Yale School of Music deputy dean performs timeless piano variations


Creating a musical conversation between past and present, the concert repertoire includes a mixture of both old and new composers.


Jane Park

12:58 am, Jan 20, 2023

Contributing Reporter


Yale University

Originally planned for 2020 in celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, a two-year-delayed solo piano program by Yale School of Music Deputy Dean Melvin Chen was finally performed at Morse Recital Hall on Wednesday night.

A part of the Horowitz Piano Series, the concert’s repertoire focused on “Diabelli variations.” featuring both new and old compositions that derived inspiration from Beethoven’s 1819 “Theme from Vaterländischer Künstlerverein,” which itself was an interpretation of a waltz written by Austrian composer Anton Diabelli. The first half of the program consisted of an alternation of works by Yale-affiliated composers and non-Yale-affiliated composers, while the second half of the program was dedicated to Beethoven’s 33 Diabelli Variations. According to Chen, this format was an intentional decision.   

“Classical music, to me, is not like some kind of museum object that’s frozen in time,” Chen told the News. “None of these new composers compose in a vacuum. They’re aware of the old music, whether consciously or unconsciously. Having new writing, new music and adding to the repertoire keeps classical music alive, in a sense, because they’re continuing the tradition that’s been happening for centuries.” 

Professor Aaron Jay Kernis, a member of the composition faculty at the Yale School of Music and a composer of one of the variations performed on Wednesday, emphasized the concert’s connection to Diabelli’s original project. After creating his initial theme, Diabelli then sent the piece to his musical contemporaries, requesting that they create different interpretations and variations on the original. 

“What I love about this project is that Professor Chen went one step further,” Kerris said. “The initial inspiration that Diabelli had to write to his contemporaries… reflects the spirit of a past project and develops it further by asking a lot of quite young composers of our time to add to it make it an even larger project that not only reflects the 19th century, but reflects our time as well.”

In addition to the older variations on Diabelli, the concert repertoire included five recent compositions created by four Yale School of Music graduates, Timo Andres YC ’07, MUS ’09, Krists Auznieks MUS ’16, ’22, Lori Laitman YC ’75, MUS ’76 and Liliya Ugay MUS ’16, ’22.

The new composers utilized different styles and methods to create their variations. Ugay said that in her composition, she wanted to incorporate recognizable aspects that were similar to the original Diabelli theme, meant maintaining the musical essence and character of the piece.

“It’s challenging and at the same time fascinating to work with a theme that is so traditional and even generic in its structure and harmony: what can you do to highlight the character of the original theme, how can you make [the variation] still recognizable in your creation?” Ugay said. “What I kept is a sense of humor and the hint of ‘waltz,’ because the original theme is a waltz, and the use of the pickup motif which starts the theme that, in my version, became a seed from which the rest of the music material grew.”

Professor Aaron Jay Kernis intentionally sought out a unique approach to composing his Diabelli variation, straying from “the very studied way of looking at the tune.” Instead, Kernis’ composition, ‘Give Us Two Beautiful Bells,’ was inspired by translating and misconstruing fragments of the name “Diabelli” to create different meanings. 

“I took the name Diabelli apart, and imagined ‘What if I misread the name and I use Google Translate to split up the word?’” Kernis said. “I found that ‘Dia’ means ‘to give’ and ‘Beli’ means beautiful. Then I went and misspelled Dia to Due, for two, and thought, ‘Okay, then I’ll add a little English for bells… Once I started with that idea of chords that I wanted to use, and bell-like attacks on the instrument, then I integrated some tiny little fragments of Diabelli’s original tune.” 

Two years have passed since Chen initially reached out to composers and commissioned their pieces. For Kernis, this delay has added to his excitement for the premiere but also created a sense of distance from his piece, a sentiment that Kernis feels is shared by other composers. 

“One of the unusual things about this pandemic, for me and many of my colleagues, is that there were a lot of postponed projects and we had to wait a number of years before hearing the works we wrote during that time,” Kernis said. “When that time passes and composers go on and write other works, it puts what they’ve just done away in the background, not really knowing what’s going to happen. It creates both a special anticipation and somewhat of a sense of distance. We were different people in 2020.”

While Chen agreed that compositions and even musicians can change significantly in a two-year period, he stated that the Diabelli variations are “great pieces” due to the multiple and constantly changing approaches to the same pieces.  

“It’s a great piece because there’s depth: you can come back to it over and over and still have things to explore… I can come back to the piece and practice something new about it,” Chen said. “The process of practicing a piece and getting to know a piece is never done.” 

The remainder of the 2022-2023 Horowitz Piano series will feature solo performances by YSM faculty pianists Wei-Yi Yang and Dean Robert Blocker and internationally renowned pianist Yefim Bronfman. 



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