My students, family and friends know I am a champion of under represented composers whose authentic and exquisite works need to be experienced regardless of their lack of celebrity. Thanks to fine pianists and colleagues such as Professors Dmitry Rachmanov, Mirian Conte, and Professor Eduardo Delgado, I was able to experience hauntingly beautiful works such as Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Granados’ Valses Poéticos and Ginastera’s Danzas Criollas none of which I would have known about had it not been for their efforts to bring these fine pieces to light.
I am also a passionate supporter of family musical collaborations, having grown up with a dad who played the cello and encouraged me to learn to accompany him on the piano. This hobby blossomed, allowing me the opportunity to collaborate with and accompany fine musicians to this day, filling our home and life with beautiful music.
So, when I received a courteous invitation by email to interview pianist Eric Le Van‘s daughter, soprano Solène Le Van about her upcoming Sheva Collection collaboration with her dad, of exquisite and rare songs which have never been previously recorded, I was in.
Solène’s not-yet-titled recording is a cycle of French songs by French composer Émile Paladilhe and art songs by Venezuelan naturalized French composer, Reynaldo Hahn. I am looking forward to hearing the collaboration, with anticipation. In the meantime, I wanted to learn more about this young musician and share her story with my readers.
Q1. Your large repertoire includes an ample number of styles, from opera and chamber music to bluegrass, Broadway and American Songbook, jazz and folk, for a variety of instruments. However, your first recording with Sheva Collection covers rare, never before recorded French songs from the Romantic era. What inspired you to feature these compositions?
A1. There were a variety of factors that determined my choice. I grew up speaking French and have always had a particular attraction to French poetry and literature. My all-time favorite poets are from the Romantic era, and so being able to combine such poetry with exquisitely poetic music was the best of both worlds for me. Also, I was very excited to be able to work with my father, the pianist Eric Le Van. The record company proposed that we collaborate, and the fact that they were interested in exploring previously unrecorded repertoire made the project even more fascinating. I have always admired that my father – in addition to recording Brahms, Scriabin, and other known composers – has brought to light unjustly neglected repertoire. In this new recording, we were able to do the same by presenting the works of Emile Paladilhe, a celebrated composer in his day, but one who since then has almost completely been forgotten. All but three of the selections by Paladilhe are world premieres.
Q2. Of all the French Romantic composers, what attracted you to the music of Reynaldo Hahn and Emile Paladilhe? Might there be a family connection to the composers?
A2. The only connection that I can think of is that of artistic affinity. I feel very close to the aesthetic of the Belle Epoque, when musical and literary expression reached a point of extreme subtlety and was able to convey the most intimate emotions, while doing so in an elegant and unaffected manner. I am particularly fond of Reynaldo Hahn’s music, who, in addition to being a first rate composer of melodie, possessed a singular literary sensibility. The great writer Marcel Proust, who was his most intimate friend, put it best when he said that “never since Schumann has music painted sorrow, tenderness, the calm induced by nature, with such brush strokes of human truth and absolute beauty”.
As for Emile Paladilhe, I stumbled across “Psyche”, practically the only song of his sung today, and was immediately struck by its emotional power. I began researching his music and was able to unearth two exquisite song cycles. One of them evokes the tenderness of childhood in a disarmingly direct way. Like many French artists of his day, he was an eclectic and had a special penchant for Orientalism, which can be found in my favorite selection of his on the CD, “Sonnet Chinois”.
Both Hahn and Paladilhe display a degree of harmonic and emotional sophistication that I find irresistible.
Q3. My students are interested in the latest rehearsal trends, tips and techniques. For example, how do you prefer to mentally and physically prepare for a rehearsal? Do you have a set routine (best days/times)? How long do you usually rehearse to prepare repertoire? How do you prepare before a concert?
A3. As far as my daily practicing is concerned, it varies considerably. I cannot say that I follow any particular routine. So much depends on the repertoire and what I have to accomplish according to the circumstances. I am not implying that this is the best method for everybody. But, for better or worse, it is the way I function. It has something to do with the way I have always conceived of music – music as being something spontaneous.
This said, if I have a concert, the amount of work is intense. I try if possible to work in the morning, when my mental faculties are the sharpest. In an ideal day, I practice four hours of violin and one hour of voice. Even though a certain degree of my time is spent resolving technical problems, I try to never to lose sight of what I mean to accomplish musically. This helps me to be constantly engaged and to prevent getting frustrated in dealing with the pure mechanics of music making. After all, technique has to always serve an end goal, which is to express something meaningful.
For jazz concerts, there is little to do to prepare, since jazz is all about improvising and living in the moment. However, it is still a great challenge since it requires listening intently to the other musicians and having no fear or inhibitions. Before a classical or family concert, I study the score(s) mentally and warm up. If I am working with a colleague or a conductor, I review notes and discuss my ideas about the work during the rehearsal. This is not always easy to do, and depends on the person and the amount of rehearsal time available. Sometimes I just have to adapt and trust my instincts!
As for singing, we are dealing with a different kind of routine than the kind a violinist can undertake. Whereas a violinist can play five or six hours a day, this is not at all recommended for a singer. As a result, a lot of my practicing in the hours leading up to a performance is purely mental; fortunately, I can assimilate music quickly and usually, if I know something, it sticks in my mind forever. In this way, in days before concerts I speak minimally and sing as little as possible. I believe that most errors occur as a result of not thinking about the music coherently or not having a clear idea about what one wants to project. In addition, since the demands of operatic singing are formidable at my age, I follow certain dietary restrictions, drink lots of ginger or licorice tea, and do not strain my voice by excessive talking or over-singing. Finally, like a theater actress who embodies a role, I channel all of my energy into the music making before I go on stage to ensure that I give all of myself.
Q4. At what age did you realize you were a musical spirit?
A4. I do not think there was a single moment of realization. I grew up surrounded by music and a love for art in general. From an early age I was captivated by opera and musical theater. My sister and I would imitate the artists in some of our favorite filmed performances, such as the 1962 version of The Music Man, Bergman’s Magic Flute, Ponnelle’s The Marriage of Figaro, and La Boheme at the San Francisco Opera with Freni and Pavarotti.
When I was a small child while living in France, my father would often practice with his colleagues at our home. I cherish one memory, in particular, that deeply affected me. I recall him rehearsing the Adagio of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.2 in F major with the great cellist Guido Schiefen. No more than three years old, I was moved to tears. I realized or rather felt that music had a spiritual dimension which eludes all attempts to define it in words. There is a quotation from my favorite modern philosopher Roger Scruton, which expresses so well what we feel before the ineffable quality of music: “These moments are precious to us. When they occur it is as though, on the winding ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world – a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter.”
It was in moments like these that I fell in love with the art and craftsmanship of music-making, and knew that this was how I wanted to live my life.
Q5. Did anyone try to talk you out of fulfilling your dream as a musician? If so, how did you handle it?
A5. So far, I have not encountered any such discouragement. I have been very fortunate to have an incredible support system in my family, mentors, and close friends, who have only encouraged me to pursue my passion. I suppose that most of the concerns about a viable future in classical music comes not from individuals, but from my awareness of its increasing marginalization in contemporary culture. To achieve any measure of success is difficult in a world where the younger generation has lost either knowledge or interest in art. For me, the fact that my generation does not value the great tradition of Western music is the most discouraging aspect of the journey I am about to undertake. However, the kind of satisfaction and joy I receive in participating in art is a reward in itself and goes beyond any contingency.
Q6. According to your bio, you were quite young when you performed your first professional concert. How did you get the gig? Was it through teacher connections or a professional manager?
A6. By the time I was five, I had performed in local functions here and there, and word got around. I was then asked to perform in my first professional concert at Les Dominicains in Guebwiller, France for an international charity. For me, the experience was more like playing, more like make-believe than a performance. Maybe because of these early experiences, I have never been nervous while performing. On the contrary, I find it extremely exciting and enjoyable. In that first concert, I and my sister learned twenty songs for a two-hour-long program and were accompanied by a trio of professional musicians. There was a lot of press covering the event, a lot of ink spilled about the two little “prodigies”. Of course, I was oblivious to any of this then.
Q7. Do you currently have a manager? If so, what tasks does a manager handle on your behalf? Did you seek out your manager, or vice versa?
A7. Not currently. Since I started my studies at Princeton, I do not have the same flexibility in my schedule as I did before starting my university studies. However, I still accept a few engagements during the academic year and more during summer and winter breaks. I have two concerts scheduled until the end of the year, and then again in the summer in Sweden, England, and Switzerland.
Q8. Have you considered becoming a music teacher or coach at some point? If so, do you see yourself teaching at a university, conservatory or private practice?
A8. When I lived in California, I had a private teaching studio for violin and voice. I enjoyed teaching, and could imagine myself doing more of it in the future. It would be gratifying to pass down my knowledge, but most importantly, to transmit my love for learning. Already, I delight in sharing some of the stories imparted to me by my teachers Kim Josephson and Cynthia Munzer, who sang with the greatest artists of their day: Pavarotti, Corelli, Freni. One day, I would love to pass on what I have learned from them and to share my own experiences with a new generation of performers.
Q9. Have you composed works of your own? If so, what style are they in? Do you have plans to record them?
A9. Well, if I am performing in the context of a jazz festival or concert, I have to improvise on the spot. And although I would not call myself a composer by any means, I have dabbled in composing and arranging in various styles. When I was younger, I wrote art songs inspired by Faure and Strauss, accompanied by my own poetry or texts by my favorite French poets. However, I did not restrict myself to that style exclusively, much as I had a passion for it. Since my compositional efforts at this point consisted of imitation, I wrote madrigals, waltzes, sonata movements – whatever suited my fancy.
Now I arrange for my family ensemble along with my sister Sarah. I have also been inspired to write my own cadenzas upon occasion. In 2013, I performed an original cadenza for Astor Piazzolla’s passionate Adios Nonino at the International Jazz Festival in Munster, France.
This said, I am keenly interested in composing more original works in the future. I am taking music theory and composition courses at Princeton, and they have so many resources for young composers there. At that point, it might be considered worthwhile to record them. In the meantime, there is so much other music that would deserve to be recorded.
Q10. Music can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my school provides free piano lessons to help improve the lives of children with chronic illness. How have you used your musical talents to help others? Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?
A.10 I feel that everytime I connect with an audience, I give something of myself. In that way I hope to move them and in so doing, reveal to them something beyond us as human beings. I have performed a lot for various charities and fundraisers, such as City of Hope and ORT. Personally, I support several charities and am an animal lover concerned with their treatment and well-being.
In closing, do you have a favorite quote that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a frustrating rehearsal, or creative block, that you would like to share with my readers?
I always seem to return to this quote from H.G. Wells, which speaks of why it is so important for an artist to retain the qualities of openness, genuineness, and boldness that many of us have found in childhood:
“Children pass out of a stage – open, beautiful, exquisitely simple – into silences and discretions beneath an imposed and artificial life. And they are lost. Out of the finished, careful, watchful, restrained and limited man or woman, no child emerges again… no jewel is given back again at last, alight, ripened, wonderful, glowing with the deep fires of experience. I think that is what ought to happen; it is what does happen with true poets and true artists…” – The Passionate Friends
. . . . . . . . .
If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing on your favorite social media. Thank you for your interest and support!