UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

The sound of music — up close and personal

For more than a decade, couple hosts concert series in their home to support UND students

Group with piano
Donna Hastings (center, seated) and Jonathan Geiger (far right) gather around the heirloom three-quarter grand piano in their great room after a recent concert in their River Oaks Home Concert Series. UND Associate Professor Nariaki Sugiura is to Geiger’s right. Students are Arthur Castro (seated), Jose Costa Silva (from left), Caleb Mendez and Eunsong Grace Kim. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Forty-some music lovers bobbed their heads, tapped their feet and closed their eyes as if to savor each and every note resonating from the 100-year-old Steinway piano.

No doubt it wasn’t the first time they had heard the lively sounds of a Polish mazurka or polonaise, but it may have been the first time they had enjoyed the music of Frederic Chopin quite like this.

The guests were gathered in the home of Donna Hastings and Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Jonathan Geiger for the River Oaks Home Concert Series. For more than a decade, the couple has hosted three to six concerts a year in support of the UND Red River Trio and more recently, for other UND Music students as well.

The Red River Trio is a chamber ensemble formed by three UND music students selected each year to be part of a weeklong residency in Grand Forks’ friendship city of Kanuma, Japan.

“We’ve always had a passion for music, and this is such a lovely way to experience it,” Hastings said. “When you’re in a big performance hall and the music ends, you get up, you put on your coat and you drive home. You maybe get to share your excitement with one other person.

“But when you come here, you want to stay a while and feel all that positive vibration. People are sipping wine and eating dainties. There’s interaction and dialogue with the performers. Everyone is smiling and raving about the music. It’s just the perfect environment to bask in all of that happiness.”

Eunsong Grace Kim at piano
Eunson Grace Kim mesmerizes the audience as she plays a Chopin piece on the 100-year-old heirloom piano. Jonathan Geiger said his grandfather, Dr. Samuel Gettenberg, gave the brand-new 1924 piano to his future wife, Sonya Barsay, as an engagement present. Geiger added that his grandmother was a longtime accomplished concert pianist in New York City. “She was very involved in the arts and music scene there,” Geiger said. “She loved telling stories of playing scales for the very famous tenor opera singer Enrico Caruso as he practiced and warmed up for his concerts.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.
Concert audience
There was not a bad seat in the house for the concert featuring the music and history of Frederic Chopin. One guest said, “I’m always enthralled with the student performers … And (how lucky) for me to have a front-row seat to watch their hands.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Getting on the same stage

The guy who booked the recent evening’s talent echoed that sentiment.

International concert pianist, piano instructor and UND Associate Professor Nariaki Sugiura leads the Red River Trio and the River Oaks Concert Series, along with Simona Barbu, world-class cellist, Burgum Endowed Chair and UND associate professor.

“This is the way music originally was meant to be — shared together, intimately,” Sugiura said, motioning to the mix of living room furniture and folding chairs rearranged in the round for better viewing.

“Along the way, people somehow started the new tradition of performing in recital halls — but then the soloists didn’t get to talk about the music so much. It became more entertainment for only high society.”

Classical music certainly is more accessible now, but Sugiura says he and his counterparts in other cities believe home concerts today are very rare.

“So, this is really special,” he said. “Not only does everyone get to be up close, but it also gives me the chance to talk a little bit about what was going on behind the music. Many times composers used their music to tell a story or at times describe a struggle that was going on.”

Nariaki Sugiura
UND Associate Professor Nariaki Sugiura shares some history and humor between the student piano performances. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

A mix of history and humor

And that was very much the case for Chopin, Sugiura explained as he weaved bits of history and humor between the musical pieces he and his students performed.

Concert guests were able to get a glimpse of how the Polish people of Chopin’s homeland were able to hang onto their sense of national identity through music as they endured hardships under the triple occupation of the Holy Alliance of Prussia, Russia and Austria.

Playing an exuberant collection of Chopin’s highly stylized mazurkas (Polish folk dances) and thundering polonaises (heroic marching dances) were five of Sugiura’s piano students:

  • Caleb Mendez, Crookston, a 2023 recipient of the Hastings & Geiger Cello and Piano Scholarship Endowment. He is a freshman studying for his bachelor’s degree in Music Performance.
  • Eunsong Grace Kim, South Korea. The 2023 Red River Trio member and 2022 recipient of the Hastings & Geiger Cello and Piano Scholarship Endowment is working toward her doctorate in Music Education.
  • Arthur Castro, Brazil, is earning his Master of Music (emphasis on piano performance).
  • Synje Peterson, sophomore at Red River High School in Grand Forks.
  • Jose Costa Silva, Brazil. The 2024 Red River Trio member is earning his Master of Music (emphasis on piano performance).
Four play piano
In a spirited — and, at times, comical — grand finale, Nariaki Sugiura (from left), Caleb Mendez, Eunsong Grace Kim and Jose Costa Silva play the “Galop-Marche for One Piano, Eight Hands.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Saving some of the best for last

The grand finale of the night — or as Sugiura put it, the dessert — was a rousing piece written by the French musical scholar Albert Lavignac. The piece is called the “Galop-Marche for One Piano, Eight Hands.” And you’re spot on if you guessed that means four people are playing the piano all at once.

It’s an almost breathless feat, yet Sugiura, Mendez, Kim and Costa Silva performed it flawlessly while also adding some theatrical comedy. When Sugiura came to a short break in his part, he left the piano to fetch a glass of wine before nonchalantly returning to play without missing a beat, leading the impressed audience to break into laughter.

“I just started piano lessons a year ago, and it can be such a challenge at my age,” Hastings said. “So, I’m even more awed and amazed to watch these top-notch students perform. They’re so incredibly talented that it just makes your head shake with wonder. How long will I have to live to play anything near as well?”

Hastings had nothing but high praise for the student performers and their professors.

“It isn’t by chance that Simona has so many cello students or Nariaki has so many piano students. It’s because they put their heart and soul into their job. It’s their life,” Hastings said.

“They’re beyond Monday-through-Friday music professors. They live and breathe it nights and weekends, too. And it’s that kind of incredible commitment and enthusiasm that has inspired us to support music at UND.”

The Red River Trio students study chamber music for a full year under the direction of Sugiura and Barbu, and that training includes not only regular ensemble coaching but also local, regional and national performances.

Nariaki Sugiura
Nariaki Sugiura addresses the audience gathered around on every possible piece of furniture. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

And, of course, travel doesn’t come cheap.

Geiger said the money received from attendees of the in-house concerts helps offset the expenses students must cover when performing outside North Dakota.

“They’ll be going to Japan in May, and they’re expected to pay their way,” Geiger said. “What a tremendous gift it is that our community is so proud of these students that they are willing to help kickstart their careers.”

And the University is just as grateful for the generosity of Hastings, Geiger and all the other music lovers who contribute.

“It is great to have alumni and friends who care so deeply about our programs and who find creative ways to support them,” said Brad Rundquist, dean of the UND College of Arts & Sciences. “We are fortunate to have Donna and Jonathan in our community. I am grateful for the support they provide to our talented students.”

Eunsong Grace Kim at piano
Eunsong Grace Kim plays a piece as Donna Hastings and Jonathan Geiger (background) check that the dainties and wine are ready for the guests in the kitchen. The visiting and network-building that comes after the concert is an important part of the whole experience, Hastings says. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

It was more than music to their ears

This is what some of the performers and concert guests had to say …

Mendez: “I think there are very few environments as supportive as this little community we bring together. It’s really wonderful to have all that support there. And all the music lovers — it’s amazing. It really is amazing.

“When I’m playing in a small setting like this — versus an auditorium or music hall — it’s a lot easier to think about playing to the people. You’re like, ‘Oh, I can see that person right there. I can look in their eyes. I can play to them and see how they react.’ And it’s a really beautiful thing.”

Kim: “I can see the audience very clearly, so I feel I can communicate with them through the music. I didn’t experience anything like this during my studies in South Korea. This is unusual, and it’s very special.”

Jose Costa Silva
Jose Costa Silva plays an exuberant Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, “Heroic.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today

Forrest Nielsen: “The music was tremendous tonight. The piano playing was like a professional concert. I love being so close to the music. You certainly can hear it. My wife gets upset when I play my music too loud at home, but you can see why I do because that’s where you really get immersed in it.”

Lana Casler: “I enjoyed the concert very much and especially how Dr. Sugiura explained Chopin’s life and how his writing style changed with his life conditions from the happy times to the sad times. That was tremendously interesting. And then the climax with the eight hands on one piano was thrilling and fabulous. We’ve come to other concerts here, but tonight topped them all. It was excellent and such a lovely evening.”

Martha Klevay: “I’m always enthralled with the student performers. Tonight, some of them were even beyond the student level — they were professional. And (how lucky) for me to have a front-row seat to watch their hands. To be able to hear performers at this level in such a small setting is always so touching.”

>> HELPING DREAMS COME TRUE. Hastings says every guest at the concert series gets to play a part in helping the gifted students achieve their dreams. And they do that through a freewill gift of support. They can specify whether they want their monetary gift to go specifically to the Red River Trio, the Hastings & Geiger Cello and Piano Scholarship Endowment or the overall UND Music program.

>> WANT TO GET ON THE INVITE LIST? If you would like to learn more about the next concert or get on the invite list, you may contact Hastings at donnah701@gmail.com.

>> OR MAYBE YOU’RE INTERESTED IN DONATING NOW? If you would like to contribute to the Hastings & Geiger Cello and Piano Scholarship Endowment, call Shane Hersch, senior director of gift planning for the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, at 701.777.3992. If you’d like to explore other ways to support the Music Department, call the UND Alumni Association & Foundation at 701.777.2611 to reach a development officer in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Guests gather
Delighted guests overflow the kitchen and breakfast room as they visit with the musicians and each other after the concert. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.