Encore: In-Studio with Kessa Mefford and Mark Irchai

(top left to right) Kessa Mefford, Mark Irchai, (bottom left to right) Amanda Wyand, Kristina Cook


Simone Dinnerstein: Hello, I'm Simone Dinnerstein. Tonight, we'll hear pianists Kessa Mefford and Mark Irchai, along with singers Kristina Cook and Amanda Wyand, on the Young Artists Showcase.


Tonight on this edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase, generously underwritten since 1978 by the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation, we are featuring Kessa Mefford and Mark Irchai, two wonderful pianists who are recent graduates of the Mannes School of Music, along with their frequent collaborators, soprano, Christina Cook, and mezzo soprano, Amanda Wyand.

I have to share that the two pianists that we will be hearing were both graduate students of mine at Mannes. They were both such interesting and committed students, and it was an invigorating and musically stimulating experience for me to work with them. We have kept in touch since they have graduated, and I have been very happy to see how they have been developing as they make their way in the challenging world of the life of a musician.

One thing that's fascinating to me is that both Mark and Kessa have made collaboration with singers a core part of their musical lives. Often, when we play the piano, we are trying to emulate the sound of the human voice. There is no more inspiring experience than to actually play with a singer, but before we introduce our singers, we will begin with some solo piano.

First up is Kessa performing Amy Beach's Ballade, Op. 6. You will hear the influence of European composers such as Mendelssohn and Liszt in this lyrical and romantic work. Now, let's hear Kessa.

[music - Amy Beach: Ballade, Op. 6]

Simone Dinnerstein: That was a very beautiful performance of Amy Beach's Ballade, Op. 6 played by Kessa Mefford.

Kessa, that was really just beautiful and it's, for me, a very, i-i-it's a-it's a strange experience hearing a former student like this, because it's a little bit like seeing your child grow up, you know. And-and it's always my goal that my students will become their own musicians and-and, you know, kind of, what is it, the expression, that take responsibility for your own face, you know, and I think you really are doing that. So it was a joy to hear you.

Kessa Mefford: Thank you.

Simone Dinnerstein: [laughs]

Kessa Mefford: Thank you so much.

Simone Dinnerstein: I was remembering, um, when we first started working together, we had a conversation before you started lessons and you were starting your master's program and you had just graduated from Brigham Young. And-and I remember asking you like, "What do you want to do?" Like, let-- let's think beyond the master's degree, let's think to, you know, your future. Do you remember that conversation?

Kessa Mefford: I do. At least, I'm pretty sure that I do. I remember talking on the phone with you in my apartment in Utah about what I wanted to do, long term and, um, that's how we actually got onto the Ravel Project-

Simone Dinnerstein: Yes.

Kessa Mefford: -that I have been now working on since that conversation. Pretty much.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah. Yeah.

Kessa Mefford: I expressed the idea of, "Well, maybe I might play all of Ravel's solo repertoire." I've always kind of thought about doing that, and you're like, "That's been done before."

Simone Dinnerstein: [laughs]

Kessa Mefford: Like, "You need to think more specific or bigger or," um, and so you had the idea of doing all of Ravel's music for piano, so that includes chamber music and art songs and concertos and--

Simone Dinnerstein: Yes, everything.

Kessa Mefford: All of that.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah. Because-- 'cause people tend to sort of box themselves in-

Kessa Mefford: Mm-hmm.

Simone Dinnerstein: -and only do one thing or another. I thought it'd be really interesting-

Kessa Mefford: Yeah.

Simone Dinnerstein: -that you could do everything.

Kessa Mefford: And that's really changed. I mean, it's really changed my life. I'm not-- I'm-I'm not exaggerating when I say that, the idea that I can do all of it and do it well

Simone Dinnerstein: Yes.

Kessa Mefford: Was really revolutionary for me, especially at that stage in my life.

Simone Dinnerstein: That's so great. So since then, you've created this project with our next guest who is gonna join you, Kristina Cook, welcome.

Kristina Cook: Thank you so much for having me.

Simone Dinnerstein: And Kristina, you joined Kessa for-- well, it was a project, but also a-a concert series. Can-- do you want-- Kessa maybe just tell us the name of this concert series?

Kessa Mefford: Yes. So the concert series is called Whimsical Bird Song, which is how I conceptualize Ravel's music.

Simone Dinnerstein: Uh-huh.

Kessa Mefford: It's very whimsical and he loved birds.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yes.

Kessa Mefford: And so that's where the name comes from. The project has been a concert series to present all of the works of Ravel as you encouraged for piano, in context with interesting programming, basically. Now, sometimes it's been like with other composers who compliment Ravel or who were inspired by Ravel or who inspired Ravel-

Simone Dinnerstein: Uh-huh.

Kessa Mefford: -in some way or another. And Kristina was there, right, as soon as we brought the concert series outside of Mannes, she was performing right there from the very beginning, every single art song that we put on the program that she did. And that's what led us to where we are now. Which, it was kind of a few years project of doing all of Ravel's art songs. He wrote 32 of them.

Simone Dinnerstein: Wow.

Kessa Mefford: And we recorded them, we have an album, and we also performed them at Carnegie Hall this past December.

Simone Dinnerstein: And I was in the audience that was like gorgeous, yeah.

Kessa Mefford: [crosstalk] And Simone was in the audience and it was just such a wonderful experience.

Simone Dinnerstein: Well, I certainly enjoyed the concert so much, and we're gonna get a little sample of those works now. And I thought maybe Kristina, you could tell us what-- which songs you're gonna play for us or sing for us.


Kristina Cook: So we will perform four songs today. So our first song will be Noël des jouets, which literally means, um, Christmas of the Toys, uh, Ravel's father, who was actually an engineer and passed on to Ravel a love for all things mechanical, and you can actually hear like toy rabbits beating their drums over the course of the song. And from the very first chord you hear the-the magic and the wonder of a Christmas morning.

The next song on a completely different tone, [chuckles] is Les grand vents and this one, the poetry itself is pretty cryptic actually, but the music very much shows the storm. The storm coming and going. So the next song Sur l’herbe is literally-literally a drunken lawn party.


Kristina Cook: So these are different people at the party talking to each other with all of their, kind of, sometimes, nonsensical phrases as they're chatting at this lawn party. So it's a really whimsical, fun piece.

The last one, La Pintade, it's-- it means the guinea fowl and it is the fifth of the song cycle, Histoires naturelles, uh, which is basically a description of different animals. And anybody who has ever seen a video or heard the cry of a guinea fowl, will hear it in this song definitely.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay.


And if you're from Brooklyn, you just have to imagine it.

Kristina Cook: Fair enough.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay. [laughs]

Kristina Cook: Fair enough. Yes, mm-hmm.

Simone Dinnerstein: Mm-Hmm. Wonderful. Well, I can't wait to hear the two of you play these and sing these four songs. Thank you.

[Music - Ravel: Noël des jouets.]

[Music - Ravel: Les grand vents venus d’outremer.]

[Music - Ravel: Sur l’herbe.]

[Music - Ravel: La Pintade]

Simone Dinnerstein: That was soprano, Kristina Cook and pianist, Kessa Mefford performing Ravel's Noël des jouets, Les grand vents venus d’outremer, Sur l’herbe and La Pintade.

You're listening to the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase on WQXR. It's time for a quick break now, then I'll be back with more performances by these young keyboardists here on the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase.

Welcome back. Tonight we are listening to pianists, Mark Irchai and Kessa Mefford, along with their vocal partners, Amanda Wyand and Kristina Cook. We are going to continue with a set of three songs by Brahms, which mezzo-soprano, Amanda Wyand, and pianist, Mark Irchai will perform for us here in WQXR Studio. Welcome.

Amanda Wyand: Thank you for having us.

Mark Irchai: Thanks so much.

Simone Dinnerstein: Amanda, can you tell us a little bit about, uh, what you're gonna do?

Amanda Wyand: Gladly. Well, these Brahms' songs are part of a set that we programmed kind of the idea of being vignettes scenes from the house of Schumann. Brahms, uh, had a very close relationship with the Schumann family, as many of you I'm sure know. And we wanted to highlight that a little bit, and that's why we've included this-this second piece, Meine Liebe ist grün, which sets the poetry of Clara and Robert, Schumann's youngest son, Felix Schumann of, um, whom, Brahms actually was his godfather. And he set a number of his poems in an effort to encourage some of his artistic pursuits.

And I find that poem particularly interesting set between two pieces by Brahms from the same opus because it has a youthful ebullience to it, even though Brahms himself is an older man setting the poetry of a very, very young and inexperienced man. And I think that we hear that tug that play in the-in the collaboration between the piano and the voice.

Simone Dinnerstein: Wonderful. Can't wait to hear them. Thank you.

[music - Brahms: Von Ewiger Liebe]

[music - Brahms: Meine Liebe ist grün]

[music - Brahms: Die Mainacht]

Simone Dinnerstein: What a gorgeous performance of three Brahms' songs given by mezzo soprano, Amanda Wyand, and pianist Mark Irchai. They performed Von Ewiger Liebe, Meine Liebe ist grün, and Die Mainacht. I'd like to welcome back Kessa Mefford-

Kessa Mefford: Thank you

Simone Dinnerstein: -to join in a conversation with Mark Irchai and myself. Mark is also one of my former students. And it's just a joy to have both of you here together in the same room. And I'm just so proud of both of you and what incredible musicians you both are. So, uh, I'm just curious to have you both here because now you've both been out of school for two years now, and I remember that time, um, myself in my own life, and I remember how incredibly uncertain everything was. And I-I'm just curious about life for you. I know that you both are teaching a lot too, right? I mean, that's kind of, um-- as pianists, that's a way that we can, uh, have a core income, I would say.

Kessa Mefford: Absolutely-

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah.

Kessa Mefford: -yeah, teaching is definitely a big-big part of my income, at least at this stage.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah.

Kessa Mefford: Um--

Simone Dinnerstein: Well that makes sense, right? And you have your own studio, right?

Kessa Mefford: Yes.

Simone Dinnerstein: In Peekskill is it?

Kessa Mefford: Mm-hmm.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah. And Mark, I-I've been seeing how more and more you're conducting.

Mark Irchai: Yeah, I've, um, sort of fallen into that within the past eight, nine months, which was always something that interested me. I remember doing a-a Mozart concerto from the piano back in undergrad, and I hadn't found my way back into it until some opportunities in opera came along. So, I did a production in February with Amanda as the leading role of Dinner in Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti-

Simone Dinnerstein: Mm.

Mark Irchai: -and-- with Loudoun Lyric Opera, of which I'm now artistic director.

Simone Dinnerstein: That-that's wonderful. And during this whole pandemic period, one thing that has come out of it for a lot of musicians is that they became much more, um, interested in the recording process, right? And Mark, I know that you're about to, um, record and I'm not sure, are you going to record it yourself or you're gonna go and have another engineer help you out with that?

Mark Irchai: No, this is, uh, too big for a little old me.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay. All right. [laughs].

Mark Irchai: No, I'm working with, um, uh, Mike Ducassoux, who is the chief recording engineer for The President's Own Marine band, um, and I'm really grateful for their help with this project.

Simone Dinnerstein: That's so great. So we're gonna hear some music from that. So tell us a little bit about it 'cause I love the whole theme.

Mark Irchai: Yeah. So to talk about the CD first, so it's a program called Scenes of Childhood. I wanted to portray in sonic form, the progression of a-of a young person, from the very beginning to the point at which they begin to reflect upon their beginnings. The program itself begins with some Chick Corea selections from his children's songs. I'm specifically pulling from a set of selections that he would perform with a lot from a set that he did in Munich in 1985, which includes some improvisation. So on the album, I will be-- there will be some original improvisation.

Simone Dinnerstein: Oh, you're gonna-- are you gonna kind of prelude like between pieces?

Mark Irchai: Not between everything. Some of them are designed really to flow together very well, but there are moments where Chick Corea added things. And I think the places he did make sense, and I might find other opportunities for that too. So after the Chick Corea is a piece by Peggy Glanville-Hicks. She was an Australian composer and her piece is called Prelude for a Pensive Pupil. It starts to bring in, I think, a little bit of the teenage angst into the mix, which, uh, flows in wonderfully to Béla Bartók's, Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, which concludes his Mikrokosmos. Um, the, uh, progressive method of 153 pieces for piano students.

And then from there, we get two pieces that are titled Scenes of Childhood. One is a piece by Frederic Mompou, a Catalan composer, his Scènes d’enfants, which is a sort of impressionistic painting of life as a young person. And then Robert Schumann's Kinderszenen, which is much more of the perspective of an adult taking the time to reflect on their childhood.

Simone Dinnerstein: That's childhood remembered, right?

Mark Irchai: Mm-Hmm.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah. Wonderful. So are we gonna hear-- we're gonna hear today some of the Bartók and Schumann I--

Mark Irchai: That's right.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah.

Mark Irchai: So I'm starting with the, um, Schumann Von fremden Ländern und Menschen. The Of Foreign Lands and Peoples. And then dances four and five from the Bulgarian from Bartók. Then we pivot to Schumann's Träumerei, um, Bartók's dance number six. And, uh, finally, Schumann's Der Dichter Spricht. The poet speaks.

Simone Dinnerstein: I can't wait to hear it.

Mark Irchai: Thank you.

Kessa Mefford: Thanks.

[MUSIC - Robert Schumann: Von fremden Ländern und Menschen]

[MUSIC - Béla Bartók: Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm No. 4 & 5]

[MUSIC - Robert Schumann: Träumerei]

[MUSIC - Béla Bartók: Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm No. 6]

[MUSIC- Robert Schumann: Der Dichter Spricht]

Simone Dinnerstein: We just heard a very thoughtful set of works put together by pianist Mark Irchai. He juxtaposed music by Robert Schumann, from his Kinderszenen, Scenes from Childhood, with Bartok's Six Stances on Bulgarian Rhythm from his Mikrokosmos, uh, which are a set of works written for students. The whole program explored the theme of childhood.

You have been listening to a program featuring pianist Kessa Mefford and Mark Irchai, as well as soprano Kristina Cook and mezzo soprano, Amanda Wyand. That completes this week's edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase, which is generously underwritten on WQXR by the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. Here's Terry McGraw with more.

Terry McGraw: Good evening, everyone. It's great to be with you, and it's always great being with the Young Artists Showcase and to hear these really wonderful and inspiring musicians as they continue to share their incredible gifts with us, every week. I can't wait to hear the fabulous talent coming up on the showcase, and I am so pleased to be able to support the series all through its well over four decades on WQXR. And there's so much more to come.

Simone Dinnerstein: Thank you, Terry. Many thanks to WQXR program producers, Laura Boyman and Max Fine. Our session engineer is Irene Trudel, and our generous program underwriter is the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. I'm Simone Dinnerstein. Goodnight.


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