Christopher Berg, pianist

Photograph of Christopher Berg (© Christopher Berg)
© Christopher Berg

Christopher Berg, although self-taught as a composer, counts as mentors composers Robert Helps, Noel Farrand and Richard Hundley. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music where Helps was his piano teacher.

Berg is known primarily as a song composer. In reference to his twelve Songs on Poems of Frank O’Hara, the American Record Guide said, “On the evidence of these songs, Berg may be an American Hugo Wolf.” Steven Blier, Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song, has written, “Just as Poulenc illuminated the poetry of Apollinaire and Eluard … Chris Berg clarifies O’Hara … He musicalizes O’Hara’s words with an expert sense of timing, a perfect balance of recitative and tunefulness and a dry sense of humor … Berg is able to carry on the traditions of Paul Bowles’s perfect miniatures. In this subtle blend of music, words, and silence, he locates the poem’s furtive sensuality …”

The O’Hara songs date from 1985–88, and a number of them have been recorded by Paul Sperry (Albany CD). There are also recordings of “Poem” (“Lana Turner has collapsed!”), by Chris Pedro Trakas and Carl Halvorsen. This song is also included in an anthology of “American Encores,” edited by Paul Sperry and published by Oxford University Press.

Among Berg’s earlier songs are settings of Gertrude Stein, Stevie Smith (a cycle with orchestra, commissioned for and premiered by Janice Felty, called Not Waving but Drowning), Vladimir Nabokov (a cycle for high soprano, composed at the request of soprano Iris Hiskey), Tim Dlugos, and Nellie Hill. A number of these songs can be heard on an Opus One LP, sung by mezzo Janice Felty.

Berg has also composed a Mass for soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra, two string quartets (one with voice in all four movements), a piece for English horn and actress (recorded by Thomas Stacy and Elaine Stritch on a Cala CD), Five Russian Lyrics for baritone and piano trio, on poems of Perry Brass, and a number of works commissioned by the vocal chamber group, the Mirror Visions Ensemble. These include settings of texts by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Erik Satie (a cantata on a section of his autobiography called Intelligence and Musicality Among the Animals), Robert Desnos, Stephane Mallarmé, and a 25-minute Portrait en Miniature de Madame de Sévigné, first performed at the Musée Carnavalet, the Museum of the History of Paris, in March 2002 and re-engaged for eight more performances there in 2003. Many of these works are available on an Albany CD under the general title Un Américain à Paris.

The New York Festival of Song featured his O’Hara settings on its opening concert of the 2003–04 season, “The New York Poets.” Pianist Bennett Lerner is featuring his music this season in a world tour which takes one major piano piece, Ossessione: Hommagio a F[erruccio] B[usoni], and two shorter ones to New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Miami, Bangkok, Paris, and Tokyo.

Berg has been the recipient of grants from Meet the Composer, American Music Center, The National Endowment for the Arts, the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music, and has been a Yaddo fellow. His works are published by Tender Tender Music, distributed exclusively by Classical Vocal Repertoire.

Berg’s opera, Cymbeline, based closely on Shakespeare’s play, is now available for production. He has most recently composed an orchestral rhapsody, “We Have Heard the Chimes at Midnight”, commissioned and performed by the Santa Fe (NM) Community Orchestra, another orchestral work, Love Letter (for Bastiaan), two books of Nocturnes and Preludes for piano, and is currently working on a cello and piano piece, commissioned for the Russian cellist Svetlana Kossyreva-Lishcke.

Recent Performance Activities:

  • Conductor, world première A Harlot’s Progress (Theodora Skipitares/Barry Greenhut) at The Performing Garage and The Kitchen (NYC) and at the Fin de Siècle Festival 1999 (Nantes, France)
  • Pianist, world première, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Trois Poèmes de Gulistan de Saadi, March 1999
  • Producer, pianist Music of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, December 1998: premières of Trois Fêtes Galantes (live performance première), Piano Quintet No. 1 (world première), Merkin Concert Hall, NYC
  • Conductor, world première Young Goodman Brown (Richard Foreman/Philip Johnston) at La Mama ETC 1995

Works and Recordings Reviewed in:

  • Fanfare, American Record Guide, Journal of the Association of Teachers of Singing, The New York Times

Special Study:

  • Piano with Robert Helps, Jeanne Stark, composition mentors: Noel Ferrand, Richard Hundley
  • Acting and Shakespeare scene work with E. Katherine Kerr, Louis Scheeder, Rebecca Holderness
  • Professional acting with Gorilla Repertory Theater (Taming of the Shrew, Cherry Orchard), Arc Light Theater (The Sea Gull), Holderness (Cymbeline)

Further information can be found on the his management’s webpage: