Robert Spillman Comes to Bucknell

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Acclaimed pianist and professor, Robert Spillman, made a short residency here on Bucknell’s campus ending with a performance earlier this month, collaborating with Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Emily Martin-Moberley who sang.  He also gave a master class to vocal students from the standpoint of a collaborative pianist on Thursday, and offered individual coachings to voice and piano students on Friday. Robert Spillman was Chair of the piano faculty and Music Director of the Opera Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He received a BM degree and Performer’s Certificate in piano and an MA in Music Theory from the Eastman School of Music. Spillman is also an accomplished composer and some of his works were even performed at the event.

On Saturday, Dr. Spillman and Dr. Martin-Moberley performed an extremely entertaining and moving set. The program opened with three songs by Franz Schubert, including the well-known “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) from the song cycle Die Schone Müllerin. The distress of the character portrayed in combination with the emotional turmoil underlined by Spillman’s playing made for breathtaking performance.

The second set of songs comprised literature from French composer, Francis Poulenc. The mature, sultry sounds of his works were brilliantly conveyed by the duo, especially in the second song of the set, “Hôtel”. The lazy yet exhausted attitude of the work is epitomized in the last lyric “Je ne veux pas travailler– je veux fumer,” translating to “I don’t want to work– I want to smoke;” a difficult mood to capture but successfully done. Spillman’s hands just floated across the keyboard in the most mesmerizing manner and it contributed much to the humid, noir atmosphere being created.

The last two sections, separated by a brief intermission, consisted of music sung in English. Before the intermission came three works composed by Spillman himself. The first two were quite thoughtful works based on two poems by Jane Kenyon and the third, “ Why I Have a Crush on You UPS Man”, featured text written by none other than Spillman. This last piece served as a bit of comic relief in a jazzy, musical-theatre style and made a roaring end to the first half of the program.

Following the intermission was “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”. Composed by Samuel Barber and set to the text of James Agee’s famous essay “Knoxville”, this 15-minute long piece is sung from the perspective of a child whose gender is unknown, but it is sung by a solo female soprano. It is extremely thought-provoking performance, sitting witness to a child trying to figure out their identity and the meaning of the existence around them. I was brought to a few tears by the end with the powerful cry of the both the piano and voice “Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her… but will not ever tell me who I am.”

Having the privilege to see Robert Spillman play and collaborate with faculty and my peers was an amazing experience. It just serves another reminder of all of the amazing ways that musicians and people can come together and create something so great such as music.

Image source: http://www.colorado.edu/music/faculty/bob-spillman