Greg Kallor will be performing at Subculture in New York’s NoHo on 26 September, with cellist Laura Metcalf, as part of the venue’s first annual ‘Piano Fest’ and to promote his new music video Broken Sentences, and premiere a new work ‘Undercurrent’. Further details here
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I’ve always felt a sort of inexorable pull toward music – almost as soon as I could walk I made my way to the piano in my parent’s home. A piece of string was thoughtfully tied around the length of the instrument to prevent the fallboard from crushing my fingers. My older brother studied with a piano teacher whom I begged for lessons every week for a year; she finally relented when I turned six – and I abandoned my assignments almost immediately. (Improvising was more fun than playing, say, “The Typewriter”.) I’ve become somewhat more disciplined. Supportive parents, wonderful teachers, encouraging friends and colleagues – a career in music just seemed… right.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing?
When I was nine or ten I heard Brad Mehldau play in the jazz band at the high school I would attend a few years later; I was absolutely blown away. (I added jazz piano lessons to my music curriculum so I could play the way he did – but it doesn’t quite work that way, I quickly discovered.)
In college I began studying with Fred Hersch – who, in addition to being a master improviser, produces one of the most beautiful sounds from the piano I have ever heard. He encouraged me to explore the full range of the piano’s sonic possibilities, to pay attention to the sound.
After I moved to New York City, Fred introduced me to his piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, and to composer Herschel Garfein. I’m so grateful to Sophia and Herschel for encouraging me to draw upon my background in jazz and improvisation in my classical playing and composing – working with them has helped me to embrace all of those elements, and my playing and writing has become much more personal as a result. I’m a musical mutt, I suppose.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
It’s taken me a little while to reconcile all of my musical passions – playing and composing, classical music and jazz – into a professional trajectory that makes sense. Audiences and friends who’ve watched my development have been super-encouraging, and more and more presenters are getting excited by the mix of things that I do.
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of my recording of my piano suite, A Single Noon. It’s a tableau of life in New York City – moments of caffeinated bliss, embarrassing subway mishaps, etc. The interplay of freedom and structure is something I think about a lot, and I wanted to write a piece in which both composition and improvisation would be significant in shaping the musical narrative. (Note to pianists: A Single Noon can be performed with or without improvisation. The sections for improvisation are sort of like scenic detours on a highway; the musical narrative won’t be compromised if you stick to the paved road – you’ll just arrive a little sooner.)
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Wherever I’m playing next.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
Ginastera’s Argentinian Dances are a blast to perform – brief, but potent miniatures. The second dance has that sort of sad/happy vibe. Seductive. And the last – “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy” – feels like the musical id of a crazy dancing gaucho on amphetamines. (Probably not what Ginastera intended, but there you go.)
I love performing Rachmaninoff’s Preludes and Etudes-Tableaux, and his Corelli Variations. Gorgeous, and super-pianistic. Rachmaninoff was a master of both the short form and of the long, singing line.
Speaking of which, I love playing songs – particularly those delicious German Romantic lieder. Schumann. Schubert. Brahms. Wolf. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
And Elliott Smith songs. They’re like the Schumann of the (19)’90s.
I had a lot of fun playing Janacek’s Violin Sonata last fall – strange and wonderful piece. Still not entirely sure that I totally get it.
At the risk of sounding egocentric, I’m rather fond of performing my own music – I feel greater freedom to take chances with it than when I play other composers’ music that I love. Of course I try to play their music with the same freedom, but I always feel a little bit like a guest in a friend’s home – no matter how close we are, it’s still probably not a good idea for me to walk around naked just because it’s more comfortable. In my apartment, it’s come as you are. (Maybe I need some new friends.)
Favorite listening? This could take all year…..
Who are your favourite musicians?
Martha Argerich. That woman must be from another planet.
Brad Mehldau has been an enormous influence since the first time I heard him play, and he continues to inspire me.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin – I’ve heard him conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra twice this season (Verdi Requiem, Stravinsky Rite of Spring). Phenomenal! And such a generous leader/conductor.
Dawn Upshaw. I wrote my Dickinson and Yeats songs with her voice and artistry in mind.
I heard Anthony McGill perform the Copland concerto last year – big fan. Gorgeous tone, soulful playing.
Thomas Quasthoff and Justus Zeyen – left every one of their recitals without tears in my eyes.
Gil Shaham – incredibly beautiful player. Never an impersonal note.
James Levine conducting the MET orchestra = perfection.
Radiohead – one of the most energetic and exciting group of performers I’ve seen/heard.
Alisa Weilerstein, Chris Potter, Byron Janis, Maxim Vengerov, Larry Grenadier… so many. I’m very lucky to live in New York where I get to hear all of these extraordinary musicians.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My first Weill Hall solo concert in 2007 was incredibly special. Entering the stage door at Carnegie Hall was surreal (Rachmaninoff walked in this way!), and I giddily assumed that my concert was as momentous for the security guard and the stage manager as it was for me. (They graciously indulged my newbie delusion.) I premiered my Dickinson and Yeats songs with mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, and played solo pieces by Ginastera, Scriabin, Bach, and Rachmaninoff. Kind of a big night.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Beware of people offering unsolicited advice!
Here’s something that’s not too offensive: take care of your body. Hike, stretch, run, play basketball, swim, lift weights, whatever brings you joy – but be active. It’s good for the long-term health of people with sedentary vocations (um, hello musicians), and it really helps me out of my head. (Not a whole lot of thought going on when veins are popping out of your neck as you struggle to finish that last pull-up.) I used to LOVE rock climbing, but I gave that up when I realized that a cavalier attitude towards injury probably wasn’t recommended for a pianist.
What are you working on at the moment?
Playing: I’m digging into some of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch – absolute gems. I’m performing them with mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala at the end of the month, along with my settings of Dickinson and Yeats poems. Also, Faure’s insanely beautiful D-flat Nocturne is on my stand, calling to me…
Composing: I just finished my piano concerto! Super excited about that – and about some new chamber music sketches I’m working on for cello and piano, and piano trio. I’m almost ready to play through some of them with friends and see what works and what needs to be burned.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Doing exactly what I’m doing right now – except more of it. And, hopefully, better.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A beautifully-pulled espresso.
Gregg Kallor’s new album A Single Noon is available now, a musical tableau of life in New York City, told through a combination of composed music and improvisation in nine movements that coalesce into a more complete story like an album of postcards, or memories. Each movement develops an aspect of the Single Noon theme, and improvisation is incorporated throughout the suite as a commentary on and development of the themes in the music.
My review of A Single Noon
Gregg Kallor’s biography