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5 Questions with Faculty: Duncan Cumming

Duncan Cumming poses with his family in the Performing Arts Center after a youth concert in April that included his story 'From Bangkok to Bangor.' Left to right are daughter Lucy, daughter Mairi hugging son Bear, and wife Hilary.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 12, 2017) – For pianist Duncan J. Cumming, an associate professor in the Department of Music & Theatre of the College of Arts and Sciences, Mozart and the University at Albany are forever connected.

“My wife, Hilary, and I are both from New England, so we were looking to settle somewhere in the Northeast,” Cumming said. “I found a message from the search committee chair on my answering machine when I returned home from a Mozart concert on January 27, 2006, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart.”

The rest is history. Cumming is in his 12th year in the music department and, except for that first year when Hilary and the kids stayed in the Boston area where Hilary was working at Concord Academy, the family has been together in the Capital Region. A family man, Cumming calls that year apart “torture,” and enjoys reading with his kids – Jane Austen, most recently – and watching their favorite movie, Mary Poppins.

What are you working on now?

In recent years I have presented stories with classical music for children as an outreach offshoot of my Youth Movements Festival. Currently, with the help of a FRAP grant, I am recording From Bangkok to Bangor, in which children are helped on a journey by composers who become the subjects of their pieces. For example, Rimsky-Korsakov is a bumblebee, Schumann is a happy farmer, Beethoven is a raging penny, MacDowell is a wild rose, and so on. My next project of this type involves the music of Mozart and Florence Price.

In the immediate future I’m excited to perform the Dvorak Quintet here at the university on February 7. This is a piece I studied in Prague when I lived there during graduate school so it brings back many wonderful memories. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Youth Movements Festival and I’m excited about the events for these concerts, including a concert with the Capital Trio, a concert with a former student, and a collaboration with the Albany Berkshire Ballet.

What made you decide to pursue your field?

My mother took me for my first piano lesson, complete with a bag for my music she made with my name embroidered on it, before I started kindergarten. When I was in high school my father saw a poster about a chamber music summer program he thought I should attend. It took some convincing because I didn’t want to miss any of my summer baseball games but I eventually agreed to go. There I met the pianist Frank Glazer and he altered the course of my future away from baseball (not that I had much of a future there!) and toward concert music. From that time I studied with him for seven years and after that we performed together as colleagues for the next 20 years until his death in his 100th year.

What was your first job?

When I was 8 I had a paper route. In good weather I rode my bike and in bad weather I walked. For each paper I sold I got five cents. When I was old enough to drive I started to deliver the Sunday paper. Four hundred papers arrived downtown at 2 in the morning and I had to have them delivered by 7. Once near the beginning of the route my truck slid down a sheet of ice in a trailer park into the woods and I had to hike out to a phone, call my Dad, and carry all the papers up the ice hill to another car. I left my Dad to extract the truck, which he did. Summers I mowed cemeteries and painted cemetery fences while tourists walked by and made Tom Sawyer jokes.

What’s the best thing about working at UAlbany?

The students. I love teaching my advanced performers and I love teaching music to general education students. The classes that develop into conversations are so memorable and I’m grateful for the number of students who keep in touch after they graduate.

Dinner tonight with anyone, living or not: Who, and why?

My parents. Every day, sometimes every hour, I become more aware of how much my parents did for me to put me in a position to succeed as a parent, a spouse, a teacher and a concert pianist. I’m grateful and I have told them but if I had dinner with them tonight I’d tell them again. Everything I have done and will do is a result of their kindness.


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