RENATE ROSSOL on VISI and FSI
As a double-major in solo piano and music history at the University of Manitoba, in Canada, I always gravitated toward Art Song and involved myself in projects and classes dedicated to this art form. In 2010 and 2011 I had attended summer programs dedicated to Art Song (the Vancouver International Song Institute – VISI, and the Alpenkammermusik in Austria). In the summer between graduating and starting a pre-masters program in Art Song accompaniment at the Konservatorium Wien, I wanted to attend another summer program dedicated to the performance and study of this incredible repertoire. I was accepted into the Young University Artists program at VISI for the second time, and at the Franz-Schubert-Institut (FSI) in Baden.
I was absolutely thrilled to get two very different kinds of Art Song experiences this summer. VISI’s Young University Artists program is a three-week program for upper-undergraduate students featuring Art Song in any language (though the focus is primarily on English, French and German, and all lectures, coachings, and master-classes are based on songs/song cycles/topics within those languages). There is also the opportunity to experiment using Art Song in the form of a theatre piece, linking songs (usually of varying languages) within a mostly-improvised scene. By contrast, FSI is a five-week intensive course centered exclusively on German Lieder. It is mainly comprised of daily master-classes (with a separate roster of master-teachers, who stay for only three days each), poetry classes, and coachings (with faculty who stay for the full five weeks). Both programs offer diction coachings, and have performance coaches on faculty.
The exploration of languages and presentation styles offered at VISI, coupled with the range of expertise from all the coaches was a truly great combination. The lectures were always interesting, and I loved experimenting with the theatre piece; ours took place in a psychologist’s office! The number of people on faculty as well as their expertise was indispensable, and most stayed for the entirety of the course. Extra coachings were offered by nearly everyone; the generosity of the faculty at VISI was incredible. They were all very approachable, and would even go to coffee with students to discuss everything from song poetry to career paths.
Each duo (or trio, as most pianists had two singers each) was placed in a group with one or two other pianist/singer combinations, and attended coachings together for the entire three weeks. This created strong bonds, and watching the people of your group grow together over the course of the program was really inspiring. There were a number of public performances, as well as the opportunity to work and perform with a faculty singer. An interactive presentation by Arlene Shrut on the rehearsal process both alone and with a singer was very useful and unique. There were also other programs running through VISI which everyone was allowed to audit if they wished. An optional (but completely essential) performance anxiety course with Paula Wise was a transformative experience for me, and I know it will have a lasting impact. What I really appreciated was the explorative, non-judgmental, creative environment at VISI, which director Prof. Rena Sharon established from the very first moment the group was assembled on the first day. This mindset allowed everyone to grow together, and experiment with preconceived notions of performance boundaries. I felt strengthened through the experience at VISI; my knowledge of the Art Song genre definitely broadened, as did my approach to the poetry and music of Art Song as a whole.
FSI was a very intense program, and the schedule remained fairly consistent for all thirty-five days of the program. Every morning began with an hour-long class on German poetry and philosophy conducted by the program’s director, Dr. Deen Larsen. These classes were always profound, and often had a wider influence than simply on the poem or concept at hand. Following this came the first of the two daily public master-classes (2.5 hours each), providing everyone with the opportunity to perform everyday, in most cases. There was no separation of the participants based on their level, experience, or age, which provided a dynamic and nurturing learning environment. Private, half-hour coaching sessions with the permanent faculty were also held daily. Everyone performed in four concerts: locally in Baden (including an opportunity to play in the apartment where Beethoven worked on his ninth symphony, on his piano!), and at the beautiful twelfth-century monastery, Heiligenkreuz. Most evenings, a number of the participants, faculty and master-teachers would go to a Heuriger – local wineries which offer their own wine and amazing food – always a bonding experience. The excursions were also tremendous; walking in the Vienna Woods where Beethoven, Schubert and Wolf walked, one could experience what inspired the incredible music these composers produced.
While the teaching and performance style is much more traditional, Waltraud Österreicher provided many explorative and life-changing rehearsal exercises and performance coachings. The faculty were all very warm and approachable, and were always present in the masterclasses to later provide feedback on the performances, which was invaluable. There are literally no days off at FSI, and while I was in the program, there was a spell of ten days devoid of excursions, filled with coachings, poetry class, and masterclasses, as well as two performances. In the middle of this intense period, Dr. Larsen reminded us that, “in order to get into a new zone, you have to stick with one thing, persevere, burn, go crazy, and come out the other end a new person; have the courage to be consumed.” This perfectly summarizes the intention of the course as a whole, and the experience it provides. Throughout the intensive five weeks, all the participants became very close and the camaraderie was infectious. The experience as a whole, especially performing in public masterclasses every day, was a challenging and transformative experience. The poetry classes were the heart of the course, and through the consistent study provided at FSI, my ideas and perceptions of the poetry and music of German Lieder were profoundly developed.
After such a wonderfully intensive summer, I feel like a different pianist, interpreter, and collaborator altogether. As both VISI and FSI provided such a rich well of information and life-altering experiences, I feel ready to delve deeper into this repertoire as I begin my focused studies in Vienna. These two programs reinforced that, as walls come down and pretensions fall away, one’s artistry is developed by not being afraid of pursuing what is challenging, honest, and true. I would highly recommend both programs to anyone who has a true passion for Art Song, and is looking for a program that is challenging both on an artistic and personal level. Both VISI and FSI are for musicians who are willing to have the courage to dig deeper, and think beyond the conventional approaches to music and poetry.