Tag Archives: American pianist

Modest virtuosity: Murray Perahia at Barbican Centre

The London concert scene is alive with pianists and piano-talk at the moment. Hard on the heels of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed survey of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas, performed on a brand new bespoke piano with his name emblazoned across on the fall board, comes Murray Perahia, who like Barenboim is afforded the status of a demi-god, though more for purely musical reasons.

I’ve always admired Perahia. My parents took me to hear him in concert when he was a young man and I was a little girl. His discs of Chopin, Bach and Schubert are my go-to recordings for their musical insight, pianistic prowess and lack of ego. Perahia has worked with some of the finest musicians of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon – yet he wears his accolades lightly and one has the sense, when hearing him live or on disc, that he always puts the music first. He is the very model of a modest virtuoso.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Tobin Mueller, pianist and composer

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

As a pre-teen, I taught myself the piano, after abandoning piano lessons in 3rd grade. Coming from a musical family, however, there was a great deal of musical osmosis. Two of my older siblings played guitar, and my initial piano style sounded more like fingerpicking than piano. Later, at age 14, I began accompanying my mother, who sang Jazz standards, and my style expanded as I help to arrange more and more of her music. But what inspired me the most happened on my sister’s deathbed, when she was 19. She told me to learn Joni Mitchell’s “River”, not just to play it, but to understand it. The act of playing the piano has always included an element of that moment.

Perhaps the most important psychological push that directed me to make music my career was the story passed down to me from my mother regarding my grandfather. In the days of silent pictures, Grandpa John had been a violinist for a beautiful movie house in Wisconsin. When talkies took over, he became the theater’s janitor. He would play violin at home, accompanied by his wife on piano, but she never appreciated his demanding expectations. So he took up the banjo and, on it, would write a special song for every family member’s birthday, as well as many holidays. But he carried a certain humbled sadness throughout the rest of his life, rarely playing the violin after that. My mother’s spin on the story gently encouraged me to do what her father could not: make music for a living. She urged me to follow my dream, but it was always implied that music should be that dream. The piano was the only instrument that seemed all mine, on which I played mostly self-composed or self-arranged music. I still sit at the piano and improvise for hours. When I am lost in my own music, I am most certainly living within my dreaming, in precisely the way my mother had intended.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

It’s very difficult to hone my list of influences down to a few. Debussy, Chopin, Stravinsky, Bach, Copland; George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett; Joni Mitchell, Rick Wakeman (Yes), Keith Emerson (ELP), Bruce Hornsby; Stephen Sondheim. My musical career hasn’t followed an ordinary path, if there is such a thing. I played Jazz and 20th Century Modernism in college (1970s), while learning Classical music; was one of the initial developers of New Age piano in the late 70s-early 80s; began writing, performing and touring Musical Theatre in the 1980s; moved to Manhattan to pursue musical theatre writing/composing in the 1990s; wrote my last musical drama in 2005, the same year I recorded my first solo piano album.

When I became a solo piano artist in 2005, I went back to my roots. My music was labeled Jazz, but was really a Neo-Classical/New Age/Jazz hybrid. As such, I am able to synthesize all my favorite disparate styles under the eclectic umbrella of personal expression… I have my own sound and try to have everything I play fall into that genre-less category.

The most important musical influences often depended on the different projects I became involved in. For example, Astor Piazzolla influenced the score I wrote for a film shot in Bucharest, utilizing mostly Tango rhythms. Stephen Sondheim peered over my shoulder while I was writing my musicals staged in NYC. Dave Brubeck, a personal mentor, watched through my eyes as I choose voicings and worked out fingerings. Keith Jarrett’s sense of cool innovation also casts its shadow. But, I must say, the ghost of my sister is the greatest influence.

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

The first challenge was to find a place to thrive: I lived in a small town in Wisconsin (a northern Midwest state in the USA). I could become a big fish in a small pond, receive positive feedback and good press, but had little professional criticism (which you need to improve) and a limited market. I became friends with many fabulous Wisconsin musicians who still rank among the best I’ve ever worked with, but I needed to move to New York City, the center of musical theatre, if my career was to blossom. Or, so I believed.

Extended gigs in NYC, which eventually took up 6 months of the year, ended in my moving to the West Village and, then, getting a divorce. Dealing with that disconnect was difficult. Being an involved stay-at-home father had been a huge aspect of my sense of self. Now I was 1000 miles away from my kids. It was very lonely, depressing. I dealt with this sense of guilt and dislocation by working all the time.  And I mean nearly every waking moment. I slept only a few hours a day, wrote 1-5 songs a week, recorded whenever I could, constantly networked with others, and never rested. This was my late 30s, early 40s, and it became my most important growth period.

For the most part, nearly every project in my musical career involved something I didn’t know enough about yet, something I was intensely curious about, a style I hadn’t yet conquered, an intellectual or creative challenge. It is part of what drives me, this internal artistic restlessness. A desire to know more. An agitation to grow. An inability to say no to a request for something I might not be qualified for, yet. I have an aversion to repetition. It keeps me young (if I can use that term metaphorically).

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I always think my latest recording is my best. My 2015 double album, “Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller” is my best piano recording, technically, but might also be the best at striking a balance between my drive to sound innovative and the audience’s need for accessibility and conceptual clarity. “Impressions of Water and Light” extended my musicality tremendously, incorporating stylings of Impressionism. I think I learned the most doing that album. (I’m always proud when I learning things.) But “Flow” is the most difficult playing I’ve done, and, at least until my next album, is my favorite performance.

My three jazz ensemble recordings all make me smile. It’s hard to compare an ensemble project with a solo one. There are so many more memories, so much more energy that grows out of an ensemble project. The logistics and time required to organize players, recording sessions and post-production, etc., make those projects more like events, plus working with great musicians provides better stories. My latest Jazz recording, “Come In Funky”, which features legendary bassist Ron Carter, received good reviews, but I think “The Muller’s Wheel” had stronger sessions, and “Rain Bather” won more accolades.

I like all my instrumental albums better than those on which I sing. But that may be my own  sense of criticalness about my voice.

Two musicals also rank up there as my proudest work: a progressive rock opera “Creature”, based on the Frankenstein story; and “Runners In A Dream”, an intimate story of survival and imagination/madness set in the Holocaust. (You can see that I tend toward the dramatic and macabre.) I love writing about death, or cheating death, or finding meaning around death. But I also love to write about those things using beautiful and thrilling music.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I play my own works better than I play other people’s. I am far more comfortable doing so. Tackling Bach was humbling. Although I love the arrangements where I flip between Bach’s score and my own inventions in quick succession (seamlessly, I hope). But the second CD from “Flow” might be my favorite CD I’ve ever recorded. The two original piano suites on Disc 2 enabled me to use theme and variation over 6 movements, which I love. Yet, the piece I replay the most is “Joy” (based on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), the first track from Disc 1.

My piano style favors Bill Evans style Jazz, or the constantly changing keys of Fred Hersch. As I get older and my hands and wrists hurt more and more, I prefer slower pieces. I have to prepare longer than I used to in order to play fast. Perhaps my best performances happen when I’m playing all by myself in my living room, however. I actually don’t like audiences that much anymore. I take more valuable risks when I am by myself.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

At the height of my musical theatre career, I would write a show and get it produced in 9 to 12 months, sometimes going into rehearsals before every song was finished. The subject/stylings of the show came from internal curiosities and fascinations, but had to be backed by my financial team of producers. So there was a collaborative defining process that would occur before I would throw myself into the writing/composing process.

After 9/11/2001, everything changed for me. The New York Off-Broadway scene didn’t want serious musical dramas for several years after the terrorist attack. I lost my backers. I had to start over. My next show took over 3 years to mount, after a long succession of readings, etc. Then my health starting to fail and all of my choices were altered. I’ve had 16 collapsed lungs. The damage I’ve suffered from volunteering at Ground Zero, along with a genetic disorder, A1AD, began to affect me seriously when I turned 54 years of age, and has forced me to reduce stress to very low levels. My nerves sometimes swell, my muscles cramp, I have coughing spells, I tire easily. Live performances are few and far between. I try to do only studio work now.

Currently, I choose my next project as if it will be my last. What do I want to “say” if it’s the last music I leave behind me?

There is an interesting thread that runs through my last solo piano recording projects. It started in 2013 when I decided to finally do a Christmas album (after having it been requested/suggested to me for many years). “Midwinter Born” had 18 tracks, a long album, but I still had musical ideas that didn’t get included. I ran out of space. One of these ideas turned into a Jazz arrangement of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and formed the basis of my next project, “Impressions of Water and Light.” Thrilled with how fulfilling these two project became, re-arranging “Classical” piano music, it occurred to me how long it had been since I played any Bach. Over three decades! That’s how “Flow” began. It was not originally going to be a double album, but the idea of writing original music for a second disc, to show how Bach effected my own compositions, seemed a perfect balance. Plus, I hadn’t written anything original since 2012. While putting my personal spin on Bach, I realized Chopin was an even greater influence, thus my next project has presented itself. “Of Two Minds: The Music of Chopin and Mueller.”  I like the continuity.

Do you have a favorite concert venue to perform in and why? 

Can I say “my living room”?

I prefer being a studio musician. I feel less pressure to be perfect, more freedom to experiment, and need to medically avoid stress. I’ve always preferred rehearsing to performing, so maybe I’ve always had an aversion to live performance. I get quite nervous before performances, intestinal upset and all that. My favorite moments are often in the rehearsal process. Most performances are a blur.

One of my favorite places to perform was The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh WI. Fabulously well-preserved, great acoustics, it also had a rich history of fabled hauntings and ghostly sightings. The Green Room was off a dark maze of tunnels and pipes. One time, while singing by myself on the Opera House stage, I let my emotions run away with me and began crying, for real, as I sang. It was one of the most emotional highs I’ve ever achieved while performing. But, at the end of the song, when I thought I had created a transcendental moment for the audience, I looked down and saw a string of mucus, illuminated like a glowing gossamer thread, coming from my nose. I deftly wiped my nose as I finished the song, hiding my embarrassment. But it taught me a very important lesson: It’s not the emotion you conjure up within yourself that is important, but the emotions you stir within your audience. Being self-consumed on stage can lead to a performance disaster.

Favorite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love performing songs from The American Songbook and giving them a peculiar Tobin Mueller spin. “Over the Rainbow”, “Impossible Dream”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “The Long & Winding Road” are masterpieces that should never be played the same way twice. The fluidity and unpredictability of the moment works well within emotional songs.

Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Fliter’s 2014 release, “Chopin Preludes.” But I might also mix in 1960s Bob Dylan, 1970s Chick Corea, 1980s Michael Hedges, 1990s John Medeski, 2000s John Scofield, recent Fred Hersch.

Who are your favorite musicians? 

Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Jacques Loussier, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch; Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, The Brecker Brothers…

My favorite musician to play with is my Jazz collaborator and saxophonist Woody Mankowski, from Los Angeles CA (although we met when he lived in DePere WI).

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One of the most memorable moments that occurred while I was attending someone else’s concert occurred when I was a short-on-funds college student. My University had a special program in which students could attend concerts at the Milwaukee P.A.C. at greatly reduced rates. I bought season tickets to several concert series.  At one concert, Virgil Fox played all by himself at center stage on an organ specially outfitted for maximum visual drama. At the time, I wasn’t that familiar with Virgil Fox, and, in my arrogant youthfulness put him in a category with Liberace, someone more interested in showmanship than art. I had box seats, fabulous. Somewhere in the middle of his first set, he performed “Ave Maria” (Gounod/Bach). I was transfixed. I lost my peripheral vision. Really. The world fell away and only that man playing that music existed. No other performer has done that to me, except when I saw my daughter sing a duet with Hans Christian Anderson, “And my thumb”, as a three year old Thumbelina.

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

There is no destination achieved, no goals that sustain, only a never ending process. Your work will never stop. But that’s a good thing. At moments of depression, dislocation and discouragement, you can return to your music and continue to perfect your craft, and a sense of peace and direction will come. As you nurture your skills and breadth of knowledge, music will nourish, in turn.

Consider the perspective that the journey is not as much about you as it is about the music. Serve the music, and you will find your internal life expand. Sometimes music isn’t even about music. Rather, it is the sum of your experience, an expression of those who you have encountered winding their way through your fingers and hands. In that way, music ties you to something beyond your life, inclusively.

Remember, it’s called “playing” for a reason. Retain the childlike innocence and expressive joy that is at the heart of play. Never let the work overshadow the wordless spirit that is given voice through your skills and energies. But always honor the work; it is essential.

That said, I get the most satisfaction out of composing and creating my own music, feeling the thrill of creative improvisation, and getting lost in the music making process. My moments at my own piano, in my own living room, free of stress and critique, are my most cherished music moments. Never lose that intensely intimate personal relationship with your music.

What are you working on at the moment?

I will be reinterpreting and rearranging several pieces by Chopin, adding an equal number of original pieces. I may play a Chopin Prelude and then play an original piece in response. The accompanying booklet might incorporate some of George Sands words, not sure yet. The working title is “Of Two Minds: The Music of Frédéric Chopin & Tobin Mueller.” The more I explore Chopin, the harder it will be to trim down the pieces I will want to tackle. I think another double album might be necessary…

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

I’d like to be alive. And healthy enough to play. Breathing well enough to sing. And maybe live in a place with lower property taxes. Ha!

The last thing my mother said to me before she died, in a barely audible whisper: “make…history…not…money…” I figured it was code for “don’t worry about anything but your music.” She had to say it in as few words as possible. Perhaps she meant “history” in the personal sense. I will always be working on making that kind of history, thinking up things no one has done in quite the same way. Doing something new, for me, at least.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

“Perfect” anything is a phantom. Thinking that perfect happiness is a real goal can set you up for a life of frustration and disappointment. You might even regret being “merely” happy. Happiness is fleeting, like any emotion. Enjoy it as it exists. It is a byproduct of other actions and thoughts, not really a thing held in its own right.

Some people are born happy. Or not. I was. Sometimes things that sadden, such as the memory of lost ones, can bring deep joy. The paradox of joy that comes from carrying the weight of ghosts on your shoulders is profound. This sort of dual emotion is far more interesting than pure happiness, in my experience.

I’ve had my successes. But life more often follows a pattern of failure, recognition, redemption; moments of confusion and defeat, followed by growth and a sense of meaning. And, hopefully, self-understanding. Failure can introduce you to yourself and remind you that you are not the person you thought you were. Not yet, at least. It can open doors to a better you. Often, this is how honest art is born.

Risk, failure, and trying something new, more than happiness, are pieces of the larger narrative, even if happiness is the destination we all strive for. On that journey, making music is my refuge.

What is your most treasured possession? 

I thought long and hard on this. My beautiful mahogany grand piano? My favorite fedora? My home, my backyard gardens, my art collection? My personal discography? My family?… If I’m honest, I have to say: my new iPhone. It’s the one thing never far from my hand. Sadly. Although my grand piano and family might win in the long term.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Besides moments alone with my wife? Or my personal concerts for her after I’ve cooked dinner and she’s done the dishes? Hmm… Not sure anything beats those two…

I love creating something new. Mostly, that’s music. But not always.

Tobin Mueller’s latest album Flow: the Music of J S Bach and Tobin Mueller is available now. Further details at www.tobinmueller.com

Agony & Ecstasy: Garrick Ohlsson plays Scriabin at Wigmore Hall

© Paul Body

On the centenary of the death of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, American pianist Garrick Ohlsson concluded his two-concert “Skryabin Focus” at London’s Wigmore Hall with a recital of works which spanned the final two decades of Scriabin’s life.

It is hard to explain exactly what makes Scriabin’s music so compelling: far easier to explain why his music is not for everyone. It is the music of excess, ecstasy, tumult and passion. It is excessive, overripe, decadent, heavily perfumed, languorous and frenzied, lacking in structure and sometimes downright bizarre. The music of extremes, it is hyper everything, and as such it defies description or categorization. Its language is complex, often atonal and frequently almost impenetrable. For some listeners, and artists too, it is this “over-the-top-ness” that is off-putting; for others, myself and my concert companion included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. By his own admission, Garrick Ohlsson is a true Scriabin fan, the result of hearing Sviatoslav Richter perform the Seventh Piano Sonata. Ohlsson’s studies with a Russian teacher enabled him to regard Scriabin as “mainstream repertoire” and the composer’s music remains a mainstay of his repertoire.

Read my review here

Review: Scriabin Revealed – Garrick Ohlsson at Wigmore Hall

My first concert of 2015 was an all-Scribian recital by American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who, by his own admission, is a ‘Scriabinophile’, an obession which grew from hearing Sviatoslav Richter playing the ‘White Mass’ Sonata in the 1960s.

To mark the centenary of the composer’s death is Garrick Ohlsson’s ‘Skryabin Focus’ at Wigmore Hall, and the two-concert celebration opened with a recital held, appropriately, on the composer’s birthday, which in the Julian calendar (to which Russia then subscribed) is Christmas Day. This fact alone suggests we are dealing with an unusual personality, and as time went on, and Scriabin’s egocentric obsessions increased, he began to regard himself as a second Messiah whose music would have a purifying, unifying and life-changing effect on all mankind. Add to this his interest in spirituality, the theosophy of Madame Blavasky, the writings of Nietzsche, his synaesthesia (which is what originally drew me to his piano music) and his assertion that there was an aesthetic connection between musical harmony and shades of colour, and we have an extreme personality at work. This heady mix produced music which is languorous, sensuous, demonic, enigmatic, erotic, febrile and over-heated. Hyper-everything, his music is lush, gorgeous and inspired, always ecstatic. It is these aspects which many listeners, and artists, find off-putting, and the reason why Scriabin’s music is so rarely performed today.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Beth Levin, pianist

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

We owned an old Lester upright in the basement and I went to it very early on – played the music in the piano bench, composed a bit – it was a magical spot. My first teacher had come over from Europe to study at Curtis Institute and she gave me wise first steps at the piano. I didn’t think of it as a career then, but it was already at the center of my life.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My father always played the recordings of Richter and even in car rides would test me on the music and the artists emanating from the radio. He had a great ear and such a warm spirit.

My teachers – Maryan Filar, Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure and Dorothy Taubman – were perhaps the most important influences on me as a musician and also as a human being.

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

Some of the greatest challenges have been learning and performing the Goldberg Variations, the final three Beethoven Piano Sonatas and the Brahms D minor and Chopin E minor Concerti to name a few. This repertoire demands and allows the performer to go deep, to grow and be changed forever.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I like the most recent –  Beethoven Op. 109-111 Sonatas on Parma Recordings.

And I’m also proud of the Bach Goldberg Variations on Centaur Recordings.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I probably play the Romantic repertoire the best. But I like to think I can handle music of any time.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I’m very influenced by friends – one recently suggested I learn Kreisleriana of Schumann and the big Schubert C minor Sonata. Having just played the late Beethoven program, this sits well with me. And I adore Schumann and Schubert.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I may be happiest in intimate spaces such as Bargemusic in New York – but  any stage is a happy challenge if one feels at home.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love playing chamber music-(I’ll perform a cello/piano program tomorrow). A Brahms trio is heaven for me, or any of the great piano quintets…..
I adore and appreciate listening to singers – often from the past – and to strings.  One phrase of Casals’ Bach can be life-changing.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Hearing Stokowski live in Philadelphia and hearing Leonard Shure play a recital in Boston come to mind as outstanding memories.

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

Love for the music…….and of course titanic rhythm, deep phrasing and respect for the score.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m working on a modern work of Andrew Rudin – his Piano Sonata. And Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Also the Barber cello Sonata, Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata and the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet. I played the ‘Emperor Concerto’ recently and that is still with me.

What is your present state of mind? 

Because I play tomorrow I’m in a calm state of mind but ready to boil over at the right time.

Interview date: 8th March 2014

Beth Levin’s artistry invokes an uncanny sense of hearing for the first time
works long thought familiar, as though the pianist herself were discovering a piece in the playing of it. Such a style of refreshment and renewal can be traced back to Levin’s unique artistic lineage. As a child prodigy, she made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 12.

She was subsequently taught and guided by legendary pianists such as Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure, Dorothy Taubman and Paul Badura-Skoda (who praised her as “a pianist of rare qualities and the highest professional caliber”). Her deep well of experience allows Levin to reach back through the golden age of the Romantic composers and connect to the sources of the great pianistic traditions, to Bach, to Mozart, to Beethoven.

Levin has appeared as a concerto soloist with numerous symphony orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Boston Civic Symphony and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. She has worked with noted conductors such as Arthur Fiedler, Tonu Kalam, Milton Katims, Joseph Silverstein and Benjamin Zander. Chamber music festival collaborations have brought her to the Marlboro Festival, Casals Festival, Harvard, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Ankara Music Festival and the Blue Hill Festival, collaborating with such groups such as the Gramercy Trio (founding member), the Audubon Quartet, the Vermeer Quartet and the Trio Borealis, with which she has toured extensively.

Beth’s full biography can be found on her website

www.bethlevinpiano.com

Meet the Artist……Jeffrey Biegel, pianist

Jeffrey Biegel, pianist

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

There was a piano in the house – an old Estey upright. I gravitated to it after my sister’s piano lessons. Like a magnet, I was drawn to the piano.

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

In piano playing, my teachers, of course. Aside from Morton Estrin and Adele Marcus, I would have to say Josef Lhevinne, Artur Schnabel, Rachmaninov and of living pianists, Murray Perahia among many others.

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

The greatest challenge in any career is to maintain a steady flow of employment. Fortunately, with standard repertoire, new concerto projects written for me, plus recordings and teaching, there is a nice flow and momentum to keep evolving as a musician.

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

I would have to say in 1983, performing my debut with orchestra, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, with the Juilliard Philharmonic in Lincoln Center; same concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC; Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra; and performances of concerti with the following composers in the audience: Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka, Lowell Liebermann, William Bolcom, Richard Danielpour, Charles Strouse, Marjorie Rusche and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing everything actually. I never know which is best, however.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I normally base the repertoire on new works being premiered and recorded, and the concerti asked for that particular season. next season includes Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Saint-Saens Concerto no. 2, Grieg’s Concerto, and Rachmaninov Concerti nos 2 and 3.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I enjoy everywhere I perform – each venue has its own magic.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Too many to list!!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Too many to list!! In the pop world, David Foster, Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka (and I can’t get Pink’s song, ‘Just Give Me a Reason’ out of my head – liking it!); pop/classic pianists, Victor Borge and Liberace; classical world – everyone! I always enjoy listening to other pianists and hearing their interpretations of music we all know and love.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

If I must narrow it down, it would have to be my New York recital debut on April 14, 1986, in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the Juilliard William Petschek Piano Debut Award–an annual honor given to a pianist. I remember looking out through the backstage to see all of my family, friends and colleagues go to their seats. It was like getting married to the instrument, formally, in New York, in front of everyone I know.

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

I would suggest creating and maintaining a network of musician friends, and friends in all artistic capacities. You never know when you might collaborate in special projects in performance, audio/video recording etc.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am now at work for a recording project in the fall of 2014 featuring the following works:
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Ellington: New World A-Comin’ (1945, orchestration by Maurice Peress; solo cadenza by Sir Roland Hanna)
Keith Emerson: Concerto no. 1 (1977)
Neil Sedaka: Manhattan Intermezzo (2010; piano part enhanced by Jeffrey Biegel)

Additionally, I will record Lucas Richman’s “Piano Concerto: In Truth” during the 2014-15 season; orchestra tba; and will learn a new concerto based on the famous rock group, The Monkees, to be composed by Dick Tunney out of Nashville. That will be premiered with Orchestra Kentucky in January 2015, along with Peter Tork’s “Moderato ma non troppo” for piano and orchestra. Kenneth Fuchs will be composing a Piano Concerto for me, which will have its world premiere in 2015-16 with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts with Kevin Rhodes conducting. For the Dicterow-DeMaine-Biegel trio, I will be learning Suk’s “Elegie”, and Dohnanyi’s “Quintet” for our January debut in Fort Worth, Texas. Also, the world premiere of Jeremy Lubbock’s new composition, “Moods–a duet for Piano and Strings” will take place in February 2015 with the orchestra of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.

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

Still alive, performing and recording.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A peaceful world, allowing us to travel anywhere, anytime, without religious or political boundaries.

What is your most treasured possession? 

A photo of pianist Josef Lhevinne to his student (and my teacher) Adele Marcus from May 26, 1928 – Adele changed the date to 1938 to make her younger!

Jeffrey Biegel’s biography

My review of Jeffrey Biegel’s CD ‘A Grand Romance’

 

 
 

CD review: ‘Verbs’ – Keith Porter Snell

‘Verbs’ is a collection of 24 Preludes for left hand only by composer Kathleen Ryan. Commissioned by her friend and colleague American pianist and Steinway Artist, Keith Porter-Snell, the unifying theme of this suite of miniatures is the idea of verbs, one for each prelude to convey an individual quality of energy and motion, with titles such as Wait, Crackle, Drift, Bloom, Murmur, Tease, Tangle and Bless.

Keith Porter-Snell

The repertoire for the left hand alone is wide, including most famously Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne, Op 9, Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand (composed for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during the First War) and studies by Godowsky and others. Many pianists use left hand studies and pieces to improve their technique (the left hand often being the weaker hand for naturally right-handed pianists); others are forced to turn to left hand repertoire for reasons of injury. After suffering a repetitive motion injury to his right hand some years ago, Keith Porter-Snell withdrew from performing to concentrate on his teaching career, while also developing an interest in left hand repertoire. He relaunched his performing career in 2006, specialising in piano music for the left hand alone.

By skillfully switching between the high and low registers of the piano and utilising full textures and bright or unexpected harmonies, Ryan creates the illusion of two hands playing. Coupled with Keith’s clean, lucid and sensitively articulated sound and the wonderfully echoey acoustic of Monkton Coombe School (where the album was recorded in May 2013), these preludes hark back to earlier antecedents by Debussy, Rachmaninov, Chopin and J S Bach in their variety and appeal, creating an album rich in contrasts. Ryan’s composing style is eclectic, referencing jazz, contemporary classical, traditional classical, and American folk songs and hymns: Play, for example, is a vibrant anthem, redolent of sacred harp singing, while other Preludes are more contemplative, tender and wistful (Forgive, Bloom).  Push is energetic and rumbling, suggesting bustling city life, Bounce scampers playfully around the keyboard with jazzy syncopations and colourful harmonies, and Tangle is redolent of some of Prokofiev’s more introspective ‘Visions Fugitives’. The album closes with the meditative Bless.

This interesting and appealing project is a celebration of left hand repertoire, a musical friendship, and the art of the Prelude and the miniature. Recommended.

‘Verbs’ is available from iTunes and other online music stores.

Meet the Artist……Keith Porter-Snell

A History of Left-Hand Piano

Kathleen Ryan’s Meet the Artist interview will be published soon.

 

 

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