Gil Kalish, distinguished professor of piano for the Department of Music in the College of Arts and Sciences, was one of the winners at the 64th annual Grammy Awards on April 3.
Kalish, who began his Stony Brook University tenure in 1970, won for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition,” performing on composer Caroline Shaw’s “Narrow Sea” along with singer Dawn Upshaw and Sō Percussion.
“It is somehow easy to forget that the colleague who teaches hour after hour, fiercely and compassionately and with such devotion to his students, is also an internationally recognized pianist with one of the most distinguished and memorable discographies of any American musician, yet such is the case with Gil Kalish,” said Christina Dahl, professor and chair of the Department of Music. “His Grammy win feels like such a long and well-deserved honor not only for his work on the Shaw piece, but for all the work of his career, work that has already garnered him three previous nominations. We are all thrilled by this win, and also honored, as always, that he has chosen to spend his entire teaching career at Stony Brook, in our Department of Music.”
“I’m thrilled for Gil Kalish on his 2022 Grammy award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, an extraordinary and well-deserved honor,” said Nicole Sampson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and distinguished professor of chemistry. “Countless students have benefited from his dedication to composition, performance, and of course, teaching, and we are fortunate to have him among our renowned Department of Music faculty for more than five decades. On behalf of the entire College, my sincere congratulations!”
Kalish said the reaction to his first Grammy win — he has been nominated several times — from family, friends and colleagues has been heartwarming.
“They’re more excited than I am,” he said. “Even my doctor today went crazy. He called in his whole staff — ‘We have a Grammy winner here!’ The people at Stony Brook are good colleagues of mine, good friends. I hope it brings good things for our department and for Stony Brook.”
Kalish had nothing but praise for Shaw, a popular new composer with whom he has worked before. “Any great composer has their own voice,” he said. “When you hear a work of Beethoven, you know it’s Beethoven. They have a sound, and Caroline has a sound. Her writing is not dense, it’s not confrontational, it’s not unfriendly to audiences. It’s very beautiful. She’s all about imagination and innovation, yet expression and emotion is what the end result is.”
Kalish had a significant influence on the composition itself, collaborating with Shaw on unique ways to feature the piano.
“Shaw knew that I had played much contemporary music that involves playing inside the piano, using my hands to pluck or strum on the strings, and using mallets to strike various parts of the instrument,” he said. “We got together and I demonstrated various ways to use the inside of the instrument. She used many of those techniques in this work.”
View the official video of the complete performance of Narrow Sea, Parts 1-5, on YouTube:
The piece also features a variety of other unusual sounds, like water being poured from one vessel into another, to create a very distinct mood. “It sounds like a very experimental piece,” Kalish said. “On the other hand, it’s just simply beautiful. It’s mellow, it’s spiritual. She’s quite unique, and I felt very privileged to participate in it.”
Kalish said he got involved in the performance through Upshaw, a soprano with whom he has often collaborated. The group toured together and as they performed the piece at various venues, Shaw took the opportunity to make changes, so it evolved over time. “It was a very interesting process for me,” Kalish said. “Usually you’re handed a score and that’s it. But this one was kind of changing as you went along.”
A legend in the SBU music department, Kalish has become a major figure in American music through his endeavors as both an educator and performer. The native New Yorker has studied with Leonard Shure, Julius Hereford and Isabelle Vengerova and is a frequent guest artist with many of the world’s most distinguished chamber ensembles. He was a founding member of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, a pioneering new music group that flourished during the 1960s and ’70s, and is noted for his partnerships with cellists Timothy Eddy and Joel Krosnick, and a 30-year collaboration with mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani.
From 1968-1997, Kalish was a faculty member of the Tanglewood Music Center and served as the “Chairman of the Faculty” at Tanglewood from 1985-1997. He has served as guest faculty at distinguished music institutions such as the Banff Centre and the Steans Institute at Ravinia, and is renowned for his master class presentations. In 1995, the University of Chicago presented him with the Paul Fromm Award for distinguished service to the music of our time.
His extensive discography of some 100 recordings encompasses classical repertory, 20th century masterworks and new compositions. Of special note are his solo recordings of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata and Sonatas of Joseph Haydn, an immense discography of vocal music with Jan DeGaetani, and landmarks of the 20th century by composers such as Carter, Crumb, Shapey and Schoenberg.
Kalish noted that he has “lived through a lot of changes” in the world of classical music, and through it all, Stony Brook has been a constant provider of support. “It’s hard to believe, 52 years,” he said. “It’s my home, and it’s a place that I believe in. It’s given me a lot, and I hope I’ve given back a lot.”