A friend was saying to me recently over the holidays that it seemed to her in our current fast-paced age, true mentors are hard to come by. In some ways, I felt a bit of truth to her words, and if that is truly the case, I feel incredibly lucky to have had so many people who I would consider mentors throughout my years as a musician so far. One of the greatest of these for me would most definitely be the pianist, coach and conductor, Martin Isepp.
I’ve often said that my four summers at Marlboro saved my relationship with music. After a few years of hustling to carve out a beginner’s foothold in the tough and competitive operatic world, I arrived for my first summer at Marlboro burnt out, somewhat jaded, and a tiny bit unsure why I was going there in the first place. Hindsight being 20/20, when I look back at that version of myself standing perplexed and terrified at the threshold of my first, rustic dorm room on the Marlboro campus, I strongly believe that the main reason the fates had brought me to Marlboro that first summer was because I was starved for inspiration. Martin was one of the main people in whom I found that inspiration which I so desperately needed.
Over the course of my four summers at Marlboro, I explored with Martin the many complex layers of the songs of Britten, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Brahms, Wolf and Mozart. As Martin guided me through the twists and turns of all this music over the course of our many sessions at Marlboro together, I came to understand that his approach to music came from a place of deepest respect and love for the art form. A tough and demanding coach, he never let one note of music be poorly sung, nor one phrase pass by unexamined or unstylishly turned. Yet, despite being so rigorous and exacting, his manner was, for the most part, very gentle. If he didn’t like something one did, he would sigh as if disappointed that you had broken his favorite piece of china and then begin to go about gently prodding the musician he was working with in a different direction, gradually cajoling them to approach the phrase or note in a way that would suddenly unlock the mysteries of the music at hand. At the end of these moments, the “eureka!” light bulb would shine brightly, and the cobwebs of confusion and musical befuddled-ness would disappear. The music would flow again, and the composer’s intentions and the musical drama of the moment would suddenly be crystal clear. Always expecting the best, and constantly pushing those that worked with him towards the highest levels of excellence, I found myself in our sessions reaching again for greater heights for the first time in years. I experienced some songs I had known for years in a completely different light after bringing them to him – for instance, Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege” will never been the same for me after our sessions on Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24. Martin revealed the profound depth of the song's protagonist’s pain at leaving the town where he met his beloved by simply adjusting the tempo of the song in one of our sessions, transforming what I once thought of a simple, pretty, melancholy song into a richly layered, complex, heart-wrenching piece of music just as dramatic as any operatic aria ever composed. After years of neglecting the world of Lieder and Art Song while running the beginner’s operatic rat-race, through our sessions together I rediscovered my passion for the music that made me fall in love with the art of singing. At a time in my life when I felt that I was starting to lose touch with my wonder, respect, and love for music, Martin rekindled the fire inside of me, reconnecting me with the calling that pushed me to pursue a life in music in the first place.
The news of his passing on Christmas day is a true loss for our musical community, and he will be sorely missed. As the person who delivered the sad news to me on Monday said, “it is difficult to imagine a person with greater integrity, musical instincts and knowledge, and kindness. There is quite simply, no replacement for him.” I could not agree more.
Martin, I cannot thank you enough for the inspiration, encouragement, and mentorship you have given me and the musical world around me. May you rest in peace, and may we remember you forever in our world of song.
Courtesy of YouTube, one of Martin's performances at Edinburgh - with Frederica von Stade: