Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

The Transforming Power of Music

Street Seens: The Transforming Power of Music


Here’s what I learned this past week in our “urban village” at a piano concert on April 7, 2016. The President Emeritus and Professor of Music at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota returned to the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer to revisit the Dominican community where he lived three years ago while on sabbatical in New York City.

BDI_20150217_31On both occasions his lavish thank you gift to the wider world of his adopted community (i.e. “urban village”) was a concert of piano music that filled the body of the historic landmark Church with resonances that left no doubt as to the genius of the composers and the musician interpreting them.   The sidewalk easel on Lexington Avenue announced a concert by pianist-educator Father Robert “Bob” Koopmann, OSB. I can only hope that any passerby who had a moment of skepticism when seeing the title “The Transforming Power of Music” returned to have that doubt swept away by performances that challenged the intellect, engaged the heart and evoked the sense of wonder that are all vital ingredients of transformation.

The concert spoke for itself. But in a fortunate chance to speak with Father Bob I was given a gift that left me with a question. Should I tell first of what I heard on Thursday night along with the scores of people who listened with me; or of the insights into the person that occurred in a Friday morning conversation that spoke as eloquently as the masterful performance the night before.

Happily, “Transforming” comes in a variety of shades. I should have known. In the setting of that entirely remarkable church I have been privileged to see heights of art and architecture; know people who minister the Word and who share it in very human exchanges. There I have heard astounding preaching; shared conversations with those who like me, are gifted with the discoveries we can only hope never to take for granted. Why would I be surprised to have received another gift?

Father Koopmann told me the next day, “As I play I invoke Beethoven when I perform his music. I invoke my parents and offer my gratitude for all they did for me to bring me to this moment.”

live from japanMusic with Power to Transform

The concert was performed in and as a tribute to the Church and community that have been home to Father Bob when his travels bring him back to New York.  He did his post doctoral study at Julliard.  His visits to the city have been a recurring part of his work as President Emeritus of St John’s University (SJU) in Collegeville, Minnesota, Professor of Music at SJU and St. Benedict’s College, development executive for SJU and of course, performer/ classical pianist.

Performing throughout the United States and around the world, his recent concert engagements have taken him from New York and Madison, Wisconsin to Tokyo and five other Japanese locations for a 2013 series of “wish concerts” benefiting victims of the 2011 tsunami and dedicated to providing comfort and inspiration to all whose lives were affected by the tragedy. He will leave in late April for another such Japanese tour. After a concert in Tokyo’s Sunny Hall, he will visit Hiroshima where he will lecture on Music and Religion and perform a concert at the University of Elizabeth Conservatory of Music, considered the “Julliard of Japan.”

Listening to the Music

The program Thursday began with a multifaceted Bach Partita that suggested how formal structure could, in the hands of a genius, open a window into the transcendent. Then Sonata Number 30 in e major, born in the later years of Beethoven’s challenges of deafness, broke the heart with its six powerful variations giving his audience a glimpse into the life of a genius that struggled against the brutality of life by creating beauty that is a gift to those who can hear it as he never did.

The next selection was two piano pieces by Debussy. The first was his impression of the spirit of the Minstrel shows that were popular at the time. The next was his classic Claire de Lune.  It was introduced with a comment that reminded the audience that like impressionist paintings, the music was created to capture the composer’s very personal  impression of moonlight. For me, it called to mind the idea of what Saint Augustine referred to as “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” It was a sound portrait of moonlight that was personal and fleeting, a recollection of beauty that can be observed but never literally captured.

Next, a muscular, powerful Samuel Barber Sonata for Piano included the very challenging Fuga that led the listener to a new understanding of how this 20th Century composer invited his listeners to fresh hearing of music popular and classical.

At the hands of “Father Bob” America’s music is simultaneously reflected and elevated in a new idiom of the musical languages. Finally that night on Lexington Avenue concluded with an invitation to hear improvisations on traditional hymns and sacred music. That reminded us to expand our awareness to embrace the many accents in which praise can be expressed, from blues to jazz to traditional chant.

Fr. Bob

Listening to the performer

One lasting impression was of the raw power of the performance. At times I had to remind myself that the force that seemed almost to rock the formidable structure was the touch of a single pianist, performing on a single instrument

At the next day’s conversation I learned, in the performer’s words, “I take the composer’s notes very seriously, but as the years of relationship to the music continue I find that the notes also embrace the lived experience of the performer.” Since this performer’s lived experience includes the role of professor to 18 talented young student musicians, some reflections of the Professor enrich the picture. “I continually learn from my students, through their responses to whatever material we are studying. At the same time, I work at finding more and different pedagogies to help all of us bring our text to life. We all learn in slightly or sometimes vastly different ways: some learn better by writing; others by discussion; some by looking first at the big picture; others by beginning with the details. I wish to give my students every opportunity to connect with our material and to discover the ways they learn best. Some musicians first need to find ways to get the piano keys down and up in a relaxed and efficient way; others have more need to hear more attentively what they are playing; still others need to study the score more critically; and some need to work first at performing in front of a group. The pedagogies for teaching an effective First Year Symposium, Senior Seminar or Music Literature class are similar. Whatever the course, I hope to teach my students how to think, how to listen, how to understand the ideas of others, how to develop discipline in study and practice, and how to interact with others around particular musical or intellectual material. Above all, I want students to know that a life lived with the materials and skills I teach is a richer, fuller existence.”

For a vicarious experience of Father Bob as professor and performer his performance CDs are available at sjmarket.com and can be downloaded in MP3 format. These include “Lead Kindly Light,” improvisations on sacred melodies and “Live in Japan,” He is also in the process of enriching a Facebook Artist Page. This is the young boy from Iowa who found his way to SJU because it was the best music faculty in this Midwest, North Central area. On graduation he focused on one of the region’s finest symphony orchestras and within two years had become staff pianist of the Milwaukee Symphony. When his life was transformed by recognition of his vocation to become a Benedictine Monk, he was already well aware of the power of music to transform. All his varied constituencies and audiences are the better for that insight.

The Transforming Power of Music
Thursday, April 7, 2016, 7:00 PM
Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer
New York City

Robert Koopmann, O.S.B., Pianist

Partita Number 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825                                  J. S. Bach
Prelude                                                                                                   (1685-1750)

Sonata Number 30 in E Major, Opus 109                           Ludwig van Beethoven
Vivace, ma non troppo – Adagio espressive                        (1770-1827)
Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung- Andante molto-cantabile ed espressivo
Variation I- Molto espressivo
Variation II- Leggiermente
Variation III- Allegro vivace
Variation IV- Etwas langasmer als das Thema
Variation V- Allegro, ma non-troppo
Variation IV- Tempo I del tema- Cantabile

Two Piano Pieces                                                                  Claude Debussy
Minstrels (Preludes, Bk 1)                                                   (1862-1918)
Claire de Lune-Moonlight (Suite Bergamasque)

Sonata for Piano, Opus 26                                                   Samuel Barber
Allegro vivace e leggero                                                        (1910-1984)
Fuga–Allegro conspirito

Lead, Kindly Light                                                                 Robert Koopmann, O.S.B.
2 Improvisations on Sacred Melodies