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Program for SFIPF – Nicholas Phillips

Sunday, August 22, 2021 at 4 pm

Download a copy of the program here.

San Francisco International Piano Festival
Nicholas Phillips,


Reena Esmail (b. 1983)
Rang De Basant (2012)

Mary Kouyoumdjian (b. 1983)
Aghavni (2009)

Mark Olivieri (b. 1972)
Mieux vaut être seul que mail accompagné (2021)*
Hymn for Alaina (2021)*
from Music for a New Apocalypse
            III. Tyranny of Virtue (2020)*

Carter Pann (b. 1972)
She Steals Me from The Piano’s 12 Sides (2011)

brief intermission

Quinn Mason (b. 1996)
Sonata ’21 (2021)*
      I. Moderate, with movement
      II. Slowly with feeling
      III. Finale (5 with 4 and 3 with 2)

Mark Winges (b. 1951)
Year End Nocturne (2021)*

Sahba Aminikia (b. 1981)
Lullaby (2015)

Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972)
Karnavalito No. 1 (2013)

* denotes World Premiere

About the music

Reena Esmail Rang De Basant
One of the most fascinating raags I have yet encountered in my study of Hindustani music is Raag Basant. Basant means ‘spring’ in Hindi, but it couldn’t be further from the Western conception of the season. Against a canvas of chirping birds and pastel colors, Basant feels dark and exotic, rendered in bold colors, and winding through passages of sinewy chromaticism.

The piece starts with large dense chords that change one note at a time, until they find their way slowly into Basant. This is followed by an excerpt from a short Hindustani composition (called a bandish) in Basant, stylized and notated to accommodate the sonic possibilities of the piano. This bandish builds and eventually which vanishes back into the dense chords, only to have a little bit of Basant bleed through at the end. The title of the piece comes from an iconic Hindi film, Rang De Basanti (which literally translates to “Give it the color of Saffron”). Instead of giving this piece the color of saffron, I wanted to “color” it with the aesthetic of Raag Basant. – Reena Esmail

Mary Kouyoumdjian Aghavni
Based on the poem Carpet Weaver by Brenda Najimian Magarity, Aghavni (Doves) follows the lives of a group of women before and during the Armenian genocide, closing with a retrospective look at those women and what they lost from a “present day” perspective. – Mary Kouyoumdjian

Mark Olivieri
Mieux vaut être que mal accompagné (Better Alone than in Bad Company) and Hymn for Alaina are the first two of a trio of new pieces I wrote for Phillips. Mieux explores an ostinato (a repeating musical figure that pervades the entire fabric of the composition) and how it might be repurposed by the context that surrounds it.

Hymn for Alaina was inspired by my wife, who is a professional modern dancer. Sitting at the piano improvising and writing this piece, I imagined her dancing and imagined myself playing and responding to her sometimes graceful, sometimes angular movements, as I have done on countless occasions. Much of the rhetoric for piece draws from my experience as a jazz and improvising musician.

Tyranny of Virtue – In April of 2020, feeling numb as the reality of a seemingly endless global pandemic set in, exhausted by nonstop media coverage and the politicization of a public health crisis, I sat down to improvise at the piano. I was not feeling particularly motivated to write music, but improvisation has often brought solace and inspiration in my life and has helped me think through difficulty to a place of greater clarity. I had my pencils and staff paper on hand, and at some point, the improvisation turned to writing. The five movements that resulted became Music for a New Apocalypse and reflect the dark and cynical times of their writing—the apparent inability of human beings to negotiate common ground in service of a greater good. – Mark Olivieri

Carter Pann She Steals Me
This song, subtitled Intermezzo, owes some of its concepts to Schubert and Stravinsky. The work is cast as a plaintive Appalachian waltz in A-flat major with occasional passionate chorale-like proclamations. There is a real introverted sadness about a few of the moments in this piece, while at other times there are descriptive words and phrases on the page such as “…a rocking chair on the porch,” and “snowing…” Whenever I play through the piece I come terribly close to tears in all the same spots. The softy in me could not resist preserving these moments, even at the expense of obvious sentimentality. – Carter Pann

Quinn Mason Sonata ’21
When it came time to write a piano sonata, I asked myself ‘ What would I want to say with a piano sonata in the 21st century?’. It’s a tried and true form that boasts many masterworks by the great composers, including essential pieces by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. It was a bit of a daunting project at first as I questioned what I had to add to the plethora of legendary compositions already.

As a pianist myself, my style of playing is focused on bringing the best sound out of the piano by placing emphasis on the resonance of the individual tones. Thus, the first movement is based around the key of A, specifically the middle A, which is the home base of the 440 tuning note with special emphasis and accents on specific tones in the A major scale. Of course, I pay homage to the romantic sonatas with an expansive and expressive middle section in F-sharp minor.

The second movement is a sort of funeral march, but the music takes a minimalist turn in the second section and looks back the 2nd movements of Beethoven in the next (with special ornamentation in like manner).

The last movement is a homage to my time spent as a percussionist, in which my favorite musical technique to explore was hemiolas (multiple rhythms layered on top of one another). Thus, we get the name ‘5 with 4’ and ‘3 with 2’, which make for very interesting rhythmic combinations. Here, the player is at their most virtuosic, in an almost moto perpetuo style. – Quinn Mason

Mark Winges
Year End Nocturne is one of a series of nocturnes I’ve been writing over the last few years. This one, written at the end of 2020, is a hopeful contemplation of the year’s turning. Its quiet chords dissolve into an upward line at the end as the old year fades into the new. It also has a subtle musical conceit: the note “D” (natural) is completely absent in the piece. This is a nod to the absence of a certain someone whose name begins with “D”. This afternoon is its first performance, and I’m grateful to Nick for including it on his program. – Mark Winges

Gabriela Lena Frank
Karnavalito No. 1 is inspired by the distinctly Andean concept of mestizaje, as championed by Peruvian folklorist José Maria Arguedas (1911-1969), whereby cultures can co-exist without one subjugating another. Allusions to the rhythms and harmonies of the mountain music of my mother’s homeland of Perú abound in this boisterous work, albeit freely transformed in the blender of my personal imaginations. Karnavalito No. 1 is dense in its virtuosity, with stylistic nods to the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, a music hero of mine. – Gabriela Lena Frank

About the musician

Described by The New York Times as a “talented and entrepreneurial pianist” and an “able and persuasive advocate” of new music, Nicholas Phillips’ playing has been praised for its “bejeweled accuracy” (Fanfare) and as “razor-sharp yet wonderfully spirited” (American Record Guide). He is active as a soloist and collaborative artist, having performed all across the United States, as well as Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa.

Phillips is an active recording artist and champion of living composers. In 2011, he released two CDs on Albany Records: Portals and Passages (TROY 1246), which features the works for solo piano by American composer Ethan Wickman, and Boris Papandopulo: Piano Music (TROY 1274), which features music by the famous Croatian composer. Recent releases include American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano (New Focus Recordings, 2014), which features commissioned works written for him on that theme by ten American composers, and Impressions (Blue Griffin Records, 2016), a collection of 21st-century character pieces by living American composers. Shift (Panoramic Recordings) releases in March, 2019, and features world premiere recordings of works by eight living women composers.

A native of Indiana, Phillips began formal piano lessons at Indiana University at the age of ten. He holds degrees in piano performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music (Doctor of Musical Arts), Indiana University (Master of Music), and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Bachelor of Music, summa cum laude). His teachers include internationally-renowned pianists and pedagogues Karen Taylor, Paul Barnes, Karen Shaw, and Robert Weirich.

Phillips is currently Professor of Piano at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is a Yamaha Artist.

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