MARILYN NONKEN '92E
2002: Spreading the Word
Nonken is eager to put her personal accolades aside to shine a spotlight on
composers who are often overlooked.
And she has received her share of accolades. The Boston Globe has included
her on its "best of" list every year since 1999, and The New York
Times has called her "a pianist from music's leading edge." She's
been asked to play at Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, and centers and
universities around the country.
Last year, Nonken released her first solo CD, American Spiritual, which
contained four pieces written for her. And she has toured both as a solo performer
and with her chamber music group, Ensemble 21, which she cofounded.
"I look at what I do as being of service to the pieces," Nonken says.
"My first goal is not to talk about being a solo pianist but to have the
music be what people are talking about.
"For me the biggest triumph of my CD was playing four brand new works
written for me by composers who are not well known in this country."
And they would be less well known if not for Nonken, who never intended to
be a solo artist. She studied piano at Eastman but majored in music theory.
Winner of the inaugural Jan DeGaetani Award for excellence in the performance
of contemporary music, she studied under pianist David Burge at Eastman.
After graduating from Rochester, Nonken received her Ph.D. from Columbia, where
she formed Ensemble 21 with composer Jason Eckardt. She and Eckardt later married,
and he has written several pieces for her.
"He wrote a wonderful piece called Echoes White Veil that was very
different and was a great success," she says. "He said if I could
get through the piece then I'm the right person for him."
It's not always easy to get through the music Nonken plays. The musician routinely
tackles contemporary music that combines nontraditional experimentation with
a classical foundation. It's music that critics often label as challenging.
"It's not always popular music, but a lot of people don't identify with
something they hear in classical symphony," she says. "What I'm playing
is very cutting edge. I'm really drawn to composers doing different things."
The love of that style of music comes through in Nonken's performances, which
have been called animated and energetic. In reviewing a concert in which she
played the works of Arnold Schoenberg, often regarded as the founder of atonal
and 12-tone music in the 20th century, the Times noted that the pieces
"are difficult both for the body and for the intellect, but her technique
is in place and her feeling for these pieces is so heartfelt, so sincere, that
one is constantly engaged."
Nonken, who also studied with Schoenberg's assistant, Leonard Stein, agrees
that the music she plays tends to be very demanding. She describes the pieces
she chooses to perform as more like dances than songs.
"They are very exciting and exhilarating to play. It makes for a very
strong visual," she says. "Music is not just about the sound but the
whole aspect of live performance."
Nonken recently completed a tour performing works by mid-1900s composers like
Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez, but she says her real love is the work of more
modern artists such as Morton Feldman and John Cage.
Her CD showcases modern composers, featuring pieces by Milton Babbitt, Michael
Finnissy, Jeff Nichols, and Eckardt. Reviews have been positive, including the
Globe's rave, "Nonken's performances are marvels of keyboard mastery
and musical command; she also brings an extraordinary quality of exploration
to the music, which remains as fresh and surprising to her as it is does to
But Nonken emphasizes the works and the composers more than her individual
performances. For that reason, she devotes much of her time to Ensemble 21 and
the group's dedication to emerging American composers as well as helping push
new complexity-a style of contemporary music by composers such as Scotland's
James Dillon-into the mainstream.
"It's very gratifying to perform with the group," she says. "Things
seem to be coming together now. I've worked so hard for so long, and now the
timing seems to be right."
1992: Destined to Make Her Mark
Nonken was a music theory major at Eastman, and thus her request to study under
pianist David Burge seemed a bit unusual. But Burge saw a love of contemporary
music in her as strong as his own, and he quickly agreed. After instructing
her for two years, he was already sure that the piano world would take note
"I remember vividly one time when she was an undergraduate after she played
a concert of music by Schoenberg. I predicted to my class that someday she would
make her mark, either through making a CD or performing at concerts," Burge
says. "I thought she would do much to revolutionize the performance of
that style of music, and I believe she's done that."
Burge, who has followed Nonken's career closely since her time at Eastman,
says that the musician now ranks among the premier contemporary music performers
in New York City. "And there are quite a few excellent performers,"
As for Nonken's very physical and animated playing style, Burge says it's par
for the course.
"One needs to involve great physical skill, musical insight, energy, and
at the same time be very relaxed and keep your ears open so you can hear what
you're doing," he says. "She's just very good at what she does."
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