lara saldanha press

Lara Saldanha is a young Goan-origin Indian-American pianist who has performed in the USA, Switzerland, France, Germany, China and India. She is currently pursuing a Master of Music at Mannes College of Music in New York City, studying with Vladimir Valjarevic. She has also studied with Alan Chow at Northwestern University and Serguei Milstein at Geneva Conservatory.

Music-lovers will fondly remember her matinee recital in December 2016. The maturity of her playing and her intimate knowledge of the background to each work when she introduced them were hugely impressive.

Meeting her after that concert, I was thrilled to find that she is also a musician after my own heart, in that she believes in using music for social causes, and making classical music more accessible to young people in particular, and to the wider public in general.

I was therefore delighted when she offered to play a benefit concert for our music charity Child’s Play India Foundation (today 14 January 2018, Menezes Braganza hall, 6 pm; donation passes at the door). I spoke to her about the concert she will play for us.

“I will be playing J.S. Bach’s French Suite no. 2 in C minor, F.J. Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major Hob. XVI/49,  Clara Schumann’s Sonata in G minor, and two of Olivier Messian’s Preludes”, she said.

“The pieces cross four centuries, but have many similarities. You can trace the evolution of style and form in classical music through this recital. For example, at the heart of the Bach suite is a gorgeous double minuet. The last movement of the Haydn sonata is also minuet, and Clara Schumann nods to the past in the third movement of her sonata–a movement entitled “Scherzo” but which is actually a rather mischievous minuet.”

“The Bach French Suite was likely written between 1722 and 1725. It is a collection of 18th century dances–an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Air, Minuet, and Gigue. It contains a staggering variety of shades of colours and emotions.”

“The Haydn Sonata was composed in 1789-1790. The first movement contains Haydn’s signature mix of elegance and humor. The second movement is a study in extemporization. The great pianists of the classical era, unlike today, were all fabulous improvisers. We get a little taste of that in this movement. The simplest melody introduced in the first bars reappears with all sorts of elaborations throughout the movement, with a very dramatic, stormy central interlude. The last movement, as I mentioned, is a delightful minuet. “

“The Clara Schumann sonata was written in 1841-1842 but not published until 1991! She wrote the first and third movements as a Sonatine, a Christmas gift for her husband, the great composer Robert Schumann. She wrote the second and fourth movements in early 1842 to turn it into a larger-scale work. This Sonata sits at the intersection of two other great pieces of music written by Robert and Clara Schumann. Clara loved to perform Robert’s G Minor sonata, op. 22 and wrote to Robert in 1838, “I am endlessly looking forward to the second sonata. Your whole being is so clearly expressed in it.” Certain passages of her sonata seem to echo the feeling of his, but the language is uniquely hers. In Clara’s sonata, written at age 21, you can also see the beginnings of the G minor trio which was to come six years later. The trio is widely considered to be her greatest work and still is one of her few works in the mainstream repertoire today.”

“The Messiaen Preludes were written in 1928-1929 when he was just 20. They are influenced by Debussy’s Preludes, and yet already contain Messiaen’s unmistakable harmonic language. Messiaen was synesthetic, and so the two preludes are preceded by fascinating epigraphs. The inscription under the first, “The Dove,” says “Orange, with violet veins.” He describes the last, “A Reflection in the Wind” as “The small storm which opens and concludes the piece alternates veins of orange, and green with black stains. The central development section is more luminous. The second theme, very melodious, and wrapped in sinuous arpeggios, is blue-orange in its first occurrence, and green-orange in its second one. Violet, orange and purple dominate the entire piece.” “

I asked Lara to elaborate on Clara Schumann, as we rarely hear her works performed in recitals.  “She is an endlessly fascinating figure in so many ways: as one of the very few female pianists of the day who made performing her profession, as chief performer and promoter of her husband Robert’s compositions (she was much better known than him during their lifetimes!), as a musician highly regarded by all the great composers of her time–Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, and as the daughter of the formidable pedagogue Friedrich Wieck. She was so unique for her era, and yet also bound by its constraints. She doubted her own abilities as a composer, as women were not thought to possess the ability to compose at the time. Consequently, and also due to that her stature as a performer made her the primary breadwinner for most of her life, her oeuvre is relatively small. Her elegant and harmonically adventurous works have fortunately experienced a revival of interest since the 1980s and 1990s, and have started to make it back onto concert programs.”

I also spoke with Lara about practice, an important topic at all levels in the pursuit of music. “Currently, I practice 4-5 hours every day. I start with an hour of scales and exercises in the morning. Like most kids, I didn’t like practicing scales growing up. In the last two years, however, I have found scales to be an invaluable laboratory. When you’re doing scales and exercises, it is an opportunity to work out technical issues isolated from the overlapping technical, artistic, and musical challenges you find in repertoire.”

“I devote another 30-60 minutes to various projects I’m working on–playing with singers, playing historical instruments such as the harpsichord and fortepiano,  or sight reading for example. The remaining time is devoted to whatever piece needs the most attention at any given time. Ideally a month before a recital, as recommended by my teacher, I start doing run-throughs of the program every day. This allows me to identify problem spots and fix them systematically. I also have a list of tricky technical spots that I have to practice every day.”

“When I was growing up, I practiced anywhere between 45 minutes at age 10 up to 2.5 hours in high school. That’s on the shorter side for an aspiring professional musician, but I was also academically inclined, and I’m a big believer in “quality over quantity.” It’s much harder to fit in practice as a child with school all day. What I used to do was alternate between my homework and practice in the evening. Do my math homework, practice a piece. Do my English homework, practice another piece. This kept practice and homework interesting!”

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 January 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)