With less than a week until the Schubertiade 371 on Sunday 21st August, I chatted with rising star soprano, Simone Easthope, and international prize winning German pianist Benjamin Moser, to talk about their Schubert recital program and Simone's life since leaving Sydney's shores to pursue an international career in New York and Europe. To book tickets, please click here.
MB: The Schubert Society is so thrilled that you and Ben, are able to perform a recital for us on your visit to Australia. Can you please tell us a little bit about the program and what you think the highlights will be for Schubert members?
SE: Ben and I have never had the chance to perform together in concert, so this has been a very special experience for both of us. When we began planning our Australian tour, we tried to find song and piano repertoire that would complement each other. Ben has played this Schubert piano sonata many times, and in fact recorded it recently to great acclaim, so we wanted to find songs to pair it with. This sonata occupies a special place in Schubert’s oeuvre as his last big work for the piano, but it also exemplifies the autumnal nature of his later output.
There is a real sense here that Schubert was taking stock, reflecting on both the great joy and great pain that he had already experienced in his short life. We immediately thought of songs such as Lachen und Weinen, which seems the perfect analogy for so much of Schubert’s music. This reflection, that love cannot exist without both laughter and tears, runs like a thread through all the pieces we have chosen, whether it be in secret, as in Heimliches Lieben or Geheimes, or in reflecting on the past, as in Im Frühling.
MB: You will also be performing Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben. This cycle is probably considered a cornerstone of a soprano's repertoire - is there something about being able to dramatise the music in a live performance that you enjoy?
SE: Yes, absolutely. There is a strong feeling of emotional spontaneity that I really relish in Schumann’s music, and that is especially evident in Frauenliebe und –Leben. It is such a pleasure to relive this woman’s life’s journey, to have the feeling that her story is developing with each moment and each song, that her inner life is deepening and her sense of self is growing. It is especially fascinating as a woman of the 21st century to examine this woman of 1840 and share in her joys and pains, and even though we are seeing her through a male poet’s and composer’s lens, she emerges as a complex, three-dimensional character.
MB: I notice you've selected some gorgeous Schubert Lieder for us, including Die junge Nonne. Do you try to choose songs with a female-skewing viewpoint, or do you see them more as open to interpretation from either a male or female protagonist?
SE: I do enjoy singing repertoire that was written either by women or portraying a female character, but I love the challenge of making that shift and in the next moment inhabiting a male character. There are certainly plenty of examples of both male and female characters in this program. A wonderful aspect of Schubert’s song repertoire is how flexible one can be with gender. There are certain songs, such as Erlkönig, which admittedly aren’t sung often by women, but there are notable interpreters, such as Anne-Sophie von Otter, who have sung traditionally such “male” songs very successfully. In this program, Geheimes, Im Frühling, An Sylvia, and Ständchen are all clearly written from a male perspective, and yet express emotions that are universal to human nature, and vocally fit a soprano voice with no problem whatsoever.
MB: We're really looking forward to hearing Ben perform the B flat major piano sonata, which he has just recorded for his latest CD I believe. How did you both meet and start working together and can you tell us a little bit about him as a pianist?
SE: Ben and I met five years ago when I first moved overseas. I was about to begin my postgraduate studies at the Juilliard School in New York, and was spending the European summer in Germany attending a summer singing academy, run by Edith Wiens, my singing professor at Juilliard. While there, she introduced me to her son, Ben, and we clicked, and have been together ever since! Ben comes from a family with a long pedigree in music, and it has been wonderful for me to be able to share in his deep love of music.
Ben is a very accomplished solo pianist, having come to international attention in June 2007 as a prizewinner in the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, in which he received the prize for the best interpretation of Tchaikovsky, as well as the audience prize. In that same year he also won first prize in the International Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York, as well as eight additional special prizes and recitals in, among other venues, Paris (Gulbenkian Centre), Washington (Kennedy Centre) and New York (Carnegie Hall). Since then, he has had an active international career, performing with such internationally renowned orchestras as the London Philharmonic, and is in demand as a solo recitalist, both in Germany and across Europe. He has also recorded three CDs, the most recent one being released late last year, of Russian and French music, and of Beethoven and Schubert’s last piano sonatas.
As you can see, he has been very busy, which is why it is such a pleasure to share the stage with him here on our Australian tour!
MB: On that note, how has your experience of living and working in Germany been so far?
SE: We’ve been based in Berlin for three years now, and I adore living there. Growing up as I did in a small town in regional NSW, it is still astounding to me to live in a city that lives and breathes the arts. Berlin alone has three large professional opera companies, and the amount of smaller companies and performance opportunities is astounding. I have a wonderful circle of friends, both German and expatriate, who are also musicians and singers. Admittedly, life in Germany is not as easy as Australia – dealing with the eternal Berlin grey is sometimes very difficult! But for the richness of its cultural life, it can’t be beaten.
MB: Finally, I know you've both been touring to the sunny reaches of far North Queensland. It must be quite a different experience, in terms of nature and culture for Ben. How has he enjoyed visiting Australia and what have the highlights of this trip been for him?
BM: I have greatly enjoyed my trip to Australia; it’s the first time I’ve been here. The people are extremely friendly and generous – people seem to smile more in this country. We’ve had some fantastic nature experiences, especially in North Queensland. I especially admired the Cathedral Figtree near Atherton. A lot of wildlife, like kangaroos (even tree kangaroos!), wallabies, colourful birds, even a small red-bellied black snake. The biggest highlight would have to be our trip to the Great Barrier Reef, where we snorkelled. It is really like an underwater National Park with a limitless variety of coral and fish species.
It was also great to meet large parts of Simone’s family. I got to see a little more where she grew up, what her culture looks like and what her background is. Overall, a wonderful experience.
I would like to thank Simone and Ben on behalf of all the Sydney Schubert Society for taking the time to share their insights, thoughts and observations and wish them all the very best for their very bright future together. We are all looking forward to hearing their recital this Sunday 2:30pm at the Goethe Institute, 90 Ocean St Woollahra.