OXFORD, UK – What do you get when you mix a 43-year friendship, deeply held love and romantic attraction, two genius musical minds and an emotional backstory that spans several decades?
Apparently, you get the "Variations on a Theme by Händel" by Johannes Brahms.
“I think that you will hear in this piece that the range of emotions covers the gambit,” said Dr. Ann DuHamel, an assistant professor of music and head of keyboard studies at the University of Minnesota Morris. “It includes youthful vibrato, tender yearnings, intimate pain, triumph and many more.”
DuHamel stood at the front of a large classroom speaking to St. Bonaventure University students studying in SBU's Francis E. Kelley Oxford Program at Trinity College. Her seminar was the third of the six conducted before the weekly High Table dinners.
DuHamel, who began playing piano when she was 6 years old, said that she had been working on the Brahms piece since 2017. Her performance at Trinity was her fourth during her month-long stay in Europe. Prior to her Oxford visit, she had performed during academic conferences in Italy, Serbia and Belgium.
DuHamel laid out the history behind the composition by Brahms, a birthday gift for composer Clara Schumann. Brahms saved what he viewed as his most beloved piece for the woman who captured his heart.
“On December 15th of 1854, Brahms wrote to Clara declaring his love,” DuHamel said. “In the following February, he wrote, ‘You have no idea how indispensable your presence is to me. You have not the remotest conception.’ ”
DuHamel said Schumann, whose difficult past included a mother who left, a father who was especially strict, and a composer husband who was hospitalized for mental illness, was often delighted by both her friendship with Brahms and his work.
After talking extensively on the background behind this piece, DuHamel moved on to discuss the actual musical composition.
“Brahms, several years after he wrote this piece, wrote that he had a peculiar affection for the variation form and considered that it offered great scope to his talents and energies," DuHamel said.
And then she encouraaged the students to listen for the character and feelings behind each of the variations of the piece.
Playing certain segments and examples, she pointed out the intent and form behind the notes. She also explained the Baroque era (late 17th to early 18th centuries) influences and where they could be found in the Brahms piece composed during the Romantic era (late 19th to early 20th centuries).
Next, DuHamel moved the seminar to the anteroom of the chapel at Trinity so that she could properly play the "Variations on a Theme by Händel" on a better piano in a structure with superior acoustics and atmosphere.
In a performance that lasted slightly over a half an hour, DuHamel filled the small chapel up with crescendo flights, rapid staccato, wild espressivo and everything in between, and left some of the students in a stunned silence while others moved their fingers to replicate the notes she was playing.
Standing up from the piano bench, DuHamel asked her audience if they preferred that she answer a few questions or play a short encore. When Francis E. Kelley Program Director Mike Jones-Kelley asked for the encore, DuHamel said she would perform a contemporary piece, "Playing Brahms" by Mark Chan, and told her audience that the composition is designed to be played with the left hand only.
DuHamel did have time to answer a few questions before the High Table. Students wanted to know how she learned to play as well as she does, how often she performs, and when she first performed for an audience. DuHamel said she had fine teachers and makes a habit of practicing and that her performance schedule ranges from four in a month or once or twice a year.
DuHamel gave her first solo performance at age 17. "I was not as young as Clara Schumann. She was 9," said DuHamel, who played in a group recital for the first time at age 8.
After the dinner, Kathy Williams, a St. Bonaventure marketing major, recalled that she was astounded to watch DuHamel play the Chan piece with only one hand.
And Williams said, “It was an impactful masterpiece that invoked many deep emotions from the audience.”
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