Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

When I think back to the moment that led to me majoring in music, it’s funny that it wasn’t some Hollywood-style lightbulb thing—the way it happened was almost forgettable. I’d seriously played music my entire life, but I was also one of those obnoxiously accomplished kids who did everything and was proficient at every subject, so when it came time to do college applications I applied for programs in multiple fields. I ended up applying to and attending conservatory because my piano teacher stopped me after a performance and told me, seriously, that I couldn’t ever give up music. No one else had given me that kind of direction, so I took that bit of counsel and ran with it.

I figured I would follow music as far as it would take me; I promised myself that if there came a day where it no longer brought me joy and I’d wrung all the love that I could out of it, I would stop. That day hasn’t come yet.

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

When I was really little, I would watch Victor Borge on PBS, and I just adored everything about him; he made music so funny but he was also just a phenomenal musician. He was warm and silly and the silliness didn’t detract from the beauty of the music, and I think that was a really crucial thing for me to absorb at an early age, since classical music in general can take itself way too seriously. A lot of people get hung up on things like “greatness” and “nobility” and “transcendence” in classical music, and don’t get me wrong, those elements exist, but there’s also a lot of humor and irony and self-deprecation in music as well, and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend the art form doesn’t contain all these very human things.

He was just a master of presenting music to audiences in a way that was really accessible and entertaining. When I was little I didn’t know much about music history or advanced theory, and I didn’t have to to enjoy Victor Borge’s performances. That’s something I keep in mind whenever I prepare performances, since I like to talk to the audience about the music; how do I teach them something about the music in a way that’s entertaining, where you don’t feel like you’re being lectured? I don’t get as slapsticky as Borge, and I’m nowhere near as funny as he is, but that accessible humor is something I always aim for.

There have been a lot of other influences in my life, of course, and I’ve been lucky to have amazing mentors in the field of music, but I think a lot of my guiding philosophy all goes back to Victor Borge.

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

I’m really self-conscious about the fact that I’m not on the traditional track that pianists usually take. I didn’t do competitions when I was young because my teacher was very rightly concerned that competition culture would be really rough on me, since I was a pretty shy and sensitive kid. I didn’t go to a big-name conservatory, I haven’t won any major competitions or been picked up by a label or agency, and I’m not pursuing a career in academia. I’ve read biographies and memoirs and interviews by pianists I deeply admire where they actually, literally say, if you haven’t hit these traditional milestones by the time you’re eighteen, you need to give up, because you will never make it.

I know objectively I’m pretty good at playing the piano, but I still have trouble believing that anyone will want to listen to me. I also know that I’m not remotely the only person who feels this way, and that there are a lot of independent classical musicians out there who have overcome the same problems, but doing your own thing still feels very lonely sometimes.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I think my recording of Cécile Chaminade’s concert etude “Automne” (released in May) might be my favorite recording that I’ve made yet. I’m at a point where I feel like I’m constantly torn between wanting to sound like other people, following the rules that my teachers have drummed into me, and trying new things and finding my own voice. I feel like the Chaminade recording is, so far, the closest I’m come to playing something in a way that sounds really like me.

I’m sure in X number of years or after X number of recordings I’ll look back on it and go, oh my gosh, this is terrible, why did I make these musical decisions or play like this, but you gotta start somewhere.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I absolutely love playing Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, etc. but I have this horrible anxiety whenever I perform their music, particularly the really famous pieces, because there are all these legendary recordings and performances that I feel like I have no chance of living up to them. And when you play that music, even if you have something really strong to say and have put your own stamp on it, you feel like everyone’s bringing their own different expectations to listening and you’re just set up to fail.

I think, personally, I perform best when it’s music that I love but that isn’t as well-known, because instead of trying to meet this invisible expectation, I’m coming from a place where I know it’s likely the audience doesn’t know what to expect and it’s on me to create something that makes it worth their while. Sometimes that’s lesser-known works by canonic composers, like Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eaux à la villa d’Este”—I just love performing that piece so much, it’s not what you’d expect but it’s such a crowd pleaser. And lately I’ve been adding music by traditionally underplayed women composers to my repertoire, and the amazing thing is that audiences love those works. I’ve had amazing responses to the Clara Schumann and Cécile Chaminade pieces I’ve played in concert, and oftentimes I’ll get feedback that people actually enjoy those pieces more than the famous stuff they’ve already heard a lot.

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

My teacher usually recommends pieces—he has an uncanny way of picking unexpected crowd-pleasers for me—and I often go completely off-book and will learn other pieces when something really grabs me. The Louise Farrenc etude I recently released is one of those; I heard Konstanze Eickhorst’s recording of it, and was so utterly smitten that I dropped everything to learn it immediately, and then recorded it just a few months later.

I also pick my repertoire so I can have options putting together balanced programs that work for different audiences; I kind of think of a concert program as being like a really good meal, where you have a variety of flavors that all complement each other and take you on a journey.

Incorporating a 50/50 gender balance into my solo programs has also been a really interesting challenge, because when I’m presenting less-heard music to audiences, I have to think both about how certain pieces go together thematically as well as how it feels for the listener, going from something they know well to something that’s new, and vice versa. I also have to make sure

I’m not unintentionally reinforcing lazy stereotypes, like having a program where all the male composers ’works are really fast and agitated and all the female composers ’works are slow and lyrical. I know I’ve done my job when I’ve put a bunch of disparate stuff together and people say that they enjoyed the whole thing.

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

There’s a private house concert I do every year at the home of a dear friend with a wonderful Steinway grand; it’s just an incredibly lovely experience because she rustles up a whole audience of people who just really love classical music and enjoy listening to me talk about it and it doesn’t feel like a performance so much as a warm and nerdy afternoon. I wish I could share that kind of experience with the whole world, because it’s just so much fun.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Ha, the first thing that comes to mind is that time I had a memory slip performing the Prokofiev Third Concerto with orchestra—I noodled around for a bit and somehow got out of it fine, but I still get panicky reliving it.

On further thought, I gave a lecture recital last year (2019) on Clara Schumann’s G Minor Piano Sonata, and I still feel all warm and happy remembering it, because the audience was so wonderful and engaged. It was put on by a nonprofit that does free community events, and the audience was primarily older classical music enthusiasts, who conventional wisdom says are typically the people least willing to listen to new stuff. But I just talked about how awesome Clara Schumann was, why her music isn’t as well known, and what makes her sonata so compelling; I can’t describe how amazing it feels to see a room full of people fully engaged and interested while you talk at them about something you really care about. And you can tell how engaged your audience is while you’re performing! Even if you can’t see them, there’s a certain energy you can feel. When I played I felt like that audience was with me the whole time, experiencing every phrase and going on that emotional journey. And afterwards we had a Q&A session, and they asked so many questions about Clara Schumann and the sonata, and a lot of them based their questions on what they heard in the performance. It felt like a culmination of why I love this art form so much.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When I was younger I equated fame with success and I just wanted to be, like, mega-famous. Now the idea of being recognized on the street is horrifying to me, and I feel a lot more wary about the idea of being treated as some kind of product or commodity. I also have my reservations about the very concept of celebrity, the idea that people might feel like they know you, even though they only know this small part of you that you’ve put on display. So my personal definition of success is a lot more nuanced now.

I think success is a state of being where you’re doing work you’re passionate about, where you feel like you’re being true to your own voice, and you have some audience who your work resonates with. I think, especially in classical music, a factor of success is also how much your work reaches people who aren’t already deep in the field. I feel really validated when people who say “I don’t know anything about classical music” tell me they really enjoyed a performance or a recording, or that I taught them something. Art has to keep finding bigger audiences in order to survive, so I think a truly successful artist is one who continues reaching those audiences.

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

I’ve learned so much from the past couple years of working that I feel like I could write a whole book of unsolicited advice. I think the first concept that aspiring musicians absolutely need to know is that classical music is not a meritocracy. You are not necessarily going to get anywhere purely based on your talent or even your work ethic, because like any other industry, connections are everything and in a chaotic world, luck can be everything. And it’s really unfortunate, but first-generation musicians are always going to have a much harder time making it than people from families who know the unspoken institutional rules of classical music. The flip side of that is that if you recognize that talent isn’t the only thing that matters, you can leverage your other skills and qualities. You don’t have to be the most talented musician in the room to be successful—there will always be people who are better than you are, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for you. You just have to figure out what you have to offer the world.

I think it’s also really critical to get rid of this expectation that if you’re a musician, your whole personality has to revolve around music. I think that’s part of why some young musicians get prematurely burnt out and jaded—I know people who got disenchanted with music in their teens and early twenties and ended up without any other identity to cling to, which is just really tragic. I really do think you should be a whole person outside of music, and it’s okay to be into non-classical music and non-music media and pop culture and whatever else floats your boat. The world is full of so many fascinating things for your brain to chew on, you know?

What is your present state of mind?

I’ve been really thrown—along with everyone else—by coronavirus. I’m very, very lucky to be able to shelter in place. But it’s shocking how uncertain everything is now, and how my routine and short-term plans have been totally upended. This is the time of year I usually do a whole slate of concerts, and that’s not happening. I was working on some really cool projects that were supposed to unfold next season; I’m not sure about the status of those projects anymore, due to arts org budgets imploding, gatherings being risky, etc. We’re all in this suspended state right now. Performing is such an important part of my life, but I don’t know when we’ll be able to have concerts in-person again. It’s very hard to visualize what a career in music looks like after this is all over.

In this state of limbo, it’s really hard to continue working day-to-day like everything is normal. I don’t do well when I don’t have immediate deadlines, so it’s really hard for me to practice like there are still performances on the horizon. On top of that all, I just feel so emotionally drained. I mean, people are literally dying right now, and the level of suffering is just breathtaking. Even if you’re safe and doing fine, you know way too many people who aren’t. It takes a lot of energy and brainpower to work on music—or anything, really—and it’s very exhausting just being a human being right now.

I’m just taking everything one day at a time and being nicer to myself—well, I’m trying, anyway. I still have to practice on a daily basis because physical things like stamina, control, flexibility, etc. evaporate if you don’t keep them up. I used to beat myself up for not practicing enough hours a day or not making enough progress, but now if I’m able to squeeze out one or two hours of meaningful work, I’m genuinely grateful.

(Interview date: 27 April 2020)


Sharon Su is a professional finger wiggler. While she hails* from a very sunny state (California), her work has taken her to concert halls, churches, ballrooms, and the occasional palace throughout the cloudier sections of the world, both as a solo and collaborative keyboard-masher. She has extensively performed pieces from the classical canon (sadly, that is “canon” with one “n” in the middle) as well as premiered a number of newly composed works, likely because the composers were in a hurry and couldn’t find a better pianist to perform their works for the first time. Her work has earned her recognition as an American artist and, most importantly, she has recently been hailed by her mother as being “pretty good at noise-making.”

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Sharon Su play’s Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto – more information

Louise Farrenc – Etude, Op 26/10


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Such is the canonisation of classical music and the veneration of those who wrote, and write it, that the “composer’s intentions” are generally regarded as sacrosanct. Look at the value placed on “urtext” and autograph scores as receptacles of the “sacred text”, and the demands placed on musicians from the moment they begin their training to faithfully carry out the composer’s “intentions” (such “intentions” generally being defined by teachers, examiners, competition jurors, critics rather than the composers themselves).

Performers are regularly and fulsomely praised for their adherence to “the composer’s intentions” or castigated for not respecting them. Performances which are deemed to respect the composer’s intentions are often held up as definitive and are then used as benchmarks by which other performances are measured. Alongside this comes high praise for the performer who becomes “invisible” and stands back in deference to “let the music speak for itself”. But this is ridiculous because the music requires a performer to bring it to life and communicate and shape the musical experience for the audience. Thus the performer becomes a crucial participant in this process:

The composer needs an intermediary-performer, a creative interpreter of his composition……..A musician-interpreter, at one and the same time, realizes his connection to the composer’s intentions, and realizes himself as an artistic personality: acknowledging both the enormous importance of the author of the composition – and at the same time his own role in the realization of the composer’s ideas

– Samuel Feinberg

Yet when playing the music written by dead composers, what else do we, the musicians, have to guide us to these hallowed “intentions” beyond the notes and markings on the score? There is, of course, plenty of scholarship on performance practices from past eras, and also contemporary accounts of how, for example, Chopin or Debussy played their music, and for composers such as Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev we have early recordings (though it comes as quite a shock to those who slavishly champion the composer’s intentions to find that Rachmaninoff’s own performances are at variance with his own published scores!). But such material is really only a vehicle for curiosity and theorising: we may believe it brings us closer to the composer’s vision, but we can never get inside the composer’s head nor hear the music as the composer heard it, as they intended it to be heard.

Period instruments are frequently held up as a way to properly understand composer intentions. Perhaps the most amusing (to me, at least) is when the music of Schubert, for example, is played on keyboard instruments from his era and commentators wax lyrical about how we can “hear the music as Schubert himself heard it”. Which is of course nonsense: you can no more hear the music as Schubert heard it than hear the music as I hear it because our listening experience is entirely personal. Period instruments offer insights into compositional details such as articulation, dynamics, tempo, musical semantics and aesthetics, and are useful research tools, but they will not transport us back to a Viennese Schubertiade or Chopin’s Parisian salon.

historical purity is not the most important goal of a performance, particularly when we can never be sure we are getting it right

Charles Rosen (Piano Notes)

With contemporary music, questions about the composer’s intentions are often more practical than historical, and when working on a score by a living composer, one does at least have the option of discussing the score with the composer and asking the question “what did you mean here?” (and such questions may simply be a means of clarifying an ambiguous marking). Composers often find their original intentions shift when they first hear their music played by others and thus their intent and meaning is informed and shaped by the musician’s interpretation of the score and their individual personality (back to that quote by Feinberg, above).

The work of music may be the expression of an individual sensibility, and we may say the same of a performance: but once published, once played, they have become public property. That is why we can maintain that a composer does not always knows how best to interpret his own work. His knowledge of the piece may be more intimate at first, but he cannot control future performances, and his opinion of how to play it may be interesting but is not absolutely privileged

– Charles Rosen,

Composers don’t have total ownership of their music: once published, it becomes material to be shared with others – other musicians and listeners. Through music, composers create a vehicle for the performer to communicate with the audience but the performer is not a passive participant because a score cannot “play itself”.  Performers take ownership of the music through their own interpretation – their decision on how to play the music informed by what is set out in the score, and also their knowledge, experience and imagination (the latter perhaps being the most important in terms of creating an interesting or exciting performance). Returning to the notion of the ‘invisible performer’, if musicians cannot bring their own personality to the music, then everyone and everything would sound largely the same. Music is as much the performer’s art and craft as the composer’s, and for the listener there should be as much excitement in a performer’s insights about a work, as demonstrated in their interpretation, as in the work itself. Why else do people seek out performances and recordings by certain performers – Andras Schiff, Daniil Trifonov, Angela Hewitt or Mitsuko Uchida, for example?

 

Thus the score, and the composer’s intentions as set out within it, is not the end point but rather the point of departure for the performer. We should not disregard what is set out in the score, but use it as a springboard for independent thought, musical curiosity and interpretative possibilities. This music must be read with care, knowledge and imagination – without necessarily believing every note and word that is printed (composers are not “always right”!). We make considered judgements and interpretative decisions in order to balance fidelity to the score and the possibilities offered by our own musical understanding, imagination and artistry, and trends in current performance practice. Additionally, the differences, both in interpretation, and indeed listening preferences, are determined and/or influenced by factors which are not exclusively musical, such as personality, education, culture, age or, even one’s mood in the moment of performance. At this point, the musician goes “beyond the notes” and the markings in the score to create something that is both personal and true to the spirit of the composer’s intentions.

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”.

– Peter Kivy, ‘Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance’ (Cornell University Press, 1995)


 


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Engegård Quartet are Arvid Engegård (first violin), Alex Robson (second violin), Juliet Jopling (viola), Jan Clemens Carlsen (cello)


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

AE: When I was born my father supposedly said “He is going to be violinist”. I grew up in a very inspiring musical environment.

AR: My parents were both musicians.

JJ: Music means so much to me on so many levels, it’s pretty much impossible to choose any other career. I’ve been lucky enough to meet several extremely talented musicians and composers who have both inspired and helped me, and am eternally thankful to my quartet colleagues and the quartet repertoire for on-going tolerance, motivation and inspiration.

JCC: Both my parents are musicians and classical music was always present during my childhood. I started playing an instrument myself very early. On my tenth birthday I received a collection of CD’s featuring many great works and cellists. The individuality of different musicians from Pablo Casals to Truls Mørk, their individual sound, style, vibrato and interpretations really intrigued and fascinated me. About the same time I became a part of the Barratt-Due Music Institute’s program for talented young musicians where I met many like-minded young people who shared my interest and passion. I don’t remember when I decided that I wanted to become a musician, but I know for sure that I never considered anything else!

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

AE: Sandor Vegh. I was his concertmaster and assistant for many years

AR: My teachers Bjarne Fiskum and Levon Chillingirian

JJ: My family, including my Mum, Dad, aunt Louise Grattan, sister Daisy and brother Orlando. Martha Argerich, Dinu Lipati, Pablo Casals, Sandor Vegh, Alban Berg Quartet, Borodin String Quartet, Hagen Quartet.

JCC: I have been blessed with great teachers. All of them had very different personalities and approaches towards teaching and cello playing. Hans Josef Groh was my teacher for 9 years and shares a lot of the blame for me becoming a cellist! Apart from memories of many wonderful lessons with him, I still remember his impeccable left foot skills on the football pitch (my second passion).

I began my studies in Salzburg with Heidi Litschauer. The most important thing she taught me is the connection between how you sit, the posture while playing and what kind of tension there needs to be present in the body to influence the sound you make. You have to feel well to play well. My next teacher was Christoph Richter (Folkwang Hochschule, Essen). From him I learnt the importance of hard work and also the importance of trying to unearth the composer’s thoughts and wishes from the score, even though that can be very tricky. My final teacher was Truls Mørk (Norwegian Academy of Music). Just to watch him play and see how easy cello playing can be taught me a lot of important lessons!

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

AE: To find the right people to play in the Quartet with.

JJ: Moving from England to Norway in 2004. The continual transformation from dreams to reality in Quartet life.

JCC: Finding the balance between being a father to four children and being married to a musician has been, and still is challenging at times. Finding a balance between family life and being a free-lance musician is not always easy. There are always sacrifices that have to be made.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

AE: I am very proud of the last recordings we have made for LAWO (Schumann piano quintet and quartet with Nils Anders Mortensen, Mozart String Quartets).

AR: Our Mozart, Schumann and Grieg quartets

JJ: I am pathologically critical of myself so that’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. Perhaps the recording of Mozart kv 387, 458 and 464 will be the one! Memorable performances… Beethoven’s opus 132 in Oslo’s Gamle Logen a couple of years ago. We managed a shared focus level that was very powerful, and the music really shone through.

JCC: It is hard to choose, but I’m really happy with our Schuman quartets recording. We are in the middle of a complete Mozart recording project that also seems very promising!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

AE: This is impossible to say. Maybe Haydn op 76 or Beethoven op 132..?

AR: Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok string quartets

JJ: I guess one gets good at what one does most often. And we have a great focus on the classical repertoire, so it feels great to work on Mozart and Beethoven together. It’s also good fun to let ourselves go a bit in Norwegian repertoire like Grieg’s g minor quartet which we more or less know from memory, so it feels joyfully free.

JCC: As a quartet we have played a lot, and that I think one piece we do particularly well is Grieg’s wonderful string quartet in G-minor. We also share a great passion for the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven that have led to some very good performances.

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

AE: We try not to have too many works going at the same time. Our “123” festival in Oslo is an important factor.

AR: One great composer after another.

JJ: We have built up an annual festival called “På 123”, when we perform one composer over three days. This obviously is both hugely rewarding and demanding, and it certainly shapes our work in the long term. This September 4th to 6th, we’re presenting Mustonen på 123. (Finnish composer and pianist, Olli Mustonen f.1967). I can’t wait!

JCC: We have a festival in Oslo, featuring a different composer each year, that determines our main focus for the coming year.

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

AE: I love the churches in Lofoten where I have my chamber music festival. Lots of great memories.

AR: Carnegie and Wigmore halls.

JJ: I think that the audience is much more important for me than the venue. A responsive, engaged audience gives us huge inspiration. Which has made these Corona times so very demanding. And the two things probably go hand in hand, at least to some extent. An attractive venue often attracts great audiences and great musicians, win win all round.

JCC: I really enjoy playing at Oslo Quartet Series in Gamle Logen in Oslo. The audience is wonderful and just being part of this fantastic series is an enormous pleasure!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

AE: Maybe when we have played the same piece many times in the Quartet. Then we get to a new level.

AR: Too many to mention!

JJ: Schubert 5 with Camerata Academica in Salzburg under Sandor Vegh. Not long after, I had the huge honour to perform at Sandor Vegh’s funeral.

JCC: I am not able to choose one I have played myself. I have had the privilege of playing for so many wonderful audiences. However, as a young boy, aged about 14, I attended a concert with Steven Isserlis and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. That concert was hugely inspiring at that time, and is still a fond memory!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

AE: To play in the way you wish to.

AR: That the audience can see that we really understand a certain piece.

JJ: On a personal level, to achieve focus, both in rehearsals and on the concert platform. On a professional level, to sustain a career as a string quartet, with a balance of international and domestic concerts, recordings, and educational activities.

JCC: As long as I develop as a musician and am able to share my feelings with an audience regularly, I consider myself successful. 

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

AE: Music is life and death!

AR: To believe in yourself and go your own way.

JJ: To be in touch with one’s passion and motivation, one’s love for music, and to hold that close through thick and thin.

JCC: It is easy to say: practise, practise, practise, but the most important thing is that you really have to ENJOY what you are doing and know WHY you are doing it. If this is missing all your hard hours of practising will be fruitless. Also, there are a lot of concerts to be heard in every town – GO TO THEM and get inspired

 


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Guest post by Sylvia Segal

Sylvia is a music-lover and The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s most longstanding reader


Dear Fran,

Your blog’s 10th anniversary reminded me that I’ve been meaning to send you a musical message. Lockdown has meant a lot more listening time which, though solitary, has been a great pleasure.

As you know, I have a tendency to have mini love affairs with selected composers, meaning that temporarily I listen to little else. You’ll remember my ‘Chopin period,’ I’m sure. Before that there was Ravel. And Mendelssohn’s chamber music. Bach puts in an appearance regularly, as does Haydn, who always lifts my spirits. And so on.

Anyway, lately it’s been all about Schubert’s piano sonatas for me. Not necessarily the final three, but early and middle ones. Years ago, I bought a 7-CD set of them, played by Ingrid Haebler. The earliest sonata on there is no. 3, and already he’s modulating in a way that reminds me of a tightrope walker without a safety net! It makes me smile to hear him tie himself up in knots, only to untie them a moment later, as if by magic.

Beethoven famously remarked that the piano “couldn’t sing,” but I think Schubert put paid to that idea. (And Mendelssohn.) If you’re able, listen to the slow movement of Schubert’s sonata in B major (D.575). It’s a song. It IS a song. A beautiful, sad one.

On the subject of whether the piano sings or not, I have never forgotten the study day that Robert Levin presented at the British Museum about the evolution of the piano. Focusing on the period that is his forte (sorry, pun), late 18th/early 19th century, he made the very interesting point that composers like Mozart and Haydn didn’t expect the piano to sing, they wanted it to SPEAK, in the manner of well-argued discourse or civilised conversation.

I was reminded of this in Paris in February, where I picked up a free copy of the New York Times in our hotel, and read an article about John Eliot Gardiner entitled “Treating Beethoven as a Revolutionary.” It was about rehearsing Beethoven’s symphonies with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in connection with Beethoven 250 (I expect those performances didn’t happen, sadly), and he said something that really struck me:

Another thing I think is important [as well as the clarity and exhilaration you can achieve with original instruments] is to encourage the players to “speak” their lines, so that each phrase emerges as a kind of sentence made up of words that they articulate with consonants as well as vowels. Beethoven, it seems to me, is asking for declaimed narration. He conceives of his symphonies as developing and dramatic narratives, and that, in turn, demands an acutely conscious declamatory approach from the players.”

So interesting! I do often think of music as a language, and individual composers’ styles as their ‘handwriting.’ This wordless language has its own structure, vocabulary, grammar—none more so than the music composed around the time of the Enlightenment. Mozart and Haydn spoke it fluently and effortlessly, and we as listeners need to be familiar with the rules of the language before we can experience the thrill that comes when we hear them broken.

Beethoven and Schubert – both voracious readers – inherited this formal language. But I think they became less and less interested in the discourse/conversation aspect, focusing rather more on what Gardiner calls “dramatic narratives.”

Lockdown has afforded me time to think more about the music I’m listening to, which is one of the many good things that have come out of it. A good friend and I keep marvelling at how unconstrained we’ve felt (I know, a contradiction!), and how the extra time we’ve had has not been a burden. Rather, it’s been a gift.

I’ll leave you on that happy note.

With love and warmest congratulations on The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s tenth birthday,

Sylvia


A note from The Cross-Eyed Pianist:

Sylvia is a good friend of mine and, when she lived in London, a very keen concert-goer, especially at the Wigmore Hall. It was Sylvia who encouraged me to start going to classical concerts again, when my son was at an age when he could be left more happily with a babysitter, and we have enjoyed many memorable concerts together. Sylvia was this blog’s first reader and remains a loyal supporter (and eagle-eyed proof-reader!).

 


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Guest post by Christine Kammer


I hear this sentence from friends and colleagues all the time. Why add another obligation to our busy lives when we are in our thirties or forties? Many people seem to believe that taking lessons and practising the piano, violin or flute takes too much time and energy. They may be afraid that it could turn out to be a lonely and frustrating activity. And yet, I chose a different path… When I started taking piano lessons again several years ago at the age of 35, I didn’t know any other adult amateur musicians. An extrovert by nature, I soon started looking for like-minded people. And I discovered a wealth of possibilities: online music forums, piano summer courses – a whole new world opened up. For years, I spent lovely summer weeks together with other piano enthusiasts at workshops in Tuscany, France and Scotland. To meet fellow musicians in my home town Vienna, I founded the “Vienna Piano Meetup”. Since 2014, we have been meeting regularly to play for each other, informally and in a friendly atmosphere. And we’re not just pianists: some of us found their flute or violin partners via our group. I was thrilled to discover that there are similar activities all over the world. Over the years, our group has had visitors from Hong Kong, Canada and the UK – and I joined piano meetups when I visited cities like New York. In times of social distancing, many of these amateur music groups continue to socialise online. Occasionally, professional musicians discover our little get-togethers. Whenever they come along, they seem impressed by our spirit. What we do is not about competition – we welcome musicians at any level and encourage everybody to play. It is purely about sharing our love for music. “I envy you guys. You make music just for fun, without any purpose“, a stressed orchestral violist once said to me. In return, I can say that my admiration for any professional musician has grown tremendously since I started learning an instrument myself. Over the years, I have expanded my musical activities: Together with a software engineer and amateur flutist, I founded the non-profit association MUSEDU. We organise workshops and events for hobby musicians, like a cello workshop for beginners or a visit to a violin maker‘s studio. We offer a bilingual platform where local music teachers can promote their music lessons. And I enjoy sharing my thoughts on life as an amateur musician and other topics in our music blog. Learning an instrument takes time – that is certainly true. But it brings endless joy, energy and inspiration in return. And many new and interesting social contacts, if we‘re up for it. I‘m truly glad to have started this adventure! In fact, just earlier this year, I took up a second instrument – the lovely cello. Why wait until we’re retired?


Christine Kämmer is an intermediate pianist and beginning cellist with a degree in Asian Studies and Philosophy. In 2017, she founded the non-profit association MUSEDU in Vienna, Austria, together with amateur flutist Matthias König. musedu.at/en

 


The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site

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