If Stony Brook University were a Steinway concert grand piano, professors Gilbert Kalish and Christina Dahl would be among the most resonant strings within it. Both professors of piano have seen prosperous careers as solo and ensemble performers and, after transitioning to teaching, have shared their years of musical wisdom with Stony Brook students.
“I consider my teaching to be a major source of pleasure,” Kalish said. “And, I hope, a contribution to the art of music making.”
Before he began teaching, Kalish played with a myriad of orchestras and ensembles of wildly different sounds. Notably, Kalish was a founding member of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, an avant-garde collective popular throughout the 60s and 70s.
Among Kalish’s diverse discography of recordings as a solo performer is the “Concord Sonata,” the pianist’s spirited homage to the American modernist composer, Charles Ives. A piece inspired by transcendentalism, the “Concord Sonata” brims with discordant chirps of quarter tones and sways with polyrhythmic bounce under the weight of Kalish’s graceful hands.
“[Ives’] songs are sensational,” Kalish said. “The Concord Sonata is a monumental and great work from the past century.”
Kalish’s teaching “discography” is comprised of institutions such as the Tanglewood Music Center, the Banff Centre and the Stean’s Institute at Ravinia.
Now, more than 40 years into his career as a Stony Brook professor, Kalish approaches teaching piano with the same zest and originality as he does his own playing. In addition to being a professor of piano, Kalish serves as the music department’s leading professor and director of performance activities.
“I balance my teaching and performance as best I can,” said Kalish. “My life is all the richer for having these two elements in it.”
Each year, Kalish schedules a two-piano concert to collaborate onstage with his colleague, Dahl.
“It is always a special experience to perform with her,” Kalish said. “Christina Dahl was a student of mine years ago and it gives me great satisfaction to have her as my colleague at Stony Brook.”
Dahl first met Kalish when she auditioned for a fellowship program at the Tanglewood Music Center.
Much like her mentor and colleague Kalish, Dahl has seen a diverse musical career. Notably, she has served twice as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
“I played a chamber music concert in Madagascar in a town where they had only ever heard chamber music on recordings,” Dahl said. “Never live.”
Dahl has been a visiting faculty member at the Cleveland Institute, Peabody Conservatory and Ithaca College. She has taught master classes in Africa and South America. This is her 19th year teaching at Stony Brook.
“One of the great and interesting things about being in a lesson or master class is that the students’ issues and problems may not be my particular ones,” Dahl said. “So every lesson is a puzzle to be solved. Teaching has widened my ability to problem solve in many ways.”
Dahl believes that every lesson is “a study in psychology.”
“There are complex levels to playing an instrument,” Dahl said. “It is a physical event that involves the body, it is a spiritual discipline that requires tremendous self-awareness, it is a musical endeavor which requires understanding and education, it is an emotional event where one is connected and communicating with one’s audience and it is a psychological exercise that requires mental fortitude and courage.”
As a musical collaborator, the Ohio-based professor has played alongside her husband Richard Stout, a trombonist in the Cleveland Orchestra.
The duo recorded a rendition of contemporary composer Paul Creston’s “Fantasy for Trombone and Piano, Op. 42” in 2012 that displayed the virtuosity and poise of the married musicians.
Dahl has also played alongside the illustrious Kalish on pieces tailored to their talents by Stony Brook faculty composers.
Dahl’s goal as a professor is to “prepare students for a multi-faceted life in music” much like the diverse musical lives of both herself and Kalish.
“My faculty colleagues are fantastic and impressive,” Dahl said. “[Stony Brook is] just a really fun place to be a professor and a student.”