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Very interesting interview in Fanfare with Janne Fredens og Søren Rastogi

November 27, 2023


Janne Fredens and Søren Rastogi on Upheaval and Women Composers of the 1910s

Cellist Janne Fredens and pianist Søren Rastogi are a duo committed to presenting the works of women composers. Their album, Upheaval, presents large-scale sonatas by Henriëtte Bosman and Dora Pejačević, along with briefer but no less substantial pieces by Lili Boulanger and Nadia Boulanger. In a recent correspondence, the duo shared their insights into programming and interpreting unfamiliar music; they also provided a history of the uphill battle the composers on this album have had in entering the concert repertoire.
Not only are Fredens and Rastogi a longstanding musical duo, they are also a married couple. They corresponded with me jointly, in delightful tandem responses!

The program for your recording is fascinating. I suspect that the name Boulanger will be familiar to many musically inclined people, but Bosmans and Pejačević may not be. How did you choose the repertoire for the recording?
We selected the repertoire with the aim of showcasing female composers, as we have grown increasingly interested in performing lesser-known pieces. We believe that certain works are played too frequently, driven by the comfort of familiarity for both musicians and audiences. Though this familiarity makes both performance and appreciation easier, it may also contribute to a homogenization of musical preferences. With the current trends of globalization in music education and media usage, we fear that mainstream tastes are narrowing.
Could you elaborate on how globalization applies to music education, and how it affects listeners’ tastes?
The younger generation often expresses interest in working with the same few pieces. Everyone is increasingly listening to the same recordings: namely, those with the most hits on YouTube or Spotify.
Young musicians are being educated at conservatories, which often have teachers from many different places in the world. It is rare to find national musical environments, each with their own characteristics, anymore. In addition, the most successful young musicians participate in major trend-setting competitions, at which they have to satisfy a panel of jury members from around the world, both regarding choice of repertoire and playing style. Therefore, many factors standardize and support a static mainstream. It is difficult to be an outsider today.
We feel there is a need for more recordings of excellent yet lesser-known compositions. Female composers’ works have often been overlooked. We were brought up with the notion that female composers are generally not exciting to play, and this perception has changed only recently.
What do you think accounted for that notion? What had the older generation said about music by female composers? I remember being told by one of my piano teachers that Chaminade’s works were “superficial” and “salon music” that “serious musicians” didn’t bother learning.
Female composers were often perceived as less complex, more imitative than innovative in style, and not as interesting to perform. This perception likely stemmed from a historical bias that considered the works of female composers as less substantial or groundbreaking. There was a prevailing notion that the masterpieces created by the “great” male composers overshadowed the contributions of women, and this perspective persists to some extent even today. In certain circles within the industry, programming compositions by female composers for orchestras and ensembles is sometimes viewed as a “necessary evil.” This attitude reflects a lingering bias that may hinder the full appreciation and recognition of the artistic merit of works by women in the field of classical music.
Some of this could be due a lack of knowledge about and experience in performing works by these composers. As Joshua Cheek writes in the booklet to Upheaveal, “[w]hen performing standard repertoire, each new performance stands on the shoulders of generations of musicians and teachers who have contributed knowledge and experience on how to most powerfully communicate a specific musical work to a modern audience. It is not an exaggeration to say that, for instance, in the case of Brahmsʼs First Cello Sonata, that it is practiced, taught, and performed somewhere in the world every day!”
In what ways is it different for you to study and interpret an unfamiliar work than it would be, for example, to work on a Brahms sonata?
With a composer who is first coming to light, we have to explore how to interpret them in a musically meaningful way. It is not always evident from the score how to make strong and convincing choices about phrasing, sound color, emotional range, narrative content, and so on. Should we read the score like Ravel or Rachmaninoff? This process of “reassigning” musical meaning interests us very much and is also the subject of an artistic research project, “The Art of Interpretation,” that Søren is conducting at the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus.
Could you please share a bit about this research project?
In this project, Søren and his colleagues begin with the premise that contemporary interpretations of composers and works from the standard repertoire are governed by certain rules and constraints. These rules are thought to optimize the presentation of the work in the best possible way—to bring out the “essence,” if you will. However, delving into the early 20th century reveals numerous interpretations, often by the composers themselves, diverging significantly from what would be deemed stylistically correct by today's standards.
Many of the expectations we hold regarding the performance of Classical and Romantic repertoire are constructs of the 20th and 21st centuries, influenced notably by the perfectionism fueled by the recording industry. Acknowledging this fact opens up space for rethinking and experimenting with greater freedom, challenging established dogmas concerning phrasing, rubato, sound color, recording ideals, and more.
I notice that the repertoire on your album was composed in the early 20th century—exactly the period of performance practice Søren is researching.
The period around World War I interests us due to the significant number of compositions during that time and the major upheavals in culture, politics, and society. It was also a period when some women gradually had better opportunities to compose.
How and why did those opportunities appear?
During this period, society moved toward recognizing women as on equal footing with men, encompassing suffrage, work opportunities, and general rights for women. There was a growing acceptance of women choosing careers as artists. For instance, Lili Boulanger was the first woman to receive the Prix de Rome, symbolizing a shift in the perception of women's roles in the arts. Though opportunities expanded, significant challenges remained. The women we focus on here enjoyed particularly favorable conditions, due either to material wealth or to the artistic background they brought to the table.
Bosmans was quite a young composer when she wrote the Cello Sonata, and she lived for many years after its completion. Where does the Cello Sonata fit into her overall output? How did Bosman’s writing progress over the course of her career?
Bosmans had a substantial output, and despite the piano having a prominent place in it due to her being an internationally renowned concert pianist, she also composed extensively for the cello. Cellists played a significant role in her life. Her father was the principal cellist in the newly formed Concertgebouw Orchestra but died when she was only six months old. Later in life, Bosmans was in a long relationship with the cellist and conductor Frieda Belinfante, a prominent figure in the Dutch resistance movement against the Nazis. Bosmans was also “cancelled” by the Nazis due to her mother being Jewish. Her music is challenging to label; it draws influences from all over Europe, yet its writing is extremely powerful, exploring emotional extremes in a way few composers do. We will perform the Danish premiere of her piano trio at the Odsherred Chamber Music Festival in 2024.
You’ve worked extensively on Pejačević’s music, including presenting the Danish premiere of her piano quartet recently. What are some other highlights of her output that readers should explore?
Pejačević had a substantial and noteworthy production, sadly cut short by her death from complications during the birth of her first child. Other notable works include the Piano Trio, the Piano Concerto in G Minor, and the Symphony in F Minor. Pejačević is gaining increasing attention, with the symphony performed at BBC Proms in August 2023, and with Croatia commemorating the 100th anniversary of her death with a five-day festival dedicated to her music. Her music displays a lyrical late Romanticism combined with surprising twists and turns in the melodic and harmonic material that make it always interesting to listen to.
In Lili and Nadia Boulanger we have two composers who were sisters. Lili Boulanger died very young, whereas Nadia Boulanger lived a full life and became one of the world’s most revered teachers of composition. Do you see a family resemblance in the two composers’ writing? What are the unique features of each?
There is indeed a family resemblance in their writing, but Lili may lean more towards Faure or the “Romantic” early works of Debussy, whereas Nadia's very stringent approach, combined with an advanced ear for sound texture, points toward both Ravel and Messiaen. The music of both is wonderful to play, full of subtle details and long musical narratives.
Both of you enjoy a wide array of collaborations, both in chamber ensembles and in orchestral work. You also both teach. Could you share a bit about the many facets of your work? How do you arrange your schedules to fit in so many wonderful projects?
In our twenties, we were very busy. Janne performed worldwide with the Jalina Trio, and Søren had numerous solo engagements, traveling extensively. After starting a family, we naturally focused on more “local” aspects of our musical and teaching responsibilities for a few years. We also felt the need for a more scheduled everyday life. However, in recent years, we have been able to allocate more time and energy to several projects that we believe in—this recording, for example, and our role as artistic directors at Odsherred Chamber Music Festival, where we bring together international stars with some of the greatest young Danish musical talents. That is a project very close to our hearts. Janne has initiated the Danish “Chamber Music Camp”—a national meeting place based in Aarhus for ambitious young classical musicians. Søren is engaged in developing and innovating piano education at an academic level by exploring online learning tools, practicing methodology courses, and researching the interpretation of classical music.
Aside from these unusual projects, we also cherish the opportunity to play many concerts with great colleagues. It requires careful planning, and we are fortunate to have invaluable support from Janne’s parents, who live nearby. It brings us great joy to do things together and try to make a difference in the world.
Could you share a bit about the online tools and practice methodologies you use in your teaching?
Søren is currently looking into ways to enhance students' practice through video recordings of their practice sessions combined with group feedback and theoretical insights. Many students engage in unreflective practice, often harboring inefficient habits, and we now have a wealth of new knowledge, both theoretical and from expert practitioners, that can aid them in progressing more rapidly. It seems to be a successful pedagogical strategy and is highly motivating for the students.
Aside from being musical partners, you are also married and have a family together. How did you meet? Do you practice and rehearse at home, or do you reserve separate places for work and for home life?
We met during our student years at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. Our first performance together was Per Nørgård's trio Spell, which we performed at the Academy’s yearly celebration party, attended by the Danish Queen. After the concert, we were invited to the formal dinner and were seated next to Anders Fogh, who was the Prime Minister at that time and later became the NATO Secretary-General. Since then, we have been a couple, so that was actually our first and quite spectacular “date.”
We work and rehearse a lot at home, which is very convenient, but also makes it hard to distinguish between family life, leisure time, and work. But it also feels very natural for us, as we have always worked together, and our children have gotten used to our projects being part of our family life.
Performing together has been a significant part of our life—countless recitals and chamber music projects. We are also very interested in interdisciplinary collaborations and innovative concert formats.
What are some examples of interdisciplinary work and unusual formats that you have particularly enjoyed?
In general, we explore techniques employed in other musical and theatrical genres to open up classical music. This includes using elements like light, darkness, and smoke to enhance the visual aspect; performing in unconventional spaces within the venue; and embracing physical movement on stage. Our aim with these projects is to create a more immersive and dynamic concert experience that resonates with a broader audience. Maintaining close contact with the audience before and after such concerts is crucial.
Recently, we have had a great experience and a sold-out hall with a project aimed at reaching out to new audience groups at Musikhuset, Aarhus.
Highlighting female composers has been an important part of your work. Could you share a bit about the interdisciplinary presentation “Clara—Inner Voices” that you have performed extensively throughout Denmark? What other composers have you brought to listeners’ attention?
“Clara—Inner Voices,” later reworked to “Clara—Recognized,” had an interesting development. We premiered it in 2013 with the actor Katrin Weisser portraying Clara Schumann and her struggles with balancing her ambitions, personal life, and love for both Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, intermingled with chamber music by the composers. The text was largely based on her letters and diaries, rewritten by composer and author Karl Aage Rasmussen, and later by director Mette Borg. We performed it many times in the following years, but a few years ago, we decided to rework it and include much more of Clara's music, as well as relating it to the modern conversation about recognizing female composers, with an almost completely new text by Mette Borg. We think that the production is very meaningful in its current form, and the thought behind it has definitely inspired us to make this album.
One thing that struck me in listening to the recording is how well your instruments blended. I believe Janne uses a cello built in 2018?
Yes, Janne has a newly built cello by Peter Westerlund with a dark and sonorous timbre, which fits both her playing style and the pieces on this recording very well. We chose a Bechstein Grand Piano to match this sound, with its warm color and resonant dark registers. We were lucky to have the piano sponsored by Bechstein Denmark (Pianoteket).
That’s wonderful! So many people and organizations are crucial in bringing a recording to life.
We’d especially like to recognize the team from the label Our Recordings. Producer Mette Due and manager Lars Hannibal have been really helpful in helping us achieve our artistic goals with this release.
What projects do you have on the horizon?
We have a very interesting recording project coming up, related to this one. But we can’t say more at the current moment 😊

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