The Jean Wentworth Music Residency: Connecting Disciplines Through Music

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Sarah Lawrence students recently had the opportunity to view anthropology, poetry, and mathematics through the lens of music thanks to presentations made by the Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio, an internationally acclaimed chamber ensemble.

The classes were part of the trio’s Jean Wentworth Music Residency, established by the Wentworth family in memory of revered concert pianist and music faculty member emerita Jean Wentworth. The residency invites musicians of distinction to campus to work with students, offering cross-disciplinary engagement and audience building. The program’s inaugural artist in residence was the Ying Quartet, in the fall 2018 semester.

Comprising pianist Yael Weiss, violinist Mark Kaplan, and cellist Peter Stumpf, the trio performed two concerts during their residency and taught two classes. The first brought together students from Robert Desjarlais’ course, Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology, and Neil Arditi’s first-year studies course, Romanticism to Modernism in English Language Poetry. Students also came from Elizabeth Johnston’s first-year studies course, The Senses: Art and Science.

For the poetry course, the trio prepared a “listening menu” to illustrate the differences between Romantic and modern music in the Western Classical tradition, which was followed by a lively conversation with students. The group was then joined by composer Sidney Marquez Boquiren who discussed his work, “Unheard Voices,” inspired by Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7. The piece was commissioned by Weiss for her project 32 Bright Clouds: Beethoven Conversations Around the World, which combines the 32 Beethoven Piano sonatas with 32 newly commissioned short piano compositions from 32 composers in 32 countries spanning the globe. Boquiren discussed the relationship between the two works and Weiss explained that the piece is meant to be played while listening to the Sonata on earbuds. Both pieces were performed simultaneously, by Boquiren and Weiss, followed by a solo performance of “Unheard Voices” by Weiss.

“The members of the Weiss-Kaplan Trio are not only brilliant performers but marvelous teachers—generous, inventive, and engaging,” said Arditi. “To say that we learned a great deal from them is an understatement; they illuminated through vivid demonstrations the relationship between tradition and fresh creation. My students were blown away, as was I.”  

For the anthropology and psychology students, the trio looked at the ways that emotional "affects" are invoked through music and other forms of art.

“My students and I found the class very interesting and thought-provoking, especially in terms of how the ideas at the heart of the conversation and musical performances that morning tied into topics we've been discussing in our seminar,” said Desjarlais. “We continued our discussion of these themes in the next class sessions.” 

The following day, the trio taught students from Philip Ording’s first-year studies course, The New Elements: Mathematics and the Arts, which explores how artists use mathematical concepts to structure their paintings, music, writing, and dance. The trio discussed math as it relates to tonality, pitch, and rhythm and played excerpts from works by Brahms, Bartok, and Ravel.

Addressing the “beauty in mathematics,” Kaplan shared the sense of euphoria that musicians feel when mastering complex pieces of music that flex mathematical muscle, while Stumpf talked about music’s uncanny ability to alter the perception of time. He also compared how math and music utilize the brain in non-verbal ways.

“Finding a definition or a ‘place’ for mathematics is not an easy task,” said Julia Mandalakis ’22, one of the students in Ording’s class. “Being able to listen to the music while contemplating ideas about its mathematical nature was an amazing experience.” 

In addition to the interdisciplinary classes, the Trio also participated in student composer readings with five students studying composition. Each composed a trio for violin, cello, and piano, which were played through twice by the ensemble; the members also provided feedback on each work.

“It is always beneficial for students to hear their music played by real instruments instead of just using the computer, which can be misleading at times,” said John Yannelli, the William Schuman Chair in Music.

The Weiss-Kaplan-Strumpf Trio is celebrated equally for performances of new music and classic repertoire. Each of their campus concerts, which were free and open to the public, featured different pieces, including piano trios of Beethoven, Ravel, and American composer Paul Lansky; selections from Weiss’s 32 Bright Clouds project; and the world premiere of Venezuelan composer Adina Izarra’s Arietta for the 150.

Jean Wentworth was a renowned Debussy scholar and was highly respected for her performances of solo, chamber, and orchestral works including composers Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok, among others. She taught piano, chamber music, and music history at Sarah Lawrence College for more than 40 years.