For its fifth anniversary, the SF International Piano Festival comes full circle
At the age of 10, pianist Rachel Breen was scheduled to perform at a Bay Area festival when her manager became upset upon learning that she had previously been self-taught. This interaction prompted her to start studying with her first piano teacher. Fifteen years later and several teachers later, Breen made her debut at the San Francisco International Piano Festival, where she would perform alongside one of her former teachers, Sharon Mann.
Jeffrey LaDeur, the festival’s founder and artistic director, said he first met Breen when she was 16 and she was already performing at a professional level: “I feel like I got to see Rachel explode on stage international.” He also described how the principles of legacy and continuity are two themes of the festival’s fifth anniversary, with a new list of master classes added to the program and solo recitals by Breen, Jan Bartoš (who makes his West Coast debut here playing Czech masterpieces), and Bobby Mitchell.
With a celebration of Bach’s 300th birthday The Well-Tempered Clavier setting the tone on opening night on August 18, Breen will perform selections from the piece before a world premiere inspired by these famous preludes and fugues. Breen said, “I think Bach sounds like my mother tongue, just because for the first five years of piano playing I only played Bach.”
The festival ends August 28 with a finale featuring the music influenced and composers touched by this classic piece, including Dmitri Shostakovich, the Beatles and Nina Simone. “We pass on what we received from our teachers,” LaDeur said. “The final piece of that is the young artists who are the living embodiment of the legacy.”
Breen talks enthusiastically about teaming up with his former teacher Sharon Mann, who skillfully harnessed her student’s stubbornness as a young artist “with determination and patience.” For Breen, music is the basis of empathy. “When you experience music, you recognize, without trying, that there is a fundamental connection between you and another human being via a person who created the art,” she said. “So the composer and performer who understands and interprets the art for you and everyone else in the audience – [they’re] experience it with you, and everyone throughout history has experienced and enjoyed music and therefore allowed it to continue.
For his solo recital, Breen organized the selections, combining works like those of Schumann Arabesque with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. She described the sonata’s sense of balance as “the darkest place in human existence, which then turns into the strongest sense of peace you can reach. The only thing I could do to preface the sonata was to put something extremely pure and extremely naive but also optimistic [before it].” She likened her curatorial process to hanging paintings in a museum, providing a “variety of human lenses to view the world” through a set of “disparate but deeply connected filters”.
This can also be seen in the placement of Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata, Op. 22, in the middle of the program. “Medtner was a big fan of Beethoven, especially the late Beethoven. And I think you can absolutely hear that in his music, in his experimental structures, like the clarity of ideas, the interest in counterpoint – there’s a lot of aspects of his writing that feel Beethoven,” he said. said Breen. “But something that sounds incredibly different from Beethoven is that no matter what piece you listen to, you can feel that Medtner as a human being is a fundamental pessimist. When you listen to Beethoven, you can sense that Beethoven is deeply optimistic. So I find that really fascinating.
See Rachel Breen at the San Francisco International Piano Festival Launch Concert with selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier on August 18 or during his solo recital on August 21. Learn more about the other artists on the program, check out the full lineup, and buy tickets for in-person and live concerts on the festival website.