Ellinger strikes a new key as recording artist

By Tamie Meck


Ellinger strikes a new key as recording artist | musician, Paonia, Blue Sage

Photo submitted Classical pianist Susan Ellinger is the artistic director for the Blue Sage Center for the Arts in Paonia. Last summer she recorded her first CD, "The Viennese Style: Late Sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven," in Germany.

The North Fork area is steadily earning a reputation for producing some of the best wines, produce and coal in the world. But here's a little secret: It also has its own world-class concert series. Each year the Blue Sage Center for the Arts brings classical, world music and other premier performers to the historic Curtis Hall in downtown Paonia through its annual concert series.

Behind that series is Susan Ellinger. As the Blue Sage artistic director, since 2011 she has attracted some of the biggest names in classical, baroque and other genres to the North Fork area.

Ellinger is also a world-class concert pianist. Throughout her career she has worked with composers of new music including Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Nils Vigeland, and garnered numerous accolades as both a soloist and chamber musician. She has been described as "one of America's musical treasures," and "a virtuoso pianist with a deep, creative and facile music mind."

Last summer she took a big step, traveling to Germany to record her first album: "The Viennese Style: Late Sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven."

Ellinger recorded the album last June 21-24, at the Jesus- Christus-Kirche (the Jesus Christ Church) in Dahlem Berlin, Germany. It's a beautiful church and produces a beautiful sound, said Ellinger. After World War II the church was home to the Berlin Philharmonic, and is where the Philharmonic recorded the music for the BBC documentary, "Earth."

Ellinger knew from a young age that she would be a musician. Growing up in Vermont, she essentially learned to read the alphabet and music at the same time. At age 4 she began playing her Steinway. It wasn't a musical household, she said, but her parents were very supportive of her interests.

At age 13 her solo recitals earned her the National Baldwin Junior Keyboard Achievement Award from the Music Teachers Association of America in Washington, D.C. In a recent "Meet the Artist" interview she described her first concerto appearance at age 15 as "an incredible connection to the orchestra I was performing with. It was like riding the top of a giant wave that went on and on. It was so surprising, powerful, awe-inspiring and humbling."

Ellinger went on to earn degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Her career as both a soloist and chamber musician has included recitals at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center Bruno Walter Auditorium, the Caramoor Music Center, Harvard University, Oberlin Conservatory, and numerous other concert halls and venues. She has had solo performances with The Chelsea Chamber Players in New York, and as a featured soloist in a series of concerts with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

In 2011, Ellinger arrived at the Blue Sage. The non-profit arts organization was in the process of establishing a concert series and needed someone to see it through. She and a group of volunteers quickly raised $27,000 and purchased a concert piano, and the Blue Sage Concert Series was born. In January, 2012, she was named concert series artistic director.

The current 2017-2018 series lineup includes a brass quintet and a modern music festival. This April, violinist Midori, accompanied by Özgur Aydin on piano, will perform at a gala fundraiser for the Blue Sage. "We were so happy to get her," said Ellinger.

As do most of the concerts in the series, this show quickly sold out.

Also as part of the 2017-2018 concert series, Ellinger will perform "Music for One Piano, Four Hands" with pianist/composer Adam Cohen. They will give two performances -- on June 8 at The Wright Opera House in Ouray, and on June 9 at the Blue Sage. (At press time, a limited number of tickets were available for both shows.)

Ellinger said the idea to record an album arose a couple of years ago while planning the concert series. "Honestly, it was as simple as, I'm playing a bunch of solo repertoire. I have some concerts scheduled. I should make a recording, because I don't have any solo recordings."

The album includes Sonata in E flat Major, Hob XVI:52, by Franz Joseph Haydn; Sonata in D major, K. 576, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Sonata in A flat major, Opus 110, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

With numerous classical composers to choose from, Ellinger said she selected these three for many reasons. "I think for a classical musician there is this certain fascination with this group of three composers, and also this genre of classicism in late 18th-century Vienna," she said. During the Classical period, "there was this burgeoning style and genre" that resulted in a great deal of music written and composed for keyboard.

And of the many artists of the time, these three artists, arguably among the greatest of all time, crossed paths during their lives. It's very unlikely, she said, "that a trifecta of so much genius in three individuals will ever occur again in the history of civilization."

Imagine, she said, if only one of them had been a woman. While it wasn't common, women did compose and perform music during the classical period. Those women, generally, "were born into wealth and nobility and had freedom and opportunity."

In looking at them in the context of music history, "If you think about it, women were only able to be their own entity and not feel pressure of family and marriage without association, only for maybe 50 years." In some ways, she said, "Women are still rising up from those societal pressures."

For Ellinger, the time to record was right. She received grant funding from Colorado Creative Industries, and support from the Blue Sage and more than a dozen individual sponsors. Within a few weeks of her decision, she received a call from producer, pianist and friend Mario Grigorov. He organized the recording session, brought Ellinger to Berlin, and produced the album.

For her, it was a matter of getting to Berlin and making a record. Berlin, she said, "was a beautiful place to retreat and have a quiet space to work and get into the zone."

For the recording, Ellinger played a Bösendorfer Concert Grand piano. "It has an amazing sound," she said. The Bösendorfer company was founded in 1828 in Vienna by Ignaz Bösendorfer and his son, Ludwig, according to the Bösendorfer website.

On a side trip to Vienna she toured the Bösendorfer factory, which remains one of the few factories in the world to craft pianos by hand. While she's been to other piano factories, "I don't think I've been to a piano factory like that before," said Ellinger. "It kind of makes me want to go to some other ones and just compare."

Recording the CD has "been a real gateway for me," said Ellinger. She found recording to be more of a challenge than just playing piano for a few hours. Among those challenges were the pre-production process, and making recordings of herself and deciding what the final product should sound like.

To record about an hour of music (the CD is just under 55 minutes in length) took about four days. "Some people might do it in three; some people might do it in six," said Ellinger. "But it takes quite a lot of time. A little more complex than you'd think."

She learned "a tremendous amount in the process, and I'm very proud of the product. To choose this moment in time to burn onto a digital medium is interesting."

For the cover design, Ellinger went to her "go-to designer," Paonia graphic designer Andrea Lecos. "She's really easy to work with, she's flexible, and she also frequently nails it on her own without too much direction," said Ellinger.

Paonia photographer Devon Meyers shot the cover photograph.

After the Blue Sage series wraps up in June, Ellinger has performances scheduled on the Front Range and in the Eastern U.S. In July she plans a collaboration with the Aspen Music Festival's outreach program.

Board president John Coombe said that to show appreciation, at the last meeting the board promoted Ellinger from concert series artistic director to artistic director for all of the Blue Sage.

"We gave a great appreciation of her and her abilities and all she does for the Blue Sage," said Coombe.

As for recording, Ellinger said, "I can say that I'm looking forward to doing more." She's considering the music of Franz Schubert, which she performed at the Blue Sage last December as part of the concert series, and perhaps Beethoven and Brahms, "Like a kind of Arc of romanticism."

Whatever she chooses, "I'm kind of gravitating toward Vienna and dreaming of my Viennese piano."

"The Viennese Style" is available at the Blue Sage in Paonia; the album and downloads can be found on-line at iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, Bandcamp.com. Ellinger is giving 50 percent of sales back to the Blue Sage.