Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was inspired from music and art from my first life and birth. My Grandmother, Katharina, bought a Steinway on the occasion of my birth, and I still have the original receipt from this purchase. During my birth, music by Chopin had been played. I began to play at the early age of 3. Still  From a young age, I played pieces from memory. To study music and piano was self-evident.

The most important influences in my career are first, as already pointed out, my grandmother; later my teachers Bruno Leonardo Gelber, Poldi Mildner, Shura Cherkassky and Herbert Seidel. Through them I’m a representative and guardian of the great Romantic Tradition – a tradition, which I preserve for myself, but also pass on to my students.

Today, being a recipient of the renowned ‘Goethe-Prize of Frankfurt/Main, presented to me in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt in January 2020, was another decisive challenge and turning point in my career.

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

My latest project, ‘Chronological Chopin’ (Divine Art label ddc 25752), and my current project ‘Fantasies’ with major works by Robert Schumann (also with Divine Art)

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

‘Chronological Chopin’ and the Goldberg-Variations (Bayer), but also the Chopin – Schumann Anniversary Edition 2010 (MSR-Classics), Schumann: Kreisleriana Op. 16 and the Symphonic Etudes Op. 13, including the Variations posthumes (Bayer), Schumann – Liszt: Fantasie in C major Op. 17 and Sonata in B minor (Bayer), Scriabin: Piano Works, Opp. 2 – 74 (Bayer), and the DVD with Liszt: Piano Transcriptions of Schubert Songs and Godowsky Symphonic Metamorphoses on Waltzes and Themes of Johann Strauss (Arthaus), produced by WDR-Television. These productions have been broadcast on all major tv-channels since 1997, and today they are available on Fidelio, a new tv-channel from ORF and UNITEL.

But I’m also proud of and happy that the highlights of my ‘Chronological Chopin’ enjoyed a re-release in 2018 on a luxury 2-vinyl-edition from‘Divine Art.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Bach: Partita in C minor, BWV 826, Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903, Italian Concerto, BWV 971

Weber: Rondo brilliant, Op. 62

Franck: Prelude, Choral and Fugue

Chopin: Prélude in C sharp minor, Op. 45, Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47, Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54, Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57, Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60, Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major, Op. 61

Mendelssohn: Variations sérieueses, Op. 54

Schumann: Kreisleriana Op. 16, Fantasy C-major, Op. 17, Arabeske Op. 18, Fantasies Op. 12

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Hugo Shirley in ‘International Piano’ (February 2020) described me as a “multifaceted pianist”, who “unites intellectual clarity with an intuitive sense of colour, influenced by his artistic upbringing and his parallel life as a scuba diver”. Yes, I’m inspired in my parallel life by the experiences from the underwater world. As a ‘PADI Master Instructor’ I can refer to more than 8500 logged dives on the oceans all over the world and have visited countries even in out-of-the-way areas. I’m also certified to teach classes for Underwater-Photography and Videography, and I’m the official Ambassador of the PADI Project Aware Foundation for the “Protecting of Our Ocean Planet.” (If interested, one can visit my site under: www.diving-adventure.org

The inspiration of the variety of colours of the underwater world I convert into differentiated sounds in my artistic interpretations, a phenomenon called synesthesia.

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

I try to be at home in all epochs and styles of music, to cover the whole literature. But mainly I like to focus on Bach, Chopin and the German Romantics

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

Yes, indeed I have: Carnegie Hall, New York. The acoustics are unique and outstanding. And of course also the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Besides the acoustics, the hall there has a singular mood and atmosphere.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I fear losing the tradition; this has already begun in school for children with a false “system of learning”. Back to the roots of learning, that the experience and realization of values is a way to the future …

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Japan, Tokyo: Bunka Kaikan and Suntory Hall

USA, New York: Here I once played a sensational ‘American STEINWAY D’ number ‘207’; I had the chance to selected this piano for a recital in New York City in the concert basement of Steinway Hall on 57th street, assisted by my longtime friend Peter Goodrich, who was chief of the concert and artists department of Steinway NY. In my career, I have played and performed on countless excellent and singular instruments, but I never will forget the number, and the unique and warm sound of this instrument, the ‘207’… Now I’m sure I made a major mistake not to have purchased this gem….it was “love at first sight”.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

True success is connected and bounded to the truth of interpretation. There begins and starts a long lasting experience: the chance that the artistry of a true artist will live on for generations, and will influence other epochs. This is the meaning of artistic integrity – and the definition of success.

Related to this, one could ask “what  is talent?”, to which I would immediately answer: “To have the strength, power, endurance, courage and stamina to start new after each setback.”

These characters blend into one: Virtue

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

I would like to rephrase the question: What I would not impart to aspiring musicians? If they are not authentic and true to themselves, if they do not express the music in a proper and thoughtful way.

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

To be even more successful and to achieve “musical heaven”, which would mean artistic truth

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being on stage and to feel at one with the (art)work and the audience

What is your most treasured possession?

My two very special Steinway D-274 pianos, which I use for all my recordings and important recitals/concerts.

Also my intelligence, the alertness of my mind and my indefensible intuition, which provides me a special view of life and art, and my visual memory

To lose both, or even only one of this indispensable unit, would mean the end of my life; it really would kill me

What is your present state of mind?

Inspired, vigilant, alert and ambitious for more artistic ideas and inspiration, eagerly looking forward to my upcoming projects.


Burkard Schliessmann, recipient of the renowned Goethe-Prize of Frankfurt/Main 2019/20, Germany, is one of the most compelling pianists and artists of the modern era.

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The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists.
― Artur Schnabel

On the page the piano music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart looks simple (but never simplistic) yet for many pianists, the music’s greatest challenge lies in that simplicity. Its beauty, and profundity, is contained in a transparency of texture and expression which challenges the most technically assured and artistically insightful musicians.

As pianist Alfred Brendel says of Mozart, “everything in his music counts”. He reduces music to its most essential and it demands from the pianist a precision which easily matches the virtuosity required to play Liszt. Arpeggio passages and trills must shine with jeu perlé playing; literally “pearly playing”, a technique which creates fractional separation between rapid notes to bring a glorious opalescent sheen to the sound – easy to achieve on the lighter instruments Mozart would have known, much harder on a modern piano. His gorgeous melodic lines must sing like the most beautiful, sensual arias from his operas, accompaniments (Alberti bass lines, for example) need the balance of the best string quartet textures, while fioriture and cadenzas call for drama and spontaneity.

For many professional pianists, Mozart is regarded as the ultimate challenge. This may seem surprising, given that his piano scores contain far fewer notes than, say, those of Liszt or Ravel. But every one of those notes demands to be sounded and heard perfectly, and this requires an inordinate level of technical mastery to achieve such refinement, coupled with imagination and artistry to breathe colour and life into those deceptively simple passages. In the piano music of Schumann or Liszt, Brahms or Rachmaninoff there are thickets of notes which give one some cover; in Mozart there is nowhere to hide.

The beautifully-crafted simplicity of the notes belies unfathomable and infinite complexities, and an extraordinary breadth of expression, which easily equals that other master of musical chiaroscuro, of smiling through tears, Franz Schubert. Dismiss the image of Mozart as the giggling, farting Rococo man-child as portrayed in the play and film ‘Amadeus’; the range of emotion in Mozart’s writing is extraordinary: profound, poignant, tender, angry, joyous, witty, passionate, demonic, exuberant, his mercurial mood shifts often occurring within just a handful of bars, or even a single bar, sunshine one moment, dark clouds the next.

Mozart’s piano works should be for the player a receptacle full of latent musical possibilities which often go far beyond the purely pianistic.
– Alfred Brendel

Another challenge for the pianist is Mozart’s complete mastery of orchestration. His musical imagination was not limited by the compass and timbre of the keyboard instruments of his day, or indeed the modern piano, and his solo piano works demonstrate his entire oeuvre in microcosm, from string quartets and wind divertimenti to symphonies, and operatic arias and recitatives. There are grand orchestral tuttis, brass fanfares, articulation drawn from string writing and woodwind, and of course the singing melodies which must speak with clarity, meaning and beauty. Many of the piano sonatas have a symphonic sweep and soundworld in their opening and closing movements, while the slow movements are soprano arias with dramatic interludes. Such piano writing demands that the pianist harnesses his/her imagination to evoke these instruments and sounds within the scope of two staves and just two hands.


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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I started playing the piano aged 3 when my parents bought an upright after I seemed enthusiastic about a two-octave keyboard toy! My earliest listening memories are the recordings of Alfred Brendel playing Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas, which I studied alongside the scores long before I could play them. Brendel’s Hammerklavier video recording is just phenomenal.

The next influence which inspired me the most was Vladimir Horowitz, who I initially heard on “The Art Of Piano” documentary playing his spectacular Carmen-Fantasie. When I heard his Rachmaninoff 3rd for the first time I hadn’t heard any other Romantic concertos to relate it to and had very limited harmonic understanding, so it felt like jumping into a whole parallel universe.

The most important influence was certainly my professor Andrew Ball who I met in 2015. He represents the perfect blend of intellect and devilry for me and has always been very interpretively open-minded which I’ve hugely appreciated. He’s introduced me to many fascinating pieces including Taneyev’s Prelude and Fugue and Reubke’s Piano Sonata.

There are many contrasting pianists who I admire, some names are: Richter, Gould, Michelangeli, Pletnev, Hough, Hamelin.

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

I lost direction around the age of 16 and had stopped practicing properly for a year before I met Andrew at the Purcell School, who thankfully kick-started me. It’s a very tricky challenge raising a potential young pianist in this country, choosing between the inflexibility of state schools, home-education and British boarding schools. It can be a thankless task for parents, but I am certainly very grateful for how my first years were handled and being limited to two/three hours of practice a day for many years. That restraint meant that I still had the hunger to focus as much as I wanted at an older age when piano was a career choice I consciously wanted to pursue. I really wish state schools were more flexible with music, as going to a boarding school can be intimidating, especially straight from home-schooling. However, I think I went to Purcell at the right time, they supported me fantastically well, and I feel everything is working out thus far!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

There is a performance of Schumann’s Carnaval and Toccata in an internal Royal College competition which I will remember with pride; Carnaval is such a kaleidoscope of a piece!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Tentatively, the works of Beethoven, Brahms and Prokofiev – I find I relate to their (very different) musical languages the easiest.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

My off-stage hobbies and interests tend to be quite separated from my musical thoughts and practice. What I find relevant are: conscious memories, especially of states of feeling; the subliminal, i.e. what I couldn’t or shouldn’t say in words. Everything that’s optimistic which might resemble “faith”, that a piece is a life in itself, which carries meaning and achieves something through its existence. And conversely everything in the mind that is destructive or neurotic, which exists necessarily in all of us and can in an ideal world be somehow ennobled by being channelled through a piece of music.

I wonder what I’d be doing if music wasn’t an option! I’ve never played video games mostly because any craving to explore alternate worlds I find satisfied in music, certainly to the extent that I can’t be bothered catching up with Xbox proficiency! Being able to directly affect audiences is something that I would miss. The Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp talks about playing football in such a way that the fans forget about their daily lives and problems for just 90 minutes every week. I think that’s a similar duty for all entertainers and artists!

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

I’m still firmly in the stage of developing my repertoire! It’s really a balancing act of trying to perform my strengths whilst working on weaknesses in the background. I love trying to find great music that few other people perform, and I’d love to explore programming options in the future including potentially altering the whole structure of evening concerts.

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

It is a thrilling experience to play at the Wigmore Hall, and the acoustic is unsurpassable. St Mary’s Perivale run a unique and very supportive concert series, and I always enjoy travelling and discovering new venues abroad, I can’t wait to visit more places after the lockdown! I once played at the Teatro Del Sale restaurant in Florence which was perfect as I genuinely can’t perform with an empty stomach!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think communication is the key, because there can be no questioning the strength of our art, or the validity of devoting one’s life to it. I’ve rarely heard anyone decry the artform, and the majority of people who aren’t listening just haven’t been personally persuaded yet! Whilst classical music and advanced education go hand in hand, a great performance shouldn’t exclude anyone. If I had any constructive suggestions from an audience’s perspective, they would mostly be practical. For example, especially with the accessibility of YouTube and Spotify, I think acoustic deserves to be taken extremely seriously. I find balancing with the orchestra and being heard crystal-clear to be one of the great challenges of performing concertos, and I would appreciate any help from the hall’s acoustics at least. Programming is the classical pianist’s greatest liberty, and I loved many of Stephen Hough’s suggestions in his book “Rough Ideas”, especially concerning the creative use of the drinks interval!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably going to see a friend give a full recital at Wigmore Hall – he is amazing to start with, but a personal connection with the performer really heightens one’s experience of the music! I also have great memories in Birmingham 2013 of hearing Uchida playing the Mozart G Major Concerto in the 1st half and Andris Nelsons conducting Scriabin’s Poem Of Ecstasy in the 2nd.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Achieving the perfect balance of sincerity and charisma onstage and speaking directly to every audience member through the music.

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

Above all the quality which Andrew has taught me by example, which is patience! It’s our artistic growth and how we play and understand music in our 30’s and beyond which is paramount, whether that involves a performing career or not.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A post-concert lasagne.


Since 2015, Thomas Kelly has been studying with Andrew Ball, initially at the Purcell school of Music and now at Royal College of Music where he is in third-year undergraduate. Thomas has won first prizes including Pianale International Piano Competition 2017, Kharkiv Assemblies 2018, at Lucca Virtuoso e Bel Canto festival 2018, RCM Joan Chissell Schumann competition 2019, Kendall Taylor Beethoven competition 2019 and BPSE Intercollegiate Beethoven competition 2019. In addition, he has performed in a variety of venues, including the Wigmore Hall, the Cadogan Hall, Holy Trinity Sloane Square, St James’ Piccadilly, St Mary’s Perivale, St Paul’s Bedford, the Poole Lighthouse Arts Centre, the Stoller Hall, Oxford Town Hall, at Paris Conservatoire, the StreingreaberHaus in Bayreuth, the Teatro Del Sale in Florence, and in Vilnius and Palanga. He has benefited greatly from lessons and masterclasses with distinguished professors including Dina Yoffe, Paul Lewis, Mikhail Voskrosensky, Valentina Berman, Justas Dvarionas, Riccardo Cecchetti, Vanessa Latarche and Ian Jones. Thomas’ studies at RCM are generously supported by Ms Daunt and Ms Stevenson, Pat Kendall Taylor and C. Bechstein pianos. 


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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)


 


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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