Tag Archives: American pianist

At the Piano with Mark Polishook

What is your first memory of the piano?

My piano journey began more or less when I was 3 or 4 years old. Movers brought a 1932 5’3” Chickering baby grand to our house. It was a gift from my grandparents.

That piano eventually travelled with me from one coast to another in America, which is where I’m from. It came with me when I arrived in the UK 4 years ago.

Last summer I acquired a new Steingraeber Phoenix 205. It’s an amazing instrument. I looked at a lot of pianos in the UK and America  before I selected it. Some of them were very good but none of them had the special, personal “this is the one – this one is it” kind of feeling I was looking for. When I finally met the 205 at Hurstwood Farm Pianos in Surrey it did seem like the one. It’s definitely reaffirmed that to me since arriving in my house.

There are more than a few fascinating lessons I learned looking for a piano which I’ve written up on my blog. Meanwhile, the Chickering has moved to my neighbour’s house for new and more family adventures.

Who was your first teacher and what do you recall about your early days of learning about the piano?

My first teacher was a very nice woman in our town in New Jersey. But after not all that long I mostly taught myself. I wasn’t systematic or organised in what I learned. It was mostly the Chickering was in the house and I’d play by ear.

From the beginning I had an affinity for jazz. I don’t know why or from where or how because I remember hearing Liberace and Victor Borge but not jazz. I also recall trying to pick out bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ after hearing a recording of it. But picking out tiny bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ was about all I could do.

Do you remember what you liked to play?

The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ was the book that had my interest. When I played the pieces in it with the right spin they sounded like boogie and blues. But I hadn’t yet heard real boogie boogie such as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson used to play. And I didn’t know about New-Orleans-style piano playing even though ‘The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ had pieces in that genre. And of course I didn’t know of the great jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

My parents and neighbours used to say I had a “nice touch” when I played boogie-woogie-type things. That phrase resonated with me. I could feel what it meant in my hands. And I could hear how that feeling translated into sound.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

While working towards a PhD in composition at the University of Pittsburgh I taught courses in basic theory and musicianship, jazz history, class piano, and a seminar on Mozart. Teaching was part of what PhdD students did while working towards the degree. So that’s where I began with students and learning about teaching and how to do it – and finding that I really liked it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The important teacher who fastened my wheels to the track was Floyd “Floogie” Williams. I met Floyd in the second semester of my first year at university which was mid-1970s. He had recently moved to the area from New York City where he had been a drummer and a percussionist in jazz and studio worlds.

Learning with Floyd was immersion all things musical. I couldn’t possibly have had a better teacher. He had experience in the world I wanted to enter. Essentially he put one on the path towards that world.

Lessons with Floyd always included stories and more stories, all them colourful, about how this or that musician practiced and learned. And there was always an important point that came out of it all. With the piano Floyd boiled it down to one essential: Practice and practice some more.

What he meant was put in time and effort. Serious time and effort – as a method it was brute-force “put-your-back-into-it.” I spent virtually every hour of the day playing Bach, and Chopin, Beethoven, and Oscar Peterson piano transcriptions or picking excerpts out of the Dover editions of scores.

Another big lesson from Floyd was to the importance of being around great pianists – to see and hear firsthand how the did what they did. So Floyd arranged for me to visit to New York City to meet John Lewis, who had who played with Charlie Parker and later formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. A few months later Floyd sent me to New York City again. This time for lessons with Jaki Byard.

Jaki is among the great pianists and teachers in jazz. He played like a one-man jazz repertory orchestra, always with allusions to different pianists and styles, all of which he juxtaposed with wit and great humour.

So for example Jaki’s left hand might play in a stride piano style. But his right hand would play over it in very free bebop style – and perhaps in a different key. But the thing was, no matter what Jaki played he sounded uniquely like Jaki and never like he imitating something. Jaki was postmodern long before postmodernism was a style.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

At New England Conservatory I continued studying with Jaki and then I switched over to William Thomas McKinley who’s a composer and a jazz pianist. Whereas Jaki’s approach to the piano was based on play, play, and play Tom’s way – because  he was a composer – was write, write, write. So I wrote excerpts and examples – I filled notebook after notebook – of what I wanted to improvise.

I also took lessons outside of NEC from Charlie Banacos who had his own fascinating teaching niche. Charlie was a great jazz pianist but he gave up performing to focus exclusively on teaching. And he was well-known as a teacher – as perhaps “the teacher. All his students first went through his two-year waiting list before lessons began. Many of Charlie’s students went on to play with fabulous jazz musicians. And Miles Davis said he wanted to study with Charlie!

Most of what Charlie taught was simple in concept – for example transcribe a McCoy Tyner solo. But to do that required a lot of focused work with a tape recorder. Once the solo was transcribed, the next step was to play it at speed.

With Charlie simplicity of concept definitely wasn’t the same as ease of execution. Some  of the “simple stuff” Charlie showed me a long time ago is still among what I practice now.

The big picture I synthesised from all of that which is right at the centre of how I teach is “Experiment: cast the net freely and widely.” In other words explore, explore, explore – as Robert Frost said very well:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I moved to New York City in the early 1980s after New England Conservatory and Boston. New York was exhilarating because it was populated to beyond bursting with fabulously-skilled musicians. If there’s a genre or a style of music anywhere in the world someone in New York is exploring and playing it at some unbelievably high level. Probably along with an entire community of equally-skilled practitioners.

After several years of freelancing there and all sorts of gigs I completed a Masters’ degree in Jazz Piano at the Manhattan School of Music. One of the classes I took there was an introduction to composition. The solo piano piece I wrote for it – along with Tom McKinley’s prescriptions to write, write, write – launched me on to composing.

So I went from the Manhattan School of Music to the University of Pittsburgh for PhD studies in composition and theory. But at the time – mid-1980s – composition there was focused narrowly on serialism through the lens and teaching of Milton Babbitt. Which wasn’t uncommon at that time. But it wasn’t the direction the interested me so I moved on to the Hartt School of Music where there was more plurality of approach and style. That’s where I completed the doctorate.

Beginning in the 1990s I taught composition, music technology, and jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta. From there I went to Central Washington University where I directed the music composition and theory programs. During that period I had short and long-term residencies in the United States and Europe – at the Crakow Academy of Music, STEIM in Amsterdam, the Banff Centre in Canada, and the University of California Santa Barbara, among others. And I was always playing jazz.

How do you teach?

Everyone comes to the piano and improvisation with their own interests, strengths, and abilities. So how I teach depends on the interests and experiences my students bring with them. It’s very much based on what they want to learn.

I’d say what I do as a teacher is help students acquire a musical voice. That means on the one hand exploring what, why, and how we do music- and piano-related things. And being creative with whatever comes back from those questions. On the other hand it’s about building as much technique as we can to support creativity. Creativity and technique are the two sides on the same coin.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I’m keen on teaching improvisation through Skype to students around the world. What’s amazing to me about Skype is it works without getting in the way. So looking into my studio from a distance literally means looking through Skype.

For me, there’s magic and the miraculous in working with students who literally are all around the world. Because with Skype connections to distant places don’t feel distant.

From time to time I’ll think “Well we’re working together in realtime but there’s a 12-hour time difference between us.” Which to me is mind boggling. I’ve had some improvised, interesting two-piano duets with students on Skype.

I’d say what Skype brings out is it’s the creativity and enthusiasm we bring to the learning process that counts. Which is the same for everyone really – without or with Skype. Creativity and enthusiasm are essential.

The biggest challenge with Skype has been managing clock shifts and timezones around the world. So, for example, I’ve since learned some countries – Iran is one and I have a fantastic student there – set their clocks to the half-hour rather than to the hour.

What do you expect from your students?

The first thing I teach is relaxation helps improvisation and playing the piano enormously. Because when we’re relaxed it’s easier to play and make music.

But after that expectations can easily become “it-has-to-be-this-way” or “it-has-to-be-that-way.” If we can reduce “it-has-to-be-this” to as few instances as possible we’re that much closer to relaxation where music and everything can seem easy. So removing expectations is about learning to play and practice in the moment with the skills we have instead the skills we wish we had.

A different example of a removable expectation is the idea that knowledge of theory – scales and chords  – precedes meaningful improvisation. The reality is thinking about theory when improvising is about as helpful as applying theory to playing anything.

Of course later or sooner theory is among the great extra stuff that broadens and deepens how we play. But as a prerequisite to improvisation – and particularly for students who come to improvisation with technique already – it’s not the start point.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I’m mostly interested in the quality of experience of the individual – instead of the quantity of quality competition judges have to quantify. The thing is, quality of experience doesn’t depend on prescribed skill levels. A different way to say that is I’m focused on processes of music-making – because experience is process.

On the other hand I competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition which is the huge international one of the jazz world. I was a finalist in the the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. My Robots-in-Residence installation which I built in Denmark was a prize-winner in a competition in France. I learned a lot by being in those events and I’m glad I had those experiences.

And many pianists know competitions and such to be exactly what they want to enter into. In that case of course I’m happy to assist and support. But to the question of “are competitions and such things fundamentally part of learning to play an instrument?” my opinion is, no, they’re not.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Being in the moment with the music we’re making. Focusing on right now. To do that we have to relax. Which isn’t a question of “Are we relaxed? Yes or no?” It’s that relaxation is a continuum. Which means we can always bring it to deeper and deeper levels.

Also important is listening to the sound that comes from the piano. Listening to how the piano resonates. How it projects. One way forward with this  play and listen to single, sustained notes – long tones at the piano.

It’s like magic but ears and mind usually then go right to the moment – because they’re listening to the attack, sustain, and decay of each note and then each note after that.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

We all deal with it in one way or another. I wish I knew how to banish it once and forever. But the reality probably is that’s just part of music making and not really all that unusual.

My approach is to work with it in small increments – instead of looking to conquer or suppress it once and for all. Small increments could mean learning to use specific relaxation techniques of which breathing is one of them.

Breathing meaning focusing on and recognising the importance of breath while we’re at the piano. And of course listening to the sound of the piano. Focusing on sound as it floats out of the piano. The more we focus on breath and sound the more we go to those worlds and then on to relaxation and the moment of “right now.”

Differentiating between “practice” and “performance” mode can be helpful. Practice mode is about working out details and looking to improve “this thing” or “that thing” or both things or all things. It’s intentionally focused to things such as “play these notes” or “perform that passage softly.”

Performance mode on the other hand doesn’t require analytic thinking. It doesn’t require that we try to do something better today than yesterday. It’s sitting down at the piano and being in the moment: Comfortable, and relaxed with the music we make, the sound we hear, the ability we have. Then “letting” everything flow together into a performance. Instead of “making” it flow together into the performance.

Are there any books you’d recommend to pianists or musicians or anyone interested in improvising?

The book for the desert island, assuming the piano’s already been delivered, is The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music by W.A. Mathieu. It has listening exercises and philosophy for everyone at every level of ability and experience.

How can we contact you?

My Mark Polishook Studio website is a blog about improvising, jazz, and all things of interest to pianists. My email address is mark@polishookstudio.com.

Dr. Mark Polishook, a pianist, composer, and music technologist, teaches improvisation in his studio in Leicester and on the internet through Skype. Among his compositions is Seed of Sarah, an electronic chamber opera that was made into a film seen across North America, Europe, and Australia. As a jazz pianist Dr. Polishook has performed with many eminent artists. 

To the experimental side of sound art Dr. Polishook has worked with graphics tablets, robots, and open-source software. His Robots-in-Residence installation which he created in Denmark was a prize winner in the 2004 International Bourges Electro-acoustic Music Competition in France. 

Dr. Polishook directed the music composition and theory programs at Central Washington University. He’s been a professor of jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta and a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the Crakow Academy of Music in Poland. Dr. Polishook has been a resident artist in the Aarhus Computer Science Department, at STEIM in Amsterdam and at CREATE at the University of California Santa Barbara. 

He has a DMA in Music Composition from the Hartt School of Music, a masters’ degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and the Manhattan School of Music. His undergraduate degree is from the New England Conservatory of Music.

Simone Dinnerstein – Bach: Inventions and Sinfonias

Bach wrote his Inventions as exercises for amateurs and students of the keyboard (including his own sons), as he put it in a preface. The works were intended as an introduction to counterpoint and to demonstrate to the student that both hands could have equal importance in a piece of music.

For many young piano students, these short works are their first contact with Bach’s music and can lead, certainly in my own case, to a lifelong love of Bach’s music, in particular his keyboard music. They offer a wonderful introduction to contrapuntal writing and Bach’s musical wit and inventiveness, and offer valuable insights for further study of works such as the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas and the French and English Suites. In spite of all this, these minor miracles are rarely performed in concert.

Simone Dinnerstein’s new recording for Sony Classical of the Inventions (BWV 772-786) and Sinfonias (BWV 787-801) makes a convincing case for the elevation of these works from student studies to concert pieces, for her reading is anything but dry and academic. While they may be all about form (as distinct from the Partitas and French and English Suites which are dances), Dinnerstein brings vibrant colour and life to these modest works, highlighting their individual characteristics and differences through the sensitive use of tempo, articulation and rubato. Some are sprightly and open-hearted, others introspective and thoughtful. Throughout, her tone is pure and bright, her interpretation honest and unfussy, allowing the beauty of Bach’s writing – and, at times, his modernity – to shine through. In the Sinfonias, with their three-voice writing (sometimes called “three-part inventions”), the sound is richer, more textural, warm but with no loss of clarity. The final Sinfonia, in B minor, is fleeting and witty, with the ghost of a harpsichord in the resonance and strummed sound which Dinnerstein brings to this work. No longer student exercises, Dinnerstein turns these short works into album leaves to be enjoyed and savoured.

 

CD review: A Grand Romance – Jeffrey Biegel, piano

American pianist Jeffrey Biegel adds to his portfolio of recordings for the Steinway & Sons label (which launched with his acclaimed Bach on a Steinway album in 2010) with a collection of romantic works for piano by some of the greatest pianist-composers of the era, including Moszkowski, Paderewski and Rubinstein. The pieces come from an age before the serious recital came into vogue, when performers would delight audiences with light-hearted encores and showpieces, and where musical fireworks, supreme virtuosity and unashamed charm went hand in hand.

But these pieces are not simply saccharine titbits: the selection and programming of the works on the album is thoughtful and well-paced. Obviously virtuosic pieces are followed by works of more depth and sentiment, such as the Lyrica Nova by Samuel Bortkiewicz and Kamennly-Ostrov (Rocky Island) by Rubinstein, both of which are played with sensitivity and warmth by Biegel. The grandiose Schulz-Evier paraphrase of Strauss’s much-loved An der schonen, blauen Donau (The Beautiful Blue Danube) avoids cliché in Biegel’s hands with his delicate attention to its frills and furbelows, and tasteful rubato.

For me, the most enjoyable pieces were those where Biegel’s clarity of tone, silky touch, technical assuredness, and his obvious delight in these works really shine through: Moszkowski’s exuberant Étincelles, Henselt’s Si oiseau j’étais, and Scholzer’s Etudes, Op. 1: no 1. This is an enjoyable album of favourite encores: Biegel’s stylish playing and consistently polished finish remind us of why these pieces continue to enjoy such popularity in piano recitals.

A Grand Romance is available now on the Steinway & Sons label from Arkivmusic and other outlets, and digital download via iTunes

Jeffrey Biegel will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview

www.jeffreybiegel.com

More about the Steinway & Sons record label here

Meet the Artist……Gregg Kallor, pianist and composer

***NEWS***

Greg Kallor will be performing at Subculture in New York’s NoHo on 26 September, with cellist Laura Metcalf, as part of the venue’s first annual ‘Piano Fest’ and to promote his new music video Broken Sentences, and premiere a new work ‘Undercurrent’. Further details here

 

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

I’ve always felt a sort of inexorable pull toward music – almost as soon as I could walk I made my way to the piano in my parent’s home. A piece of string was thoughtfully tied around the length of the instrument to prevent the fallboard from crushing my fingers. My older brother studied with a piano teacher whom I begged for lessons every week for a year; she finally relented when I turned six – and I abandoned my assignments almost immediately. (Improvising was more fun than playing, say, “The Typewriter”.) I’ve become somewhat more disciplined. Supportive parents, wonderful teachers, encouraging friends and colleagues – a career in music just seemed… right.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing? 

When I was nine or ten I heard Brad Mehldau play in the jazz band at the high school I would attend a few years later; I was absolutely blown away. (I added jazz piano lessons to my music curriculum so I could play the way he did – but it doesn’t quite work that way, I quickly discovered.)

In college I began studying with Fred Hersch – who, in addition to being a master improviser, produces one of the most beautiful sounds from the piano I have ever heard. He encouraged me to explore the full range of the piano’s sonic possibilities, to pay attention to the sound.

After I moved to New York City, Fred introduced me to his piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, and to composer Herschel Garfein. I’m so grateful to Sophia and Herschel for encouraging me to draw upon my background in jazz and improvisation in my classical playing and composing – working with them has helped me to embrace all of those elements, and my playing and writing has become much more personal as a result. I’m a musical mutt, I suppose.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

It’s taken me a little while to reconcile all of my musical passions – playing and composing, classical music and jazz – into a professional trajectory that makes sense. Audiences and friends who’ve watched my development have been super-encouraging, and more and more presenters are getting excited by the mix of things that I do.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’m really proud of my recording of my piano suite, A Single Noon. It’s a tableau of life in New York City – moments of caffeinated bliss, embarrassing subway mishaps, etc. The interplay of freedom and structure is something I think about a lot, and I wanted to write a piece in which both composition and improvisation would be significant in shaping the musical narrative. (Note to pianists: A Single Noon can be performed with or without improvisation. The sections for improvisation are sort of like scenic detours on a highway; the musical narrative won’t be compromised if you stick to the paved road – you’ll just arrive a little sooner.)

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Wherever I’m playing next.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Ginastera’s Argentinian Dances are a blast to perform – brief, but potent miniatures. The second dance has that sort of sad/happy vibe. Seductive. And the last – “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy” – feels like the musical id of a crazy dancing gaucho on amphetamines. (Probably not what Ginastera intended, but there you go.)

I love performing Rachmaninoff’s Preludes and Etudes-Tableaux, and his Corelli Variations. Gorgeous, and super-pianistic. Rachmaninoff was a master of both the short form and of the long, singing line.

Speaking of which, I love playing songs – particularly those delicious German Romantic lieder. Schumann. Schubert. Brahms. Wolf. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

And Elliott Smith songs. They’re like the Schumann of the (19)’90s.

I had a lot of fun playing Janacek’s Violin Sonata last fall – strange and wonderful piece. Still not entirely sure that I totally get it.

At the risk of sounding egocentric, I’m rather fond of performing my own music – I feel greater freedom to take chances with it than when I play other composers’ music that I love. Of course I try to play their music with the same freedom, but I always feel a little bit like a guest in a friend’s home – no matter how close we are, it’s still probably not a good idea for me to walk around naked just because it’s more comfortable. In my apartment, it’s come as you are. (Maybe I need some new friends.)

Favorite listening? This could take all year…..

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Martha Argerich. That woman must be from another planet.

Brad Mehldau has been an enormous influence since the first time I heard him play, and he continues to inspire me.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin – I’ve heard him conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra twice this season (Verdi Requiem, Stravinsky Rite of Spring). Phenomenal! And such a generous leader/conductor.

Dawn Upshaw. I wrote my Dickinson and Yeats songs with her voice and artistry in mind.

I heard Anthony McGill perform the Copland concerto last year – big fan. Gorgeous tone, soulful playing.

Thomas Quasthoff and Justus Zeyen – left every one of their recitals without tears in my eyes.

Gil Shaham – incredibly beautiful player. Never an impersonal note.

James Levine conducting the MET orchestra = perfection.

Radiohead – one of the most energetic and exciting group of performers I’ve seen/heard.

Alisa Weilerstein, Chris Potter, Byron Janis, Maxim Vengerov, Larry Grenadier… so many. I’m very lucky to live in New York where I get to hear all of these extraordinary musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

My first Weill Hall solo concert in 2007 was incredibly special. Entering the stage door at Carnegie Hall was surreal (Rachmaninoff walked in this way!), and I giddily assumed that my concert was as momentous for the security guard and the stage manager as it was for me. (They graciously indulged my newbie delusion.) I premiered my Dickinson and Yeats songs with mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, and played solo pieces by Ginastera, Scriabin, Bach, and Rachmaninoff. Kind of a big night.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Beware of people offering unsolicited advice!

Here’s something that’s not too offensive: take care of your body. Hike, stretch, run, play basketball, swim, lift weights, whatever brings you joy – but be active. It’s good for the long-term health of people with sedentary vocations (um, hello musicians), and it really helps me out of my head. (Not a whole lot of thought going on when veins are popping out of your neck as you struggle to finish that last pull-up.) I used to LOVE rock climbing, but I gave that up when I realized that a cavalier attitude towards injury probably wasn’t recommended for a pianist.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Playing: I’m digging into some of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch – absolute gems. I’m performing them with mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala at the end of the month, along with my settings of Dickinson and Yeats poems. Also, Faure’s insanely beautiful D-flat Nocturne is on my stand, calling to me…

Composing: I just finished my piano concerto! Super excited about that – and about some new chamber music sketches I’m working on for cello and piano, and piano trio. I’m almost ready to play through some of them with friends and see what works and what needs to be burned.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Doing exactly what I’m doing right now – except more of it. And, hopefully, better.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A beautifully-pulled espresso.

Gregg Kallor’s new album A Single Noon is available now, a musical tableau of life in New York City, told through a combination of composed music and improvisation in nine movements that coalesce into a more complete story like an album of postcards, or memories. Each movement develops an aspect of the Single Noon theme, and improvisation is incorporated throughout the suite as a commentary on and development of the themes in the music.

My review of A Single Noon

Gregg Kallor’s biography

Meet the Artist……Christopher O’Riley, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

My mother taught me to read prior to kindergarten. The nuns at St. Athanasius considered this a problem, as i would be bored and get into trouble. they offered piano or French lessons at $15 a week as an ultimatum. I remember my first piano lesson, and reading music made immediate sense; a connection was made and i never looked back.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

I most admire some of the greats from the past: Rachmaninoff, Schnabel, Gould. i am also inspired by string instruments in their capacity for true expression. with that in mind, i presently gain most inspiration from the kids who play on From the Top, and my colleague, Matt Haimovitz.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Dealing with adverse reactions to my crossing genre lines in my choice of repertoire, mostly from Neanderthals of the Classical music industry.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Knowing when to lead and when to follow, reacting and interacting in the moment.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

My upcoming Liszt recording of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and other Liszt arrangements; my Stravinsky record; both of my Radiohead CDs.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

Hard to choose, but Mechanics Hall in Worcester is a great recording venue, ditto the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Upper Manhattan; Meyerson Hall in Dallas.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall, Sir James Galway, Bernard Herrmann, Danny Elfman, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Matt Haimovitz

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Listening: my teacher, Russell Sherman in numerous recitals
Performing: collaborating with Matt, Sir James

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

Rachmaninoff and Ravel are two favourites to perform, also Shostakovich.
I listen to The Bad Plus, Bill Evans, Elliott Smith

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

That one’s own creation of the present moment in music is most important, not submitting to some foregone conclusion as to what’s appropriate.

What are you working on at the moment?

Goldberg Variations, Rachmaninoff Concerto #1

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Costa Rica

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Spending all day with my cats

What is your most treasured possession?

Elliott, my Tonkinese cat

What do you enjoy doing most?

Reading

Christopher O’Riley appears with Lara Downes in The Artist Sessions on 29th May, at the historic Yoshi’s SF, with a performance of his new Oxingale Records BluRay/CD O’Riley’s Liszt.

Christopher O’Riley is an American classical pianist and public radio show host. He is the host of the weekly National Public Radio program From the Top. O’Riley is also known for his piano arrangements of songs by alternative artists, including alternative rock band Radiohead.

Christopher O’Riley studied with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory of Music. Christopher O’Riley splits his time between Los Angeles and rural Ohio. His radio and tv show can be found on-line at www.fromthetop.org. His personal website (including a full biography) is at www.christopheroriley.com.

Meet the Artist……Bruce Brubaker, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

My mother brought home from the public library a recording by Vladimir Horowitz. Already, I was studying music and learning to play the piano; but it was those sounds that ignited my musical interest.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

Early on, it was recordings of Horowitz (I only wanted to play pieces he played, for example), and earlier pianists, Hofmann, Petri. Later, I went another direction. My teacher at Juilliard was Jacob Lateiner, an extraordinary virtuoso with nearly Talmudic insights! He offered intensely detailed scrutiny of music and high ideals. He was the most important example to me, and he was my friend. At the same time, my awareness of John Cage’s music and my work with it were important. That makes for some combination of compulsive preparation and considerable letting-go in performance.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenges are simple things, I believe. For virtuosos — or any kind of experts — it’s difficult to resist showing how much you can do, or know, or feel.

Which performances or recordings are you most proud of?

I’m pleased with a new recording of piano music by Meredith Monk that I made with Ursula Oppens. Along with solo pieces, there are 4 new transcriptions of Meredith’s music that I made from pieces that were first written for voices or other instruments.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Many. I play rather frequently in New York at Le Poisson Rouge (LPR). It’s a nightclub where very different kinds of music mingle or collide. One night, I played Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time right before a set by the French star Sylvain Chauveau.

Favourite pieces to perform?

I like performing chamber music. The necessary spontaneity and moment-by-moment awareness when playing with other people make the real pleasure of performing most clear.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably that would be the first time I played in Los Angeles, with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl – but the day before the performance there was an earthquake!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Close listening and curiosity – that’s paying attention!

What are you working on at the moment?

There’s a new piano concerto written for me by William Duckworth. I’m doing a re-editing project based on recordings by Glenn Gould.

What is your present state of mind?

Anxious anticipation. In London at Kings Place on May 19th, I’m offering an improvisation with a backing track I prepared. (As well as composed pieces by Glass, Nico Muhly, and Alvin Curran.) Last season, at the urging of Ran Blake, I did an improv in a public concert. Now I’m hooked.

brucebrubaker.com

artsjounal.com/pianomorphosis

Bruce Brubaker appears at London’s King’s Place on Sunday 19th May in a concert entitled Plugged and Unplugged: Post-Minimalist Piano Music. Further information and tickets here

Bruce Brubaker is an American artist, musician, concert pianist, and writer born in Iowa. Brubaker trained at the Juilliard School, where he received the school’s highest award, the Edward Steuermann Prize, upon graduation. At Juilliard, where he taught from 1995 to 2004, he has appeared in public conversations with Philip Glass, Milton Babbitt, and Meredith Monk.

Full biography here

Win tickets to the launch of ‘A Single Noon’

I recently reviewed Gregg Kallor’s new CD A Single Noon, his pianistic hommage to his home city of New York and daily life in the city, of which one important ritual is enjoying the caffeine-induced buzz from drinking espressos!

Gregg is running a photograph competition via his Facebook page for the chance to win 2 tickets to the release party for his CD,  your photograph as the cover photo on his Facebook page, and a signed copy of his CD A Single Noon.

It’s easy to enter:

  • Post your photograph to Gregg’s Facebook timeline
  • You can also enter by Twitter or Instagram by including @GreggKallor and #EspressoNContest in your post
  • On 13th May, Gregg will upload an album of his favourites and you can vote for your own picture (and others). The image with the most “likes” wins, so enlist friends and family to support you.

More here, including a link to Gregg’s Facebook page

Here’s Gregg playing Espresso Nirvana to inspire you!

Gregg Kallor – Espresso Nirvana

My review of A Single Noon

‘A Single Noon’ – hommage to the Big Apple

Described by composer, pianist and improviser Gregg Kallor as “a love letter to this incredible city”, ‘A Single Noon’ is a pianistic hommage to New York City. It presents a tableau of life in the city through a combination of composed music and improvisation in nine evocative snapshots with titles such as ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’ and ‘Espresso Nirvana’.

Largely jazz-influenced, the music also takes inspiration from earlier American composers and musicians, such as Gershwin (in the fragmentary suggestions of the honking, dissonant New York traffic and bustling streets and cafés in ‘Broken Sentences’), and the toccata-like elements of Brubeck and Adams (most evident perhaps in ‘Espresso Nirvana’ and ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’, which was inspired by Gregg’s “stubborn refusal to hold onto the convenient handholds in the subway cars”). In slower movements, such as ‘Found’, ‘Here Now’ and ‘Giants’, there are nods to Feldman, Messiaen, Debussy and Takemitsu in both the use of chords for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression, and defined, atmospheric pauses and silences, which give the music a sense of repose, and anticipation. ‘Giants’ is, by Kallor’s own admission, his personal paean to “the musical titans I have been privileged to know, and to those who came before”, who, like the imposing skycrapers of the New York skyline, cast huge shadows across the musical landscape.

The entire album resonates with the contrasting energies and vibes of the city, from the sun breaking over the park in the morning, to subway journeys and sidewalk strolls, caffeine-fuelled conversations, and mellow evenings. Played with technical assurance, dramatic flair and sensitively nuanced shadings, Kallor subtly blurs the edges between improvisation and composed sections, classical and jazz, to provide a haunting and vivid portrait of “a life in the day” of the buzzing metropolis.

‘A Single Noon’ is available on CD or to download from iTunes

Listen to a sample here

Meet the Artist……Gregg Kallor

www.greggkallor.com

Meet the Artist……Lara Downes

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I started at the piano as a toddler and simply never stopped! I just never found anything I loved as much. In my teens, I had passing fantasies about being an archaeologist or an actor “when I grew up”, and then I realized that I could incorporate aspects of both of those careers into my musical path. My work involves a lot of archaeological excavation of the repertoire in search of historical narrative and context, and I think that I channel my inner actress into the task of interpreting the emotions and messages of the composers whose works I perform.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing?

It’s been a collage of many things: my very first teacher, Maria Cisyk, was my first love! She was a wonderful woman who integrated a true understanding of and curiosity about music into the first steps at the piano. As soon as I could cover a five-finger position, she had me playing little and Bach and Bartok pieces, and learning the stories behind them so that I had a sense, from the very beginning, of the scope of a history and a tradition in music.

A little later I went on to work with Adolph Baller, a wonderful Austrian pianist with whom I studied at Stanford when I was still very young. He gave me, again, another layer of understanding about the importance of tradition. Having come out of the Viennese tradition himself – he studied with a former student of Franz Liszt! – he was a direct link to the European Romantic school that I, an adolescent in California, could only vaguely imagine. Tragically, Baller had suffered tremendously during the Nazi regime (he was interred in a concentration camp and his fingers were broken), before escaping to the U.S., where he was able to rehabilitate his hands and resume his career as Yehudi Menuhin’s accompanist and a member of the Alma Trio. His story gave me some insights into the power that music can have in a life, the strength that can be found in one’s calling throughout personal tragedy and upheaval. That was an important turning point.

Later on, as a teenager, I studied myself at the Hochschule in Vienna and the Mozarteum in Salzburg with the great Hans Graf, and was able to touch that grand tradition for myself, which brought everything full circle. I remember a winter morning in Vienna, the first heavy snow of the year, when an Argentine classmate came running into Graf’s class saying “I went to the Mozart house and I walked in Mozart’s snow!” That’s how it felt for me during those years, working in the birthplace of the tradition, treading the same ground as the composer whose works I was studying. Very magical.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think that I’ve come of age in a challenging time to be a musician, but also a very liberating one. So I see the challenges also as advantages. The limited opportunities in the concert world (especially in the U.S. where funding for the arts is such a tremendous issue) present a constant difficulty, but ultimately that difficulty has been an inspiration to me to develop a real creativity and innovative spirit in my approach to presentation and programming, to build a unique profile as an artist, to identify what it is that I have to offer and share with audiences that is uniquely mine, my genuine voice in the world. I think we are living in a time when an artist with something significant to say can take a significant amount of control in determining how, when and where he or she is heard. There is a really interesting and diverse mix of artistic personas on the concert stage these days, reflecting a commitment to different ways and means of musical expression. I think it’s very exciting.

And then of course there have been the challenges of combining my professional and personal lives – the same challenges we all face as musicians, finding ways to integrate my roles in my family and in the professional world. Being a mother of two young children has meant making some choices. But that too, I think, has been a very positive thing for me. I’m certainly a more centered, more thoughtful musician than I was when I was younger, and obsessed solely with the day-to-day mechanics of being a pianist, practicing 6 hours a day. Having a wider landscape to tend has been very good for me. I’ve built a career that encompasses performing and recording, writing, and also concert curating and presenting, which I love to do. Being active as a concert and festival curator/presenter allows me more space to bring my many (too many??) ideas to life! It’s important to me to have some impact in shaping the future of an art form that is changing so quickly, and has so much potential to reach new audiences in new ways.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m proudest of the multi-faceted projects I’ve created and produced from start to finish, which have encompassed everything from commissioning and premiering new works, to writing and delivering narrative commentary from the stage, co-producing multimedia/visual enhancements, and self-producing and releasing recordings on my own label (Tritone).

Some favourite examples are:

13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: 13 new re-imaginings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. World premiere recording released on the Tritone label in 2010

Long Time Coming: A full-length multimedia concert featuring works by Duke Ellington and a new commission from composer David Sanford

The Americans: A retrospective of concert music influenced by the American vernacular

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I love playing the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. They treat artists so well (my son wants me to go back so we can “ride in the limo”!), but more than that, the place evokes for me something very powerful about respect for and pride in the arts. It’s just a beautiful place to be and to perform.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Whatever I’m working on at the moment! And some “comfort food” pieces that go way back for me, that I turn to when I need to sort of musically meditate and center myself: the Chopin Nocturnes, Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Bach’s Goldbergs, some favourite pieces by Barber, Ives, and Prokofiev…

Who are your favourite musicians?

Arthur Rubinstein, Billie Holiday, Richard Goode, Nat “King” Cole, Chet Baker, Etta James, Charles Aznavour, the Beatles, Pablo Casals, my son playing the trumpet, Lucio Dalla… you see it’s pretty all over the place!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing Rudolf Serkin under the big tent at Tanglewood in the late ‘80s, just a few years before his death. I was a kid watching a legend and knowing deep in my bones just how precious the moment was. Again, to me he represented the magic of the tradition.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Know what your music means to you. Find your voice. Learn what you alone have to give. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Be flexible in your thinking and let your path take you in unexpected directions. The future can surprise you.

What are you working on at the moment?

My next recording, Exiles’ Café, will be released on the Steinway & Sons label on 26 February 2013. It’s a collection of 19th and 20th century music by composers in exile, or written in response to the experience of exile and diaspora. I’ve positioned music by composers displaced by World War II (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud, and Kurt Weill) alongside works by earlier composers such as Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, who were likewise political exiles in their own time. I’ve also included the Africa Suite by African American composer William Grant Still, representing the permanent wandering of the African Diaspora, and some preludes by the American composer and novelist Paul Bowles, who lived in self-imposed exile in Tangiers for the latter part of his life. The central, big piece on the album is Korngold’s 2nd Sonata, which he wrote in 1910 when he was a thirteen year old prodigy! It’s a massive, late-Romantic, very Straussian work, just absolutely gorgeous and lush.

The project illustrates the global currents of diaspora and exile, which create artistic confluence among people from many different backgrounds of time and place. I think the theme of displacement is one with which everyone is familiar at some level, and also I think that this goes back to my answer to your earlier question, which touched on my deep emotions about the tradition that has built our concert repertoire. Often it has been breaks in that tradition that have actually carried it forward – the historical and political situations that have carried composers from one place to another (Chopin from Poland to France, Rachmaninoff out of Russia, Korngold to Hollywood where he made a legendary career as a film composer and defined the future of that genre) have influenced the development of concert music in a profound way. So once again challenges sometimes prove essential!

Exile’s Cafe

What is your present state of mind?

It’s a hugely exciting time for me. I’m watching several musical projects come to full maturity and thrive, and I’m embarking on new ones. I feel that I’ve arrived at a time in my life when my musical/professional priorities are clear to me. I know what I want to do, and I’m ready for new challenges. I feel lucky every single day to be making a life in music, really. It’s an amazing thing.

Lara Downes’ biography

Lara Downes’ website

Pre-order Exiles’ Café here

New projects from Lara Downes:

“I’m launching a new concert series in San Francisco in April. The Artist Sessions will be held at a historic jazz club called Yoshi’s, where the atmosphere is very modern and informal, and the audience is diverse and “downtown”. The concerts will be unique in the sense that they will be presented as immersive encounters with the artists – each evening will be begin with an onstage conversation between the guest artist and myself, and will conclude with an audience talk-back session. I want audiences and artists to come together as people, and for listeners to find context and connection in the work being presented. The first Spring Preview season will feature performances by Christopher O’Riley and myself, and then a full Fall season will resume in September (series guests will be announced in April).
http://www.sfcv.org/article/lara-downes-pianist-entrepreneur-innovator
http://tinyurl.com/TheArtistSessions

Lara has just opened an online piano studio where she can meet students from around the world. Sessions can be held from anywhere with wifi and a webcam. Further information here