Ohio University

Emely Phelps performs the Goldberg Variations

Emely Phelps
Emely Phelps

As populations around the globe navigate the Coronavirus pandemic and, especially in the U.S., witness the demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, one faculty member in Ohio University School of Music’s Keyboard Division is offering a virtual live performance of a piece renowned for its difficulty and mystique: Bach’s monumental Goldberg VariationsEmely Phelps, a School of Music artist-teacher, will perform this work via a live stream on June 17 at 7:00 pm (EST).  

When the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled in-person instruction and pivoted the Summer Music Academy—along with the rest of the College’s Virtual Summer Arts Programs—to the virtual space, Phelps, who recently earned her doctoral degree in piano performance from New York’s Stony Brook University, decided to not only perform the uninterrupted 80-minute work for the Virtual Summer Music Academy students, but also to live stream it for the world to see as a demonstration of how art can comfort and unite during extraordinary times.  

WATCH: Live stream performance by Emely Phelps of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on June 17 at 7:00 pm (EST). Phelps also offers a thorough yet accessible introduction to Bach’s revered and intimidating work in this this video, giving context to how the work fits within the piano performance canon. 

“It’s been an interesting process,” Phelps said of her preparations to perform the piece, a calling card for pianists and one not often performed live.   

Jeremy Denk, one of America’s foremost pianists, has said learning and playing the Goldberg Variations “have caused me more misery than any other piece of music in history…” Phelps doesn’t disagree. Yet, paradoxically, Phelps says the ritual of going to the piano for daily practice on the extremely difficult work brought her “sustenance,” and a sense of order and purpose. 

“This piece has been a huge gift to me while in isolation,” Phelps says. “I’ve long known that music is an emotional outlet for me and releasing my feelings into the keyboard provides catharsis in my life. But this is the first time that I have found the reverse to also be true: even on days when I feel the most gloomy and out of sorts, practicing this piece – experiencing the wild cascades of G Major, the whirling notes that dance with unbridled joy – inspires such feelings in return. The almost unbending air of celebration reawakens happiness and makes me feel hope again.”