to me exactly how much you are “recomposing.” Have you actually re-written passages of Bach or Mozart?

LC: I have never denied the charge – and I hasten to append that Gould wrote about doing so long before I did. For example, let’s take the “Burlesca” in Bach’s Partita #3 in a minor. [He grabbed the score.] Look at measure 32, and you’ll see a passage in which the two hands play at the octave. Oh, it’s not horrible, but it’s so disappointing for Bach! The only other passage at an octave’s interval I can recall is near the end of the “Fugue in E minor,” Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One. It was Gould who suggested playing it at either the sixth or the tenth, although in his recording he performed the notes as written. In my recording [available on this website], I play the measure with the hands a sixth apart, and it really does sound better, don’t you think? [Lenny now played the measure both ways – and I must concede that he makes a good point.]

LC (continued): Well, there are others, especially in the French Suite #3 in B minor, particularly the Allemande and back half of the Gique, where my own versions may sound more “Bach-like,” and what of it? Where some might argue that this is a sacrilege, I politely submit that I have made just the tiniest changes. Are these “improvements”? Who is to say? They are certainly not the sorts of things listeners would ever catch. And I like to believe that Bach would not object.

SO: Can you talk about your reconstruction of the Haydn Concerto?

LC: Yes - some while ago I discovered a tiny little “concertino” – we once actually called it a “toy concerto”! – by Haydn. It’s in C Major, a work for Klavier, which might well have been harpsichord and strings. The “orchestra” consists of first and second violins and cello, with the latter used more as a continuo instrument, mostly doubling the soloist’s left hand. Actually, the piece is charming! It may not be among the greatest of Haydn’s compositions, yet it is a splendid conception.

Now, when we go to hear a soloist with orchestra perform a classical concerto, we all expect to hear a cadenza. You know the drill . . . orchestra rises up to a one/six-four chord with a fermata (hold), the soloist does his thing with some of the thematic material, the fireworks end with a trill, and the orchestra comes in. Alas, this “toy concerto” had no cadenza, so I needed to enhance an eviscerated orchestra and interpolate a cadenza somewhere.

I found a passage at the very end of the development that passed through that one/six-four. Terrific; the rest was easy! I wrote in a ritardando and added a fermata, deleting the next couple of measures. This provided me the perfect location for a cadenza based on Haydn’s materials. I then played right into the recap, where the orchestra joined me a measure later. And as for that “orchestra,” I doubled the cello part with the string bass – common practice in that period – and enriched the texture by adding a viola part. I changed a few of the harmonies in the slow movement, where I think Franz Joseph got a little sloppy. Then, in 2009, the Salem Philharmonic and I celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of that giant’s death with the “world premiere.” We used the full string section, and the performance was very well received. Bottom line? We now have a far more utilitarian Haydn concerto – one that can be programmed by professional orchestras, tiny chamber orchestras with as few as five to seven musicians, college orchestras, and even some high school orchestras. Where is the “sacrilege,” the “blasphemy”? What egregious crime has been committed? At worst I have taken a delightful piece by one of the all-time greats and made it more accessible. In its original form, it would never be performed; now, it might be!

SO: Have you “re-composed” the works of other composers, too?

LC: Only minimally. And to a lesser extent, other performers have taken comparable liberties. There are passages in Liszt, Ravel, Prokofiev . . . many simply don’t have the hands to pull them off! If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that they “re-arrange” some passages. No one notices, of course, but a pianist sitting there and following with the score can see the unequivocal evidence! So perhaps the only difference between my style and some of my colleagues is simply that I openly assume the right to make these tiny revisions in the score, while they do so surreptitiously – and sometimes feign indignation and shock at my “blasphemy!”

SO: Wow! I hope that your version will catch on. But isn’t it hard to revise – or rewrite – someone else’s work?

LC: Actually, it is easier with music. It is more difficult with literature!

SO: Oh, yes! I was going to ask you about that. You’re also a writer!

LC: Well, I am indeed a man of letters. My first novel was a re-creation of the Trojan War story. Sure, why not? Homer was great, but his story of the Trojan War certainly lends itself to some retelling. And let’s be honest about things! Homer, himself, was re-telling – recreating or recomposing?? – a story that others were already reciting long before the author of the Iliad!!

SO: Do you find it difficult to shift back and forth between music and literature?

LC: Actually, I’ve been living this “multiple-personality-disorder” lifestyle for decades! It’s the story of my life! I majored in English, with no undergraduate music whatsoever. I then talked my way into grad school and got the doctorate in music, with the end result that I’m teaching English at Northern Essex Community College. Go figure! Along the way I’ve worked as a journalist, literary agent, and associate editor of a hypnosis journal. And most recently, the literary and musical parts of my life have come together with the re-release of Paganini’s Fire, a novel based on the life of Niccolo Paganini.

SO: I remember you told me about that when we first met. That must be a lot of work!

LC: Yes, and, once again, some recomposition! My mother, the late Ann Abelson, left behind a sprawling manuscript called Satan’s Fiddler. I had to delete close to 200 pages, and then add around 65 more based around a unifying theme suggested by Ken Atchity, a literary manager based in Los Angeles. The paperback is out of print – the company more or less imploded – and I’ve moved into the 21st century. Paganini’s Fire includes a restored chapter that treats his affair with the ill-fated Baroness Helena von Dobeneck, who abandoned her husband to be with Paganini and ended her days in a lunatic asylum after he dumped her. But you see? I do not mind editing and revising Homer – or my own mother!

SO: Your mother was a novelist?

LC: That’s right. She had five books published, and left this one unfinished. She came from a literary family. In fact, her uncle was Jacob Adler, the Yiddish poet and playwright who created Yente Telebende – the character who has given rise to the expression, “She’s a Yente!”

SO: And the musical side?

LC: That was my father, who claimed to have been the last student to meet with Respighi. One of my many projects is to get his music performed and recorded.

SO: Before we end, just a couple of questions about your forthcoming recital. How long has it been since you last performed the “Goldberg Variations”?

LC: To the best of my knowledge, twenty-three years.

SO: Will you be “re-composing” them at all?

LC: Believe it or not . . I have never found any parts I wished to change, although I’m sure my interpretation will be quite different at this age. So I’ll re-compose to the extent that I’ll bring a harpsichord composition to the piano, and I’ll offer my own articulation, dynamics, phrasing, and tempi. But the notes will all be Bach’s.

SO: You’ll be on good behavior, then?

LC: Well, just this one time!

The rights of this interview are maintained by Da Capo Management. Please cite Da Capo and Lenny Cavallaro when drawing ideas from or quoting this interview.

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