In the Club with: Daniel Pesca
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
For our first episode we are thrilled to welcome pianist, composer, and longtime friend and collaborator, Daniel Pesca!
Tell us about a recent concert you performed in or attended that you particularly enjoyed.
I’m thinking about a concert that happened a few weeks ago—a lifetime ago, now! I’m on the programming committee of a new organization in D.C. called Constellations Chamber Concerts, and we had our first concert at our venue in downtown D.C. I wasn’t performing, but I gave periodic spoken program notes throughout the concert. A few things about the event stood out to me: the intimacy of the venue, the combination of contemporary and traditional classical music, and the high quality of the artists.
Colin Carr played movements of a Bach cello suite, then Sandbox Percussion performed works by Thierry de Mey and Viet Cuong. The program also included a short work by Lei Liang as well as Mendelssohn’s C minor Trio. I hope that this is the future of contemporary music: presented alongside traditional literature, not cordoned off and treated as an unfamiliar thing.
Is there a moment or experience that got you hooked on contemporary music?
I’ll answer this question in two phases. First, there was my early exposure to contemporary music, when I initially experienced its power. I was passionate about music from a fairly young age, and my parents bought me The Vintage Guide to Classical Music for my eleventh birthday. I worked through this book diligently, and it included some contemporary composers (what was contemporary circa 1990). It was through this book that I learned a lot about the Second Viennese School and started listening to their music. I have a vivid memory of being twelve years old and listening to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire on a Saturday morning while eating a grapefruit. Around the same time, my grandfather gave me a recording of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, and my composition teacher loaned me a recording of Louis Andriessen’s De Tijd. Both these works baffled my young mind and I was fascinated.
The second phase is during my undergrad at Eastman, when I began actually playing contemporary music. An important early experience in this regard was playing on a Charles Wuorinen concert given by Eastman Musica Nova, with the composer in attendance. I was recently revisiting this experience when I learned that Wuorinen passed away so recently. I was very green and in totally over my head, and I’m sure I was stumbling all over myself constantly, but I loved the experience and how challenging it was, and how visceral and propulsive the music was.
Who are some composers or ensembles you’ve been enjoying listening to lately?
Three unrelated bits of recent listening:
- I have known Spektral Quartet for years. They were my teaching colleagues at University of Chicago, and now we are in the Grossman Ensemble together. Their acclaimed album “Fanm d’Ayiti” with flutist/composer/vocalist Nathalie Joachim is a joy: transcriptions of traditional Haitian songs, exquisitely set and lovingly produced.
- The vaguely apocalyptic feeling in the air nowadays has caused me to revisit the music of Valentin Silvestrov. I particularly love his “Silent Songs.” This music feels like it is just barely holding onto its own existence, as though it is constantly about to end. It feels like the last moments of a Mahler Adagio, stretched out endlessly. A Romanticism so sweet and overripe that it becomes something else entirely.
Is there a specific instrumentation you think has been underexplored by composers and deserves more attention?
We are fortunate to live in a time when there is a plethora of ensembles with unique instrumentations pushing the composition world in new directions. I’m thinking of groups like New Morse Code, Deviant Septet, Yarn/Wire, and Akropolis Reed Quintet who, via commissioning, are vastly expanding the literature for their specific ensemble make-up.
In the last couple weeks, I’ve been wondering if we’ll see an outpouring of new music designed for social distance—that is, works that are explicitly created to be realizable by a group of musicians who aren’t in physical proximity. Even after the pandemic dies down, such works might bear fruit in the development of collaborations across the country and around the world.
Do you have any advice for someone pursuing a multifaceted career like yours that combines performing, teaching, composing, and leading projects?
Let things ebb and flow. Don’t try to do everything every day, or you’ll burn out. Some things must be done every day (or at least five days a week): practice, above all. But practicing only forty minutes in a given day is better than not practicing at all. Consider what’s realistic, and structure your time to avoid burn-out. Two weeks of white-hot intensity are doable for me, so long as I have one or two days afterwards to rest and recoup. Learn those things about yourself and plan accordingly. And set aside time
each year for projects that are going to
take sustained effort. Then, be disciplined
about guarding that time.
Outside of music, what other types of art and media do you particularly enjoy?
I consider myself a big reader, although I don’t keep up the habit as much as I’d like on a day-to-day basis. In 2020 so far, I’ve read books by Zadie Smith, Hilton Als, Roxane Gay, and Camus. I spend a fair amount of time in art museums, too. Since moving to Baltimore last fall, I’ve been frequenting the Walters, which is an incredible collection.
Thank you so much for joining us, Daniel!
Pianist and composer Daniel Pesca has premiered over one hundred new works and has performed with the Slee Sinfonietta, the Grossman Ensemble, the Zohn Collective, and Ensemble Dal Niente. He has concertized at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and at many international festivals. He is featured on recordings from Urtext and Centaur. His world premiere recording of Bernard Rands’s Impromptus appears on Nimbus Records this year. Dr. Pesca is Assistant Professor of Piano at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Formerly, he was Artist-in-Residence at the University of Chicago. He holds degrees from Eastman and the University of Michigan.
Top photo by Rosen-Jones Photography; piano shot from Gesher Music Festival website