UMSL Piano Studio collaborates with MADCO 2 for ‘Remembering Debussy’ show

by | Nov 12, 2018

Fall recital combines music, dance and artwork to celebrate the legacy of French composer Claude Debussy.
UMSL Piano Studio, MADCO 2 collaborate on 'Remembering Debussy'

UMSL Piano Studio student Samantha Barton performs a selection from French composer Claude Debussy’s “Deux Arabesques” accompanied by MADCO 2 dancers during a rehearsal for the “Remembering Debussy” recital, which takes place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Lee Theater at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photo by August Jennewein)

In Alla Voskoboynikova’s mind, Claude Debussy is more than just a legendary composer and pianist.

“Debussy is a planet,” said Voskoboynikova, associate teaching professor of music and director of keyboard studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “He is a revolutionary. He changed so much in music; he changed the piano as an instrument. He brought so many new colors and dimensions. He is basically a painter on piano.”

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French composer’s death, she based her UMSL Piano Studio’s fall recital around his music. And, as a way to celebrate Debussy’s transcendence beyond music, she conceived of a way to add dance and artwork to the show.

The result is the “Remembering Debussy” event at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Lee Theater at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. Ten of her students will be performing pieces by Debussy and two of his contemporaries, and a screen in the theater will be adorned with art to accompany the music. MADCO 2, a six-member troupe of UMSL’s professional dance company in residence, will be performing original dances to two of the pieces, completing the multimedia treat for the audience.

“My goal as a teacher is to help my students become better pianists and pass their exams and all that, but my biggest goal is to make them better artists in the big sense,” Voskoboynikova said. “I always talk to them about how all art – painting, literature, philosophy and music – crosses. I always encourage them to visit museums, concerts, exhibitions, lectures. Together, music and dance create a new piece.”

Voskoboynikova said she’s been looking for a way to integrate piano music and dance since her time working as a pianist and vocal coach at the Kiev Opera and Ballet Theater in Ukraine in the 1990s.

She first approached MADCO Managing Director Emilee Morton with the idea this fall, and the responsibility for choreographing the pieces eventually went to MADCO 2 Rehearsal Director Elyse Guttmann and the troupe’s six dancers.

Guttmann received the list of what the piano students would be performing, and she singled out two selections for MADCO 2 accompaniment: “Arabesque No. 1” from “Deux Arabesques,” played by sophomore Samantha Barton, and “Maiden with the Flaxen Hair,” played by sophomore Anna Klein. Voskoboynikova sat in on one of MADCO 2’s rehearsals and is thrilled with how the troupe is interpreting Debussy’s music.

“I loved what I saw,” Voskoboynikova said. “It gave me goosebumps immediately. I was so touched by their choreography. It was amazingly romantic and beautiful.”

MADCO 2 had another show Oct. 26-27, so it had a little less than two weeks to perfect the two dances. The pianists have had two chances to fully rehearse with the dancers before the show.

In the absence of a piano, MADCO 2 has been setting up chairs in the approximate footprint of the instrument on the Lee Theater stage, so the members can get an idea of spacing.

“The dancers and I have a great rapport,” Guttmann said. “They work really well together. When I ask them to do something, or if I want them to change something, it’s, ‘Great, let’s figure it out.’ There’s not any stress. There’s no anxiety about it. They were ready to go, which was really cool. I really wanted the music to carry them through and not to try to fight with the music but to really blend everything together. These pieces, I just thought were very beautiful, especially the ‘Two Arabesques.’ It’s so full, there’s so much happening, and I feel like it’s the kind of song that you want to just close your eyes and let it swirl you around.”

Voskoboynikova assigned the compositions to her students at the beginning of the semester, matching them up by skill level and which ones fit which students’ personalities as well as gauging the students’ reactions to the pieces when they first heard them. To close out the show, Voskoboynikova herself will be accompanying senior Young Oh on “The Petite Suite,” a piece Debussy wrote for four hands on one piano.

Senior Adnan Kahvedzic has been preparing the iconic “Claire de Lune” for the past two months. He’s only been playing the piano for four years, and it’s his first time tackling a Debussy.

During a class session in late October, Voskoboynikova sat off to the side as Kahvedzic presented his piece in front of his fellow students on the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall stage in the Touhill. She encouraged him to take his time between the phrases to let them ring and offered practical advice on which fingers to use on which keys to give Debussy’s sometimes complicated tonal structures their clearest expression.

“I ask her about wanting to get a sound, or she hears what I’m kind of trying to get at but I’m not able to bring it out, and she helps me,” Kahvedzic said. “She’s a very passionate teacher, very supportive. She knows where I’m at, and she knows the potential. She can turn any beginner into a performer, no doubt about that.”

David Morrison

David Morrison