G. B. Shaw famously quipped, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” He obviously had never met anyone like Jerry Kuderna, for whom the acts of performing, teaching, and learning blend irresistibly, growing from the same root of almost religious devotion.
Most people who have attended his piano concerts have their favorite stories of his concern that we get the best possible listening experience: “Now, this phrase, I’ll play it for you, get that? It will recur at the start of the second movement, and there’ll be a little breath of it at the end—like this. It’s amazing! Listen for it.”
Then there are stories of his unflappable absorption in the music, as when, during one concert, loose sheets of music fell and scattered all around him on the floor. Jerry, of course, went on playing as audience members scrambled to pick up the pages and place them in front of him again. People attend his classes year after year—I heard one of them describe himself, with a laugh, as “part of Jerry’s cult following.”
Kuderna’s teaching instincts go into reviews he writes of other performers, into his serving as one of the judges at the Junior Bach Festival (2002), into his DVC classes and his DVC Emeritus College classes, and into their off-shoot private classes. His performing goes beyond his frequent solo concertizing here, to solo work with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, to playing music for a film (whose title he can’t quite recall) made by Xiao-Yen Wang.
Jerry was born in Chicago, but has been all over the map of the U.S. ever since. He spent his childhood in Modesto, went east at 16 to study at Julliard, then back to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then back east to teach at Princeton, then later at Louisville University. He completed his Ph.D. at New York University. In 1980, it was back to Modesto again (where he still has family), then to Berkeley, his base since 1992.
At DVC Jerry teaches classes titled “Music Literature,” which fulfill part of the English requirement. He invites students to express in narrative, in images, and in stories whatever they hear in the music. “Other teachers tell me, you don’t have to assign papers—give a multiple-choice exam! But I treasure these extraordinary written responses. They inspire me!”
Through the DVC Emeritus College, which meets in various locations off-campus, he teaches courses like (currently) “The Magic of Opera.” When I mention a friend of mine who has become a long-term student-disciple, he says, “Ah, yes, Janet, a great person. You know, the class she was taking started from DVC Emeritus, but then the place where we met wanted rent, and DVC couldn’t pay. The class almost folded because, you see, I need the right kind of space, and a good piano. Janet took it upon herself, and got us invited to use Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek, where they have a wonderful Baldwin.” There, Kuderna teaches a class titled “Piano Literature.” He laughs. “A pretty open-ended title, so I can change all the time, from one composer to another, whatever strikes me.”
I asked what he thought was the source of the energy that sustains his long-term enthusiasm for performing and teaching. He hesitated for a moment. “You know, the great composers were and are modestly aware of their music as a live thing passing through performers to listeners. A live thing,” he emphasizes. “Ephemeral, but alive. It passes through me to listeners. Then the listeners pass their response, their feelings back to me. It’s a mutual process of nurturing.”
He pauses, then says, “Do you know that wonderful line of Whitman? ‘The teaching is to the teacher, and comes back most to him, it cannot fail.’ That’s it.”
Jerry Kuderna has been playing noon and afternoon piano concerts for the Berkeley Arts Festival. His next concert, on the fabulous 10-foot Fazioli piano loaned by Piedmont Piano to the Festival, will be music by Frederic Mampou (1893-1987), four series of short pieces that Jerry calls, “music of silence, music of quiet. Mampou wrote these in the 1960s. Imagine, he was pushing 80. All his life, stripped of any ego or ambition or vanity, went into them. Mampou described them as having ‘no air or light, emotion in secret. . .reaching not to the heights but . . . to the profound depths of . . .’”
I couldn’t manage to set down the entire quotation, but, not to worry, Jerry will recite it to us before he starts playing on Sunday, Oct. 24, 3 p.m., Berkeley Arts Festival Gallery, 2324 Shattuck Ave.