Professor, pianist receives Grammy nominations

Claremont resident Nadia Shpachenko’s new record “The Poetry of Places” has been nominated for two 2020 Grammy Awards, for best classical compendium for the album, and for producer of the year, classical, for producers Victor and Marina Ledin.

Ms. Shpachenko has been on the faculty at Claremont Graduate University for nine years, where she teaches doctoral piano students. She has also led the piano performance program at Cal Poly Pomona for 14 years, where she was awarded the 2017 Provost’s Award for creative and scholarly activities.

She and her husband of 20 years, Barry Werger-Gottesman, who is on the staff of the music department at Pomona College, have lived in Claremont for 14 years. They have twin nine-year-old boys.

This is Ms. Shpachenko’s third Grammy nomination. She was also nominated in 2015 for her first album, “Woman at the New Piano,” which was recorded here in Claremont at Bridges Auditorium.

“The Poetry of Places,” is a surprising—and refreshing—collection. 

“It’s contemporary classical music,” Ms. Shpachenko said. “There are many different styles, but you can definitely say it’s avant-garde classical. It’s all ‘new music.’ All of this music was written in 2015 and 2016 for this specific project.”

The project itself is also unusual. The 10 tracks were commissioned by Ms. Shpachenko from eight different contemporary American composers, all inspired by a different piece of architecture.

“So each composer found the building that they chose to be inspirational to them, and used different means to describe their imagination and emotions in the pieces they wrote,” Ms. Shpachenko said. “There are some pieces with electronics, some just piano solo, but they all have a very different style to them, and I think that’s what makes it compelling.”

Composers Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, Andrew Norman, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young and Jack Van Zandt wrote about the American Visionary Art Museum, in Baltimore; Aaron Copland’s House, in Cortlandt, New York; House on Island, in Pine Plains, New York; Frank Gehry’s IAC Building, in New York City; Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica residence; Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Buildings, in Dhaka, Bangladesh; the Lowell House at Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Newgrange Ancient Temple, in Boyne Valley, Ireland.

“The composers that I chose are all very different,” Ms. Shpachenko said. “They all have a very different kind of imagination, a different language that they use, and many of them selected different instrumentation. I specifically chose composers who are very diverse in their styles and musical language so that the CD will have something interesting for everybody.”

The response to “The Poetry of Places” has been remarkable, Ms. Shpachenko said. “I noticed that even people who don’t normally listen to classical music tend to connect to this new music because it’s something very different; it can’t be categorized, necessarily.”

The collection contains moments of extreme delicacy. It also has darker passages with sudden thematic shifts and swells that are well worth the challenge. There are without question other talented musicians playing on the record, but at its heart it’s really a tour de force of Ms. Shpachenko’s masterly dynamics and stylistic elasticity holding it all together. Her ability to incorporate multiple time signatures into a single piece is absolutely mind boggling. She calls it all “new music,” and new it certainly is. It’s as new as new can get.

Taken together, “The Poetry of Places” offers a surprisingly accessible experience, considering the sometimes jagged, non-traditional content. It’s a triumph, and it’s no wonder the Grammy jury recognized it as such.

It’s also a bit much to describe. So I asked Ms. Shpachenko to do the honors.

“I think of new ways to bring contemporary music to the listeners,” she said. “And I always think of ways to have the music connect to these listeners. I don’t mind playing—and in fact I enjoy—playing to people who don’t have a lot experience with classical music, because I find those people to be very open minded and adventurous.

“I often talk to them about the pieces, just to put everything in context. Then they discover they have a reaction, where they think of something that is unique on their own. That’s really my goal: to make contemporary classical music popular, and more popular with all kinds of audiences, connoisseurs of classical music, and audiences who listen to other styles of music.”

Ms. Shpachenko, 42, was born in Ukraine, in what was then the Soviet Union. She came to the United States in 1994 to work on her undergraduate degree at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She met and was engaged to Mr. Werger-Gottesman while in Cambridge. They moved to California in 1997, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in music at USC. The couple were married in 1999.

She’s played with numerous orchestras all over Europe and America at Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall, Disney Hall, on the Piano Spheres and Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella and Chamber Music Series.

“The Poetry of Places” was an especially rewarding project for the pianist.

“I’m so thrilled with the composers I got to work with, all these wonderful composers,” Ms. Shpachenko said. “They’re so accomplished and imaginative and just distinguished and great to work with as musicians and as people.”

Mr. Werger-Gottesman, a recording engineer, has engineered all three of her records.

“My husband was sort of the inspiration and the backbone behind many aspects of “The Poetry of Places” Ms. Shpachenko said. “Not just the engineering, which he did, but everything; he gave me advice and inspiration on every stage of this production.”

Recording the new record “was a magical experience,” she said. The superlatives aren’t surprising considering the tracking was done at George Lucas’ legendary Skywalker Sound, in Marin County.

And the alchemy wasn’t confined to the musicians, composers, engineers and producers: the couple’s nine-year-old twin boys were along for the recording sessions as well. That’s right, a couple of fourth-graders were hanging out for a week at the very spot where the Star Wars movies are made.

Needless to say, mom and dad scored some righteous parent points that week.

“My kids are big Star Wars fans,” Ms. Shpachenko said. “We explored everything. We looked at the part where they filmed the Ewok scenes. My kids played with frogs in the ponds there. Then we swam in Lake Ewok. We went to George Lucas’ library and saw a lot of the original [models] from Star Wars. It was so amazing.”

Dad was also thrilled to have had the experience. “Many of the places we hung out often appear in the backgrounds of behind-the-scenes footage of all things Star Wars,” Mr. Werger-Gottesman said. “The library had fascinating things I would like to spend months exploring. We did have lunch with [legendary sound designer, film editor director, screenwriter and voice actor] Ben Burtt, which was amazing, and hiked all over trying to identify the location of Vader’s pyre!”

The Grammy winners will be announced January 26.

“The Poetry of Places” is available on Amazon, iTunes and all the streaming sites.

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—Mick Rhodes


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