Monday, April 24, 2023

Anyssa Neumann in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On April 29, 2023, Anyssa Neumann will perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Franz Liszt with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. I will have the honor of conducting this beautiful program, which also includes Florence Price's Andante moderato, and Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4. Below is an interview with Anyssa, who is visiting from the United Kingdom.

Christian Baldini: Anyssa, please tell us what is so special to you about this particular concerto? What should people listen for in it?

Anyssa Neumann: My favourite pieces seem to be the ones I've heard great performances of, and this is no different. I vividly remember hearing a friend perform the Liszt E-flat concerto with orchestra when I was 18, and it was love at first listen. It's such a fun concertoserious music that doesn't take itself too seriously, full of spark and fire and shimmering magical fairylands. And it moves between sections so rapidly that you can't get bored. This concerto sometimes gets a bad rappeople think it's too flashy and shallow, not substantial enough. I disagree. Liszt as composer (rather than pianist) often took a beating from the critics, and he agonized over finalizing his written works before subjecting them to public scrutiny. This concerto, on which he worked for 25 years, starts with a stentorian theme in the strings and winds, a nine-note phrase to which he (and possibly his son-in-law Hans von Bülow) later attached the words, “Das versteht Ihr alle nicht, haha!” (“None of you understand this, haha!”) in rebuttal to those critics. A musical cocking-a-snook, as the Brits say!



CB: How were your beginnings with music? I know you also played the trumpet when you were growing up. Was there a time when you played both instruments with equal emphasis? When/how/why did you decide to quit the trumpet in favor of the piano?


AN: I hated the piano for most of my childhood. I wanted to play the violin, but my parents wouldn't let me (to be fair, beginner violin isn't the most melodious of sounds). When I was 9, I decided to play trumpet in the school band (thrilling my parents, no doubt). I liked trumpet much more than piano, but I was quite happy playing second (or third) chair. To be a professional brass player, you have to really want to be in the spotlight, to play all those high notes. I didn't. But trumpet allowed me to be part of a musical community in a way that solitary piano never did. I played trumpet in the Sacramento Youth Symphony from ages 11-16, and that, more than anything else, kept me interested in and engaged with classical music during my piano-hating years.



CB: What does music mean to you? How does music (and more specifically classical music such as the Liszt Concerto) fit into today's society?


AN: Good grief, where to start?! I think I'll paraphrase what an old teacher of mine once said: "a life with music is better than a life without." I have thought about changing careers many times, doing something that actually pays well, something I can leave at the office. (Fact: musicians don't get weekends.) But the thrill of making music, the portals that these sounds open up to other times and places, that feeling of emotional and physical aliveness, and that communal experience with other musicians and audienceswell, you can't beat that.



CB: You grew up in Sacramento, played trumpet in the Sacramento Youth Symphony while growing up here, and you have now been based in the UK for a while. What are some of the things you miss (if any) about living in the US?


AN: Old-fashioned donuts. Deli sandwiches. Mexican food. In that order. I also miss the wonderfully varied landscape and the smell of summer. And, of course, my friends and family.



CB: Besides being a wonderful concert pianist you are also a musicologist, and an Ingmar Bergman scholar.  You are currently completing a Postdoc at Uppsala university in Sweden. How do you manage it all? Would you mind sharing some thoughts about your Ingmar Bergman work?


AN: Most of the time it feels like I'm not managing any of it! Once the pandemic hit, I was very glad that I hadn't put all my eggs in the performing basket—I actually had an academic job during many of those fallow months when musicians suffered the most. Becoming a musicologist was sort of accidental. I was interested in academiaand being a student was the only way I could get visas to live in other countries. So I just kept climbing the degree ladder until I finished a PhD. I fell into Bergman by way of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which Bergman uses in his film The Silence (1963). I wrote a paper on it, discovered that nobody else (at the time) had written much about Bergman's use of music, and that if I ever did a PhD, that would be my topic. I love cinema, I love storytelling—stories are how I make sense of the world. So studying the interaction of film and music was a natural fit for me.



CB: Do you have any advice for young musicians? At certain times in life we all face challenges, competition, and many musicians have thought of quitting more than once. What has helped you in your trajectory, and inspired you to keep going forward?


AN: It's a tricky one, giving advice. I'm not sure I have anyonly a few statements I find to be true. The classical music industry can be absolutely brutal. The pay is crap, the work is relentless, your dreams of soloist stardom will probably come to naught, and you will struggle with feelings of inferiority and failure throughout your entire career. If you don't want to do it anymore, then don't—it's ok to do something else. In fact, if doing something else makes you happier, do that instead! I'm selling it well, aren't I? The important part is this: you don't have to be a full-time professional musician to play or enjoy music. Music is for everyone. It's part of our legacy on this planet. It's the best of humanity. So take it seriously, learn it, listen to it, play it, understand it, make it part of you, pursue a career in it if that's what calls to you. I think we sometimes get so caught up in the competitive culture of classical music—the commercialism, the perfectionism, the comparisons, the number of likes and listens—that we forget what music actually is: a way of communicating something about the beauty and urgency of life. I love what Donna Tartt writes in her novel The Goldfinch about the lasting qualities of art: “And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this [art] down through time—so too has love. (...) It exists; and it keeps on existing.” A glory and a privilege—gets me every time. 


CB: Lastly, what are some of the most inspiring experiences (or people) in your life, and why?

AN: My most inspiring experiences have come from artist residencies, particularly those at the Banff Centre in CanadaGetting to know other musicians (or artists more generally), working and living alongside them—with the right people and the right surroundings, an alchemical transformation occurs, of excitement, solidarity, support, understanding, openness, inspiration, collaboration, realness. I'm inspired by people who are real, who don't hide behind a facade of perfection or control (even as I type this I feel the need to maintain my own facade!). Obviously, vulnerability can be uncomfortable, so there's a time and a place, and trust is essential, but...we're all human. We all make mistakes, in music, in life. We all feel, at various times, that we have no idea what we're doing. Can't we just be honest about that? We're all in the same boat. It's better to journey together than not.



CB: Thank you very much Anyssa, we very much look forward to featuring you as our soloist!

AN: Thanks for having me!

Raised in Sacramento and based in the UK / Sweden, pianist Anyssa Neumann has been praised for the “clarity, charm, and equipoise” of her performances, which span solo and collaborative repertoire from the Baroque to the 21st century. Recent highlights include concerto performances with the NYKO Sinfonietta (Sweden) and the Lompoc Pops Orchestra (USA); Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Sweden and Norway; solo recitals in Rome, London, Uppsala, the Pacific Northwest, and throughout California; and artist residencies at the Banff Centre (Canada), Avaloch Farm (USA), and the Bergman Estate (Sweden). During the Covid-19 pandemic, she video-recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations at home, calling the project #IsolationVariations; the playlist of all 32 videos, accompanied by short essays, can be found on YouTube.


Recent projects include a Don Quixote-inspired song program with British bass-baritone Timothy Dickinson and a concert tour of New Mexico and California with American soprano Rena Harms. Other collaborative partners include soprano Emma Tring (BBC Singers), mezzo-soprano Katherine Nicholson (BBC Singers), violinist Yolanda Bruno (Toronto Symphony), cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio (Eroica Trio), and the London Chamber Collective. She has also performed as guest pianist with the Sheba Ensemble and appeared on NPR’s Performance Today, Sirius Satellite Radio, Swedish Radio P1 Kultur, Estonia National Radio, and David Dubal’s radio program The Piano Matters, which featured her solo debut album of works by Bach, Beethoven, Messiaen, and Prokofiev.

After studying with Natsuki Fukasawa and Richard Cionco in Sacramento, Anyssa attended the Manhattan School of Music (BM) and University of Oxford (MSt) before continuing further studies with Fabio Bidini in Berlin and Paul Stewart at Université de Montréal. She has additionally worked with Thomas Adès, Rita Wagner, and András Keller at IMS Prussia Cove, and with Mitsuko Uchida, Anne Sofie von Otter, Bengt Forsberg, Marc Durand, Julian Martin, Ronan O’Hora, Anton Kuerti, Andre-Michel Schub, Joseph Kalichstein, and Russell Sherman in master classes.


She earned her PhD in musicology from King’s College London in 2017, focusing on pre-existing music in the films of Ingmar Bergman, which she then developed into a lecture-recital and presented in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Madrid, Helsingborg, Lund, Uppsala, and Fårö, culminating in a live broadcast from the Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa as part of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in 2021. She currently holds a postdoctoral position in the Engaging Vulnerability Research Program at Uppsala University. For more information, please visit