Continuing a five-decade tradition, pianist Gilbert Kalish returns to Middlebury on a virtual stage

By Yardena Carmi

“Kalish’s earliest visit to the campus was in 1966, and he has established a long-lasting and firm relationship with the college ever since.” COURTESY PHOTO

“It has been a momentous week for our country,” said Liza Sacheli, the director of Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts, at the most recent virtual Performing Arts Series (PAS) concert held virtually on Nov. 6. Despite a week filled with anxiety, anticipation and questions regarding the 2020 presidential election, audiences found themselves enjoying the work of award-winning pianist and educator Gilbert Kalish, who performed on the virtual stage. Kalish’s earliest visit to the campus was in 1966, and he has established a long-lasting and firm relationship with the college ever since. 

The concert featured Kalish along with other musical guests and collaborators, namely soprano Lisette Oropesa, clarinetist David Shifrin, violinist Nicolas Dautricourt, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Torleif Thedéen

The evening opened with Affiliate Artist Sadie Brightman, who played a short piano program. The concert itself, originally curated as a broadcast this past summer for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS: Front Row Series, began with a video of Kalish discussing how he has kept himself busy at home during the pandemic. Audiences saw him cooking an omelette, eating cherries while reading the newspaper, preparing for teaching online and chatting with his family. 

“As an artist, I’m able to, at this time, have the leisure to look back at things that I’d like to read through and learn a little bit better,” Kalish said. 

Among other subjects, Kalish, who is the head of performance activities at Stonybrook University, talked about the difficulties of the transition to holding classes over Zoom, an experience many college students and faculty have shared.

The program itself consisted of three works, all recordings from different concerts written by George Crumb, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms. Kalish has had a long history of collaboration with Crumb and on several occasions has premiered pieces by the modern composer. Commenting on the work of Crumb, Kalish said, “As George is now near 90, I’ve heard his most recent piece, and it is as unique, as original, as surprising, as exciting, as anything he has ever written.” 

The Schubert piece, “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” featured clarinet player Shifrin, whose own concert was streamed as part of the PAS Fall 2020 season in October. The song was composed barely a month before Schubert’s death in 1828, and it was widely considered one of his greatest works. Almost a quarter hour in length, Kalish and Shifrin successfully presented the piece in a way that was slow and relaxed at first but gradually moved to be more jaunty and cheerful. 

During a post-concert Q&A moderated by pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, Kalish discussed his love of playing both classic and modern pieces as well as his personal philosophy of never saying no to musical challenges. 

Kalish’s concert remained on the PAS Digital Stages website through Nov. 11. The finale of the fall season will feature the award-winning Jupiter String Quartet, with an opening act by the Middlebury College Choir on Nov. 13.